Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's release

Return of a hero

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Abhinandan Varthaman. Photo: PTI

When Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and members of his Operational Ready Platform MiG-21 Bison squadron completed their early morning briefing on February 27, little did they know what was in store for them. This squadron was chosen for the job because the MiGs scramble the fastest of all the fighters in the Indian Air Force (IAF).

By the time most Indian office-goers reached their places of work that day, the IAF had fought an air superiority battle against Pakistan and an IAF Wing Commander had been taken prisoner. By afternoon, videos of him being beaten up, firing his personal weapon and being “rescued” by Pakistan Rangers began circulating on WhatsApp. By evening, the IAF officer, Abhinandan Varthaman, had become a household name across India and, perhaps, the world.

The last time there was significant civilian interest in the IAF was also because of an individual: It was in 1984 when Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma took a joyride to space on a Soviet rocket. He went on to become the face of the IAF for the next few decades, inspiring Indian youths to consider it as a career choice

This time around, though, an IAF pilot was in Pakistan custody, and it was affecting the spin the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government was putting out on the Balakot air strikes. While the IAF top brass might have had reasons to be concerned over the developments, the operational heads, the Command and the commanding officer-level of the IAF were more concerned about what information would be ferreted out of the captured officer.

As far as the IAF is concerned, fighter pilots are among the most important of human resources because they are the ones who raid enemy territory and are the only ones who might be captured during an operation. The word “rigorous” does not quite capture the kind of tough training they undergo before being commissioned. Every time fighter pilots get into the cockpit of their multimillion-dollar aircraft, they are ready for any eventuality. As Abhinandan said in an NDTV Good Times video from 2011, in response to what kind of attitude was needed to be a fighter pilot: “A bad attitude.”

At the end of their training, they have to clear the physical and mental tests with A1G1 category. (A1: Is physically well developed; is capable of enduring severe physical and mental stress of service flying in any part of the world; has normal hearing and binocular visual acuity; can be employed for full flying duties; and is fit to fly any type of aircraft commensurate with anthropometric measurements. G1: Is physically well developed; possesses full functional capacity good eyesight and hearing; is capable of enduring severe physical and mental stress for prolonged periods; and can be employed for all ground duties in any part of the world.)

Abhinandan, who was part of 104th batch of the National Defence Academy and was commissioned to the IAF in 2004, could not have been captured at a worse time for India. The tension between the two countries was comparable to the level in 1986 during Operation Brasstacks and in 2001 after the attack on the Parliament building. But there was one difference: Pakistan was no longer on a short fuse and was engaged in a war over the optics of the saga that was unfolding on television screens across the subcontinent.

Abhinandan’s videos catapulted him into the limelight. In one video, he was seen sipping tea (which was later spun by a Pakistan-based tea company into an advertisement!) while a major of the Pakistan Army questioned him.

“You see how he behaved when he was being handed over,” said a former wing commander. “He was bold and practical. He did not indulge in any theatrics once he crossed over such as kneeling down on the ground or taking some mud from Indian soil, etc. This is a reflection of the training he has undergone.”

There is a standard operating procedure in place for any serviceman who is captured and has come back. First is a battery of medical tests. He will be given adequate time, usually about a week if the injuries are not major, to rest. After this cooling-off period, he will be debriefed by an IAF panel.

In an election year, politicians of varying hues want a part of the action too. “Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman displayed amazing poise and confidence in the face of adverse conditions, which has won him many hearts across the country,” said Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami “It is appropriate that he be awarded India’s highest military honour, the Param Vir Chakra, for displaying most inimitable gallantry and valour,” he said in a communication to the Prime Minister on March 8. It is not the Prime Minister who decides these honours. The citation for a pilot has to be written by his commanding officer and then recommended to the IAF chief by the Command Headquarters. The Command or the Air Headquarters decides what an appropriate honour will be for a particular officer. Politicians have no role in the decision-making process.

 

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