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Insights into Editorial: Coming home: on the release of Indian pilot Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan

Insights into Editorial: Coming home: on the release of Indian pilot Wg. Cdr. Abhinandan



Indian Air Force’s Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, in Pakistani custody after his plane was shot down, will be governed under the Geneva Convention of 1929.

With Pakistan’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, tensions between India and Pakistan may finally wind down.

The gesture, which Pakistan Prime Minister called an offer of peace and goodwill, must be appreciated, although there is evidence to suggest that there was pressure from other countries on Islamabad to make such an announcement to prevent further escalation from India.


Does the captured pilot count as a prisoner of war?


The provisions of the conventions apply in peacetime situations, in declared wars, and in conflicts that are not recognised as war by one or more of the parties.

Even though India and Pakistan have been careful not to use the ‘w’ (war) word for the operations each has conducted on the other’s territory over two successive days India has said its airstrikes were a “non-military” intelligence-led operation both sides are bound by the Geneva Conventions.

This means the IAF officer is a prisoner of war, and his treatment has to be in accordance with the provisions for PoWs under the Geneva Conventions.

After 1971 war, India had more than 80,000 Pakistani troops, who had surrendered to the Indian Army after the liberation of Dhaka. India agreed to release them under the Shimla Agreement of 1972.


What are the Geneva Conventions?

The 1949 Geneva Conventions are a set of international treaties that ensure that warring parties conduct themselves in a humane way with non-combatants such as civilians and medical personnel, as well as with combatants no longer actively engaged in fighting, such as prisoners of war, and wounded or sick soldiers.

All countries are signatories to the Geneva Conventions. There are four conventions, with three protocols added on since 1949.

The provisions of the conventions apply in:

Peacetime situations, declared wars and in Conflicts that are not recognised as war by one or more of the parties.


Rules that are to be followed according to the Convention:

The way a country’s armed forces treat enemy soldiers speaks volumes about the ethos and traditions upheld by them.

It is the responsibility of every soldier to honour and respect the men in uniform irrespective of the army and the country they belong to.

Article 13 of the third Geneva Convention states that POWs must at all times be humanely treated.

Any unlawful act or omission by the country, under whose captivity, the Prisoners of war (POW) is in, which leads to death or seriously endangers the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited. This will also be as a serious breach of the Convention.

The POWs cannot be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital, which is treating the POW in question.

It also prohibits POWs from being intimidated and insulted and be subjected to public curiosity.


Who monitors whether the Geneva Conventions are being followed?

The Geneva Conventions have a system of “Protecting Powers” who ensure that the provisions of the conventions are being followed by the parties in a conflict.

During the Kargil War, Pakistan returned Flt Lt Nachiketa, who was captured after ejecting from his burning Mi27, after keeping him for eight days.

This was after intense diplomatic efforts by the Vajpayee government and by ICRC. Another PoW, Squadron Ldr Ajay Ahuja, was killed in captivity.

In theory, each side must designate states that are not party to the conflict as their “Protecting Powers”. In practice, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) usually plays this role.



Significantly, it was a time of economic growth and stability too for Pakistan.

New Delhi must be ready to show both flexibility and a determined focus on Pakistan’s action against terror groups, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Releasing our pilot early will give him a moral victory and he may be eager to grab that accolade. The important thing is that the custody of the pilot may lead to dialling down of tension between the two countries.

But there also voices within the Government and in the public that feel the pilot is safe now that Pakistan has told the world about him and so the government’s next steps should be delinked from this issue.

Moreover, they argue, Pakistan has to be sent a signal that the pilot’s capture hasn’t tied India’s hands.

This is the best way to build constructively on the international consensus built post-Pulwama in India’s favour.