Ending an anxious wait that saw day turn to night, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the IAF pilot who was captured two days ago by the Pakistan Army after his MiG-21 Bison was shot down as he chased PAF intruders, returned home Friday night via the Wagah-Attari border crossing.
Attired in civilian clothes, he walked across the Zero Line at 9.20 pm as the Pakistan Rangers handed him over to the BSF. Group Captain J T Kurien, Air Advisor in the Indian High Commission, and Fareeha Bugti, Director (India) in the Pakistan Foreign Office, had accompanied him to the crossing. He was whisked away by IAF personnel, and the hundreds who had gathered there to welcome him failed to catch a glimpse.
Air Vice Marshal R G K Kapoor, reading from a prepared statement, told reporters: “Wing Commander Abhinandan has just been handed over to us as per standing operating procedure of Indian Air Force. We will now take him for a detailed medical check-up. This check-up is mandated particularly because the officer has had to eject from an aeroplane which would have put his entire body under great stress. IAF is happy to have Abhinandan back.”
Amritsar Deputy Commissioner Shivdular Singh Dhillon told reporters that the pilot said he was happy to be back in his country. The repatriation triggered celebrations across the country where people had waited hours, glued to TV sets to watch the return home.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a tweet, said: “Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan! The nation is proud of your exemplary courage. Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians. Vande Mataram!”.
Welcome Home Wing Commander Abhinandan!
The nation is proud of your exemplary courage.
Our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 1, 2019
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also tweeted “Jai Hind… Proud of you Wing Commander #AbhinandanVarthaman. The entire nation appreciates your valour and grit. You held your calm in the face of adversity. You are an inspiration to our youth. Salute. Vande Mataram.”
Leaders of several political parties, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, welcomed him home.
Amritsar had been planning a hero’s welcome ever since Thursday when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan told his country’s lawmakers that the pilot would be returned to India as a “gesture of peace” following the sharp escalation of tensions between the two countries.
Hundreds gathered at the border crossing, waving the Tricolour, raising slogans, singing and dancing to the beat of dhols. Media personnel were stopped almost a kilometre from the Zero Line. Tourists who had come to witness the daily retreat ceremony were later told to vacate the galleries. Around 2.30 pm, Deputy Commissioner Dhillon said: “The ceremony had been cancelled as smooth release of Abhinandan is top priority for us.”
As the hours slipped past with no sign of the pilot, the wait became one of suspense and anxiety. All sorts of theories on the delay did the rounds — a PTI report from Lahore, quoting sources, said the handing over of the pilot to India was delayed as he was asked to record a statement on camera by Pakistani authorities before he was allowed to cross the border. The video had several jump cuts indicating that it had been edited heavily, apparently to fit Pakistani propaganda.