Pakistan to release Indian pilot captured in Kashmir attacks

Imran Khan says pilot to be freed as ‘peace gesture’ amid rising tensions between nuclear neighbours

Pakistan says it will release a captured Indian pilot as a “peace gesture” between the neighbours amid the gravest military crisis in the subcontinent in two decades.

Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister, told a joint sitting of parliament that the Indian wing commander, Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down over the heavily guarded ceasefire line in disputed Kashmir on Wednesday, would be released on Friday.

“We have captured an Indian pilot,” Khan said. “As a peace gesture, tomorrow we are going to release him.”

Varthaman was shot down on Wednesday during a dogfight in the Himalayan foothills, the first between the countries to be publicly acknowledged for 48 years. It followed tit-for-tat airstrikes this week that have led to the closure of dozens of airports and put major cities on high alert across the subcontinent.

A report in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper on Thursday quoted witnesses who said he had fought off angry villagers with a pistol at the crash site and had tried to swallow and destroy maps and documents in his possession before he was taken into Pakistani custody.

Videos released by Islamabad showed Varthaman being beaten by villagers near the crash site and then interrogated in a bloodied uniform. Both were widely shared on WhatsApp and social media.

By late evening, in footage that appeared to be aimed at calming public anger in India, the pilot was shown drinking tea and praising the way he was being treated by his captors, who he said were “thorough gentlemen”.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was addressing an audience at a science and technology prize soon after the news of the pilot’s impending release was announced. He made reference to scientists needed to design pilot projects, before quipping: “Just now one pilot project has been completed”.

The clashes over the heavily militarised “line of control” that divides Indian and Pakistani-held Kashmirhave sparked calls for restraint from countries including the US, China, Russia and the UK.

Khan’s surprise announcement that he was releasing Varthaman, whose welfare has been a major concern in India, will put pressure on Delhi to reciprocate in a way that eases tensions.

But India will be reluctant to do so without extracting some demonstration from Pakistan that it is willing to crack down on Islamist militia groups operating on its soil — an issue that has largely been obscured in the past two days by fears the two nuclear powers may be sliding into war.

Speaking to reporters in Delhi on condition of anonymity, an Indian government official said he categorically rejected the idea that a conflict was imminent and accused Pakistan of creating a “war psychosis” to distract from its sponsorship of militant groups.

Leave was cancelled for health workers and police in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Wednesday night and emergency orders were issued in Karachi.

India has been careful to characterise its air strikes in Pakistan on Tuesday morning as “counter-terrorism actions” — language the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, adopted in his statement on the issue on Wednesday.

The US president, Donald Trump, who was addressing a press conference in Hanoi on Thursday morning, hinted that diplomatic efforts had begun behind the scenes.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved,” Trump said. “We have some reasonably decent news, hopefully it’s going to be coming to an end, this has been going on for a long time, decades and decades.”

Speaking before the announcement of Varthaman’s impending release, Indian officials in Delhi said they were unsure what Trump had been referring to and said there was nothing to negotiate until Pakistan took credible and verifiable action against militant groups in the country.

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world's most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What was Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, had been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence. 

An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Wednesday 31 October 2019, the government formally revoked Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision had  only ever intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.

Michael Safi and Rebecca Ratcliffe

India has rallied France, the UK and the US behind a fresh proposal to have the UN security council add Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), to a terrorist watchlist.

JeM claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Kashmir on 14 February that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries and triggered the current crisis. India responded to the attack on Tuesday by striking what it claims was a JeM training camp in Pakistan.

China has repeatedly blocked previous efforts to list Azhar as a terrorist, a move that would put pressure on its ally Pakistan to arrest the militant leader, who operates freely on its soil.

Delhi accuses Islamabad of nurturing and assisting militant groups as a form of asymmetrical warfare against India, its larger and more powerful neighbour.


Michael Safi in Delhi and Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad

The GuardianTramp

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