A downed Indian fighter pilot who was attacked by a mob and then paraded on video by Pakistan’s army has become a social media sensation and a hero in his homeland amid a spiraling crisis between the nuclear-armed neighbors, Reuters reports.
With Pakistani villagers and soldiers filming his capture and captivity on Wednesday in clips that have since gone viral on social media, the pilot identified by Islamabad as Indian Wing Commander Abhi Nandan has fast emerged as the human face of the dangerous flare-up between the arch-foes.
India has not confirmed the pilot’s identity. Indian media have given his name as Abhinandan Varthaman.
The pilot and the Indian Air Force (IAF) are at the heart of the crisis between two countries who have conducted air strikes on each other’s territory in the last two days. The United States, China and the European Union have appealed for restraint.
India and Pakistan have ordered air strikes over the last two days, the first time in history that two nuclear-armed powers have done so – both said they shot down each other’s fighter jets – while ground forces have exchanged fire in more than a dozen locations.
Tensions have been running high since at least 40 Indian paramilitary police died in a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an air strike on what it said was a militant training base.
A senior Indian government source said 300 militants were killed in Tuesday’s strike. Pakistan says no one died.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan called for talks with India and hoped “better sense” would prevail so that both sides could de-escalate.
“History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that, given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation,” Khan said during a brief televised broadcast to the nation. “We should sit down and talk.”
The captured airman’s treatment at the hands of Pakistani troops drew both condemnation and praise, while at his house in southern India supporters gathered to record messages of solidarity.
In one video posted on social media, a Pakistani soldier ankle-deep in a stream of water in the disputed Kashmir region can be seen shielding the pilot from angry villagers and shouting “enough” as they pummel his bloodied face and strike blows against his limp body.
In another video, posted on Twitter by Pakistan’s information ministry, the pilot is blindfolded and can be heard saying “I’ve got hurt and I would request some water”. He then reveals his name and rank before politely fending off questions from soldiers by saying: “I’m not supposed to tell you that.”
Later, in a video released by Pakistan’s military, the captured airman is shown without a blindfold, appearing more relaxed, thanking the Pakistani army and sipping tea.
“The officers of the Pakistani Army have looked after me well, they are thorough gentlemen,” he said.
India’s foreign ministry branded Pakistan’s videos as a “vulgar display” of an injured airman, saying they violated international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention.
“Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defense personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return,” it said in a statement.
Pakistan’s army spokesman Asif Ghafoor tweeted a photo of the airman and said he was “being treated as per norms of military ethics”. Pakistani tweeters said he had been shown exemplary hospitality.
After Pakistan’s government released a picture of the downed pilot, social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp were inundated with old videos and photos of him.
By Wednesday evening, the two top trends on Twitter in India were about the pilot, with many Indians demanding his release under a #BringBackAbhinandan hashtag.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since independence from British colonial rule in 1947, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and went to the brink of a fourth in 2002 after a Pakistani militant attack on India’s parliament.
The latest escalation marks a sudden turnaround in relations between the two countries, both of which claim Kashmir in full, but only rule in part.
The conflict also comes at a critical time for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months.
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