An Indian pilot shot down over Pakistan and paraded by his captors has become a hero in his own country, a trump card for Islamabad and perhaps the key to bringing the arch-rivals back from the brink.
Footage of the airman identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman being beaten and interrogated has gone viral in India and Pakistan, and humanised an escalating crisis between the nuclear-armed foes.
India confirmed Wednesday that a fighter jet was downed and a pilot missing in action after a dogfight with Pakistani jets over the disputed de facto border with Kashmir.
The incident sparked fears of India and Pakistan — who have fought two wars and countless deadly skirmishes over Kashmir — entering a cycle of retaliation and counterattacks that could spiral out of control.
Abhinandan’s experience — broadcast in a series of graphic videos on social media — was condemned as “vulgar” by New Delhi and provoked prayers and appeals from Bollywood stars for his safe return.
But it was well received in Pakistan, with citizens praising soldiers for rescuing him from angry civilians and then treating him humanely and with courtesy.
One video purports to show the pilot being dragged and beaten by what appears to be a group of men as Pakistani soldiers intervene, shouting “Stop! Stop!”
Later, a separate shaky clip showed the bloodied and blindfolded pilot being interrogated by his captors, with the camera focussing on his name “ABHI” underneath winged insignia on his shoulder.
But it was his later appearance sipping tea, his face swollen and sporting bruises but otherwise collected and calm, that was most seized upon in both India and Pakistan.
In it, he thanks the “thorough gentlemen” who rescued him from the mob and compliments the tea as “fantastic”.
“This is what I would expect my army to behave as, and I’m very impressed by the Pakistani army,” he said, his eye visibly swollen above an impressive handlebar moustache.
It was unclear if he had been coerced to speak.
That video was widely shown on Pakistani television channels, with still images from it used on the front page of many newspapers.
“Indian pilot thanks Pak Army for saving him from mob,” read a front page headline in the English-language daily Express Tribune.
But none of the footage was broadcast on Indian media, with the Times of India saying it was making “a conscious decision” not to use the images.
On social media however, #GivebackAbhinandan and #Abhinandanmyhero was quickly trending on Twitter where his stoic performance elevated him to national hero status.
His polite refusal to proffer more details than necessary — “I am sorry Major, I am not supposed to tell you this” — evoked particular commendation.
“Such calm and resilience in the face of adversity. Prayers for our brave pilot #AbhinandanVarthaman,” tweeted Bollywood celebrity Emraan Hashmi.
– ‘Leverage’ –
Abhinandan told his captives he hailed from southern India, and local media claimed that his father was a retired Air Force commander.
Old footage surfaced purportedly of Abhinandan quipping that a key attribute for a successful fighter pilot is a “bad attitude”. AFP could not independently verify the video.
Memories were also rekindled of another emotional moment from 1999 when Indian pilot K Nachiketa was captured after being shot down by Pakistan. He was returned a little over a week later.
But New Delhi was less than impressed, decrying Abhinandan’s treatment as a breach of the Geneva Conventions.
Abhinandan was captured a day after Indian fighter planes bombed what New Delhi said was a militant camp in Pakistan, retaliation for a suicide bombing in Kashmir on February 14 that killed at least 40 paratroopers.
He was among the fighter pilots scrambled to repel a Pakistani incursion over the border the next day, but his MiG-21 Bison was lost, India’s foreign ministry said.
Upon crash landing, the pilot was unsure which side of the border he was on and fired a pistol to scare off some boys who surrounded him, the English-language daily Dawn reported Thursday.
He then fled on foot and tried to swallow some documents in his possession, the Pakistani newspaper reported.
His capture — and what happens to him next — could prove central to de-escalating one of the most serious confrontations between the rival neighbours in decades, analysts say.
Shortly after news broke that Abhinandan had been captured, Pakistani Prime Minister Imram Khan called for talks with India.
“That actually could offer a pathway to de-escalation as well,” Dhruva Jaishankar, foreign policy fellow with Brookings India in New Delhi, told AFP.
But any mistreatment of the pilot “will create huge anger in India” and could escalate the crisis further, he added.
Retired Indian Lieutenant General R S Sujlana said that Pakistan could use their captive as “leverage and start weighing their options”.
“If they release him as a goodwill gesture it will aid peace in the region,” he told AFP.