It has been ages since a real hero has moved the nation so very profoundly, immediately after a high-voltage, super-tense armed confrontation with our bordering country. Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured after downing a Pakistan F-16 fighter aircraft, when his own MIG 21 Bison, was also shot down over enemy territory, has made an indelible impact on the minds of almost all citizens of this land. This valiant Air Force officer has become the new poster boy, not only of our armed forces, but of Bharat.
Thankfully, Abhinandan is back amongst us primarily because the country’s standing in the world has acquired a hitherto unknown global standing. The international community, as a whole, exerted immense pressure on Pakistan to unconditionally release him, so as to signal the de-escalation of hostilities, which however, would be determined by the unfolding of events in the next few days. For some in India, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who announced the decision to free him is being viewed as the new statesman of South Asia, an erstwhile sporting icon, who has won hearts with this magnanimous gesture.
However, it would not be surprising if his popularity in his own country takes a beating, and the Pakistan army, that may have prompted him to execute this action, might gradually distance itself from him, thus leaving him in the lurch. Again it is only a matter of time when Imran Khan would have to face the consequences of his apparent generosity.
On the Indian side, there is a collective sigh of relief on Abhinandan’s return, and it takes no arithmetic to comprehend that Narendra Modi and the BJP would derive immense political mileage from the developments that have put the Opposition on the defensive. The Congress, for instance, was readying itself to make Abhinandan’s captivity an issue, but the fact that he was set free within such a short span has left its leaders nonplussed. During the election season, the Opposition parties cannot afford to sound too critical, lest they are viewed as anti-national and if they endorse the government, they forfeit the political initiative.
Modi, on the other hand, is undeterred by whatever is happening, and continues to campaign, leaving no opportunity to take pot shots at his rivals. The case in point is the inauguration of the National War Memorial, near India Gate, where he attacked the Congress for depriving our armed forces of even basic essentials. The uncharacteristic speech made at an event where even the President, despite being the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, was not present, showcases the combative spirit of the Prime Minister.
To contribute to passions going ballistic, several prominent television anchors have been playing the role of instigators, to whip up a mass war hysteria advising the government what plan of action to take thus stirring sentiments in favour of a prolonged military action. It is clear that they do not realise that by focusing on the methods to increase the TRP ratings, they were relying on their limited knowledge of strategic affairs thus missing out on the gravity of the developing situation.
In fact, this stand-off with Pakistan has worsened primarily because this is perhaps the first occasion when social media has been in full play, thereby igniting passions and aggravating tensions. Yes, effective propaganda is an important instrument during times of war and has been pressed into service on previous occasions too. One can recall that during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, All India Radio, in order to counter the falsification spread from Pakistan, broadcast a programme titled, “Dhol ki Pol” created by Chiranjeet and presented by Dinanath and Brajendra; it being a satire on Radio Pakistan portrayed it as “Radio Jhootistan”.
Every war produces its heroes, and in this brief yet scarring clash, Abhinandan has come out as a shining star of the Indian Armed Forces. However, we should never forget the sacrifices of our other fearlessly valorous soldiers, beginning from Major Somnath Sharma, who, three months after India attained Independence became the posthumous recipient of the first Param Vir Chakra, dying while battling armed intruders from across the border in Kashmir. Incidentally in 1988, his brother, General V.N. Sharma rose to become the Army Chief. Similarly, the sacrifices of others such as Havaldar Abdul Hamid, Lt Col Tarapore, Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon and Second Lieutenant Arun Khetrapal have inspired not only their units, but all countrymen, who have followed our military history.
Punjab Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, a distinguished war historian, has over a period of time chronicled some of the achievements of our soldiers in the books and articles he has written. Serving as the ADC to Lt General Harbaksh Singh, the legendary officer during the 1965 conflict, he saw how in order to thwart the Pakistani thrust, his boss declined to go along with the perception of the then Army Chief, General J.N. Chaudhuri. Instead he trusted his own military instincts to counter the Pakistani objective to cut off Kashmir from Punjab.
In 1965, Field Marshal Carriappa’s son was shot down during an air sortie over Pakistan. Field Marshal Ayub Khan immediately contacted Carriappa, offering to release his son post-haste. However, Carriappa refused, saying that he was now not his son, but the son of his motherland. His war cry was: free all soldiers, since no preferential treatment could be granted to one serviceman alone. The nation is relieved that Abhinandan is back. Between us.