A furious backlash erupted in India on Saturday over a video of an Indian pilot shot down by Pakistan praising his captors, as deadly tensions simmered between the neighbors with fierce shelling across the Kashmir frontier.
Media reports said Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s return to India had been held up because the pilot was forced to make the video before his release. Abhinandan, whose MiG fighter was shot down Wednesday as he chased Pakistani jets over disputed Kashmir, crossed at the Wagah frontier late Friday several hours after the scheduled ceremony.
The pilot’s capture had become the centerpiece of hostilities between the arch-rivals since a suicide bombing in Kashmir last month killed 40 Indian paramilitaries.
Abhinandan, who ejected to safety but was set upon by a crowd on the Pakistani side of the ceasefire line that divides Kashmir, had a noticeable black eye and was immediately taken for a medical checkup and a debriefing by military and intelligence agencies.
In the heavily edited video distributed by the Pakistani military just before his release, he praised the professionalism of the Pakistan Army and criticized Indian media for creating war hysteria. “The Army personnel saved me from the mob. The Pakistani Army is very professional and I am impressed by it,” he said.
Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, said the video tainted Pakistan’s gesture to return the pilot so quickly. “Sadly the image you paint for us is marred terribly by the video he’s forced to record just before you sent him back,” Abdullah said on Twitter. “That high moral ground you had bequeathed to yourselves slipped at the end.”
Indian media slammed the video as “distasteful” and said it breached international norms for prisoners of war. “There is no peace without dignity and Pakistan just forgot that basic lesson in violation of Geneva convention,” wrote Rajdeep Sardesai, a top editor with the India Today group.
India’s feverish social media also slammed the video, which was tweeted by the Pakistan government but later taken off its official account.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry has insisted Abhinandan was “treated with dignity and in line with international law.”
Pakistan media praised the government for releasing the pilot. Lawyer Shahzaib Khan wrote in an op-ed that Pakistanis “have a reason to boast … the Prime Minister [Imran Khan] has done Pakistan proud by not engaging in chest thumping or war-mongering for political gain.”
Abhinandan was captured a day after Indian planes bombed what New Delhi said was a militant camp in Pakistan, in retaliation for the Kashmir suicide bombing claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group.
Violence continued to rage in Kashmir, with both sides firing mortars and artillery over the frontier, killing four civilians on the Indian side and one in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. At least 12 civilians have been killed on either side of the frontier since Monday.
“Heavy shelling by Indian army started Friday evening and continued until early Saturday. One teenager has been killed and four wounded in Nakyal sector,” said Raja Moazzam, a senior official in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, on Saturday.
Five Indian security personnel were killed Friday in a gunfight after troops laid siege to a house where local fighters were hiding in Handwara district.