South Asia has had a hectic three days. On Thursday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that captured Indian fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman will be released on Friday as a “peace gesture”. The move came after India attacked a terror camp in Pakistani territory on Tuesday, which was followed by retaliation from the Pakistan Air Force the following day. It was during Wednesday’s skirmish between the two air forces that Varthaman’s jet was shot down, leading to concerns that the situation might turn into all-out war.
That possibility seems a lot less likely now that Pakistan has decided to unilaterally release the Indian pilot. The move should reduce tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, after two days in which rumours about military activity in both countries were flying thick. Imran Khan’s decision could also potentially work to reduce the global pressure that had been building up on Pakistan in the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama attack, in which 40 Indian paramilitary personnel were killed by a suicide bomber working with Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed.
As the Indian public awaits further details about the release of Varthaman and what happens next, a few questions emerge:
- Does this end tensions in Jammu and Kashmir and at the Line of Control?
For two days, it seemed like war was a real possibility. And even before that, the atmosphere in Jammu and Kashmir was tense. The two days also saw intense action at the Line of Control including relentless shelling, leading to a few injuries. The release of Varthaman and easing of relations between the two countries as a result of this goodwill gesture from Pakistan should also have an effect on Jammu and Kashmir, which otherwise would have had to face the brunt of any hostilities between India and Pakistan. Regardless, a number of issues – including the intelligence and operational failures that led to the large death toll in the Pulwama attack – remain unresolved and need to be carefully examined.
- What actually happened in Balakot and in the skies?
The end of outright hostility between India and Pakistan may turn the focus on what happens next, but many questions still remain about what exactly took place over the last few days. How much damage was actually caused by the Indian attack on Balakot on February 26? How did Pakistani jets manage to cross the Line of Control and even take down an Indian fighter jet? Was a Pakistani jet also brought down? And what led to the crash on Wednesday of the Mi-17 military chopper in Budgam, which led to seven deaths, apparently because of a technical failure?
- Has the Indian action changed Pakistan’s approach?
The primary Indian aim in the Balakot strike was to compel Pakistan to act against terror and deter it from sponsoring or supporting further terrorist activity against India. Pakistan has for decades used militants trained on its soil as a way of attacking India, without the fear of retribution, presuming that the threat of nuclear retaliation prevents New Delhi from attempting any major military action across the Line of Control. Modi has attempted to change that, first with 2016’s surgical strikes in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and then with the Balakot strike in Pakistan. Wednesday’s incursion and bombing by Pakistani jets was seen as an attempt by Islamabad to restore the earlier status quo, possibly leaving India worried about trying out action like the Balakot strike again. It remains to be seen whether the events of the last few days fundamentally alter the calculus of either side or were just a temporary blip.
- Where was Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
In complete contrast to the Pakistan Prime Minister, who addressed his nation and India twice in two days and finally announced the release of Varthaman in Parliament on Thursday, Modi and his government barely spoke to the Indian public. Instead, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi carried on with their scheduled appointments, including several political engagements. Otherwise known for being excellent at managing the headline battle, Modi and his government seemed to be missing from the scene particularly after news of Varthaman’s capture emerged. While the bulk of Indian media did not highlight the government’s relative silence, Modi’s decision to carry on with BJP work earned criticism from the Opposition and others.
- How will local media spin it?
International media will inevitably focus on Imran Khan’s decision, even if they do not mention the role that pressure from Saudi Arabia and the US had in pushing Pakistan to reach its decision to hand over Varthaman to India. The Indian media, which has largely been accused of simply amplifying the government’s propaganda over the last few days, are instead attempting to sell it as a major victory for Modi. This line insists that New Delhi refused to do a deal with Islamabad to get back Varthaman and so Imran Khan blinked under pressure and announced the pilot would be handed over to India without getting any concession in return. The truth may lie somewhere in between: Pakistan got the global PR victory, but India permitted de-escalation to happen, avoiding what would have been a costly war with no clear objective.
- Will the war-hungry bases on either side buy the move?
Pakistanis hoping to see more punishment of India are already criticising Imran Khan for returning the Indian pilot without getting anything in return. Meanwhile, in India, it is likely that the Bharatiya Janata Party base will be content with the spin that Modi managed to get Imran Khan to blink – but may still be asked the question of how Pakistan was able to capture an Indian pilot in the first place. The BJP, since the surgical strikes in particular, have sold the Indian government as one willing to go out and get 10 heads for every one lost to the enemy. The media has taken up “government sources” suggesting that 200 to 300 people were killed in the Balakot strike, though there is little evidence of this so far. If no further evidence of having inflicted damage emerges, the narrative might start to sound hollow to a base that was hoping the government would give Pakistan a bloody nose.