(This was originally posted in Hindustan Times by Shishir Gupta)
After images of bleeding captured Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman were put out by Pakistan on this day in 2019, the then Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief on the instructions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi read the riot act to his ISI counterpart and warned Pakistan of severe consequences if the pilot of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21 was harmed.
Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison was shot down after successfully intercepting a posse of Pakistani fighters over the Line of Control in the Rajouri-Mendhar sector on 27 February, the day after the Balakot strike. Before the IAF pilot ejected from his ageing MiG-21 hit in the aerial dogfight over the skies of Jammu, he shot down a fourth-generation F-16 fighter. He was captured by villagers in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where he landed and handed over to the Pakistan military.
Hindustan Times, after talking to former air force, intelligence and politicians has been able to reconstruct some of the behind-the-scenes action in New Delhi and Islamabad that led Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to release the Indian fighter pilot.
PM Khan, who made the announcement in the National Assembly on 28 February, called the decision “a gesture of peace”.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman returned home on 1 March via the heavily-guarded Wagah-Attari border post. In the 60-odd hours that he spent in Pakistani custody, the air force pilot became the face of the conflict between the two countries when the Pakistani army released a set of propaganda videos that showed him in its custody. In one, he was blindfolded and blood-covered and yet, responded to questions from a Pakistan Army officer with remarkable composure, calm and dignity.
It was soon after Pakistan put out the initial set of photographs of the pilot in captivity that India decided to move swiftly, and decisively to secure his release.
It is understood that after PM Modi saw images of the bleeding Indian pilot and his smiling captors, he told the Indian intelligence chief to clearly communicate to Pakistan that New Delhi will stop at nothing if Abhinandan is harmed and demand his immediate release. PM Modi’s message to Pakistan was: “Our weapon arsenal is not for Diwali.”
The message was conveyed by then RAW chief Anil Dhasmana to his then ISI counterpart Lt General Syed Asim Munir Ahmed Shah over a secure line. Dhasmana was so blunt that even the ISI chief was surprised at how the RAW chief was going ballistic over Abhinandan’s photographs. The RAW chief told him that the consequences will entirely lie on Islamabad if the pilot was even touched and must be returned unharmed.
To demonstrate that India meant business, the armed forces were ordered to ready mobile Prithvi ballistic missile batteries in the Rajasthan sector. It set alarm bells ringing in faraway Washington as well.
In his brief statement announcing Wing Commander Abhinandan’s release in the National Assembly on February 28, Prime Minister Imran Khan said he tried to speak with PM Narendra Modi the previous day but couldn’t get through.
The first confirmation about Wing Commander Abhinandan’s release came sometime before PM Imran Khan made the announcement. HT learns ISI chief Lt Gen Shah had sent a secret letter to the RAW chief on February 28 morning, conveying the decision to release the IAF pilot. PM Modi was informed about the letter.
The ISI chief was removed from his post in June 2019 after serving only eight months and replaced by a hardliner Lt General Faiz Hameed.