As the Government works on the next steps in its faceoff with Pakistan, one key question on its table is: How can it bring back IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman unharmed from Pakistan’s custody — and by when.
New Delhi has conveyed to Islamabad that “no harm” should come to the pilot, and it is learnt that the Pakistan Army has indicated it will ensure “humane treatment.”
In fact, the video of the pilot having a cup of tea was released soon after Islamabad conveyed to New Delhi that the pilot was safe.
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Sources said that while the 1949 Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war guides treatment of military personnel in each other’s custody, there is an informal understanding between Pakistan and Indian Armies — as well as BSF and Pakistan’s Rangers.
On an average, at least three such crossings happen each year, sources said, and personnel are returned — within hours or a maximum of a few days — once identities are established. They are usually handed over after their medical examination.
Though the Geneva Convention does not put a time-frame by when the pilot — in this case — should be returned, both Delhi and Islamabad agree that it should be within a “reasonable” period.
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Officially, the government has told the Pakistan government that it expects his “immediate” and “safe return”. In 1999, when Indian Air Force Pilot K Nachiketa was captured, he was released and handed over to Indian authorities after eight days.
Sources said that if Pakistan wants, it can return Abhinandan “within a week to 10 days.” Or, it could drag its feet hoping that the pilot is its insurance against other action by Delhi.
Sources said diplomats have been asked to work overtime to get the Indian Air Force pilot released “at the earliest”. One reason, which could lead to an immediate release of the pilot, could be Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s desire to claim a “moral high ground” over India amid global attention.
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“Releasing him early will give him a moral victory and he may be eager to grab that accolade,” a source said. The important thing is that the custody of the pilot may lead to dialling down of tension between the two countries.
“Since both sides have achieved their objectives —- India, by hitting terrorist camps in Balakot and Pakistan, by retaliating…the option ahead appears to be de-escalation,” the source said.
But there also voices within the Government and the party that feel the pilot is safe now that Pakistan has told the world about him and so the government’s next steps should be delinked from this issue. Moreover, they argue, Pakistan has to be sent a signal that the pilot’s capture hasn’t tied India’s hands.