After an Indian Air Force pilot went missing in action on Wednesday as India responded to incursions by the Pakistan Air Force near the Line of Control, the Ministry of External Affairs on Wednesday said that it had summoned Pakistan’s Acting High commissioner and had “strongly objected” to Islamabad’s “vulgar display” of the pilot.
India said that this was “in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention”.
Earlier in the day, Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said that the Indian Air Force shot down a Pakistani Air Force fighter aircraft, after Islamabad targeted military installations on India’s side of the border.
“In this engagement, we have lost one MiG 21,” he said, adding that the pilot was “missing in action”.
“Pakistan claims he is in their custody,” Kumar said. “We are ascertaining the facts.”
Based on a video that was circulated on Pakistani television channels and on social media, Indian media has identified the pilot as Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. Other videos soon emerged, showing him drinking tea with Pakistani officials and telling the camera that he was being well treated.
As India made clear to the Pakistani diplomat, his country is obligated by the Geneva Conventions, to which Islamabad is a signatory to treat a combat prisoner with dignity.
What are the Geneva Conventions?
The Geneva Conventions are set of four international treaties that lay out the standards to be followed by signatories on treating enemies humanely during war time. These conventions were developed in the first half of the 20th century, first in 1929 and updated in 1949 after the conclusion of the Second World War.
The conventions are exhaustive. They provide detailed procedures for the treatment of prisoners of wars and of civilians captured by the enemy during combat. Though primarily a document used during war, the signatories are bound by the provisions in peacetime as well.
The videos and pictures purporting to be of the Indian pilot telecast on Pakistani media showed that he had sustained bleeding injuries after a mob surrounded him. As per the clauses of the Geneva Conventions, Pakistan has a duty to give him medical care and protection. Article 13 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War specifically deals with such a situation:
“Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention. In particular, no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest. Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.” (Emphasis added.)
This provision has been interpreted by the International Committee of Red Cross as prohibiting release of photos and videos of a person deemed a combat prisoner. If the videos Varthaman’s interrogation circulating on Pakistani media is verified, this could be cited by India as a serious breach of the convention as it puts the pilot in danger.
With over 140 articles, the treaty lists the procedures for how prisoners are to be treated in custody as well as the judicial proceedings by which they should be tried. These include offering proper medical treatment, food and quarters, and religious activities such as prayers. When a combatant is captured, there are established protocols on how the other side should be intimated about this.
The most recent incident of an Indian Air Force pilot being captured by Pakistan occured during the Kargil war in 1999. Group Captain K Nachiketa had to eject from his aircraft after an engine failure at high altitude. He was captured by Pakistani soldiers. India then went to the United Nations and put enormous international pressure to secure his release about eight days after his capture. In his testimonies, Nachiketa spoke of the torture inflicted on him by Pakistan in an attempt to secure sensitive information.
During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, many Indian soldiers were taken prisoner by Pakistan. In August 2015, KC Cariappa, the son of Field Marshal KM Cariappa, who was captured by the Pakistani forces, wrote in Outlook about the details of his incarceration in the military prisons in Pakistan. It took four months and the end of hostilities before he was released.