“It’s good to be back," said Abhinandan, looking relaxed in civvies—a blue blazer, white shirt and brown trousers—after crossing the border in Punjab at around 9.20pm to the welcoming arms of his colleagues. His swollen face still wore evidence of the beating he received after his MiG-21 Bison crashed on Wednesday.
It was a night of drama. Widely expected to reach the border in the evening, with a press conference scheduled for 5.30pm, there was a wait of another nearly four hours before Abhinandan was escorted to the iconic border gate by a Pakistani foreign office official and members of the armed forces.
The final crossing took place after papers were signed in a last bit of formality. It was the moment that cheered the nation.
Track live updates on Abhinandan's return here
Abhinandan was captured by Pakistani forces on Wednesday morning after his MiG-21 Bison was downed in a dogfight with a Pakistani F-16 fighter jet.
Cool and dignified in captivity, as revealed by videos shot by Pakistanis, Abhinandan caught the imagination of the nation at a time when tensions spiralled in the aftermath of the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) soldiers in a suicide bombing at Pulwama.
On Friday, the mood at the border was jubilant since the morning, with hundreds of people, including those from neighbouring states, turning up to welcome him, many carrying garlands and the tricolour.
Even as the gesture of the Pakistan government to send Abhinandan back to India was welcomed by those who came to greet the Indian hero, many said that the government should only resume talks with Pakistan if the neighbouring country takes credible and concrete steps to end the terrorism carried out from its territory.
“Abhinandan is our hero, the way he stood up to the Pakistani army is commendable. The Wing Commander was fighting for us. It is our duty to show respect when he comes. We have no option but to take a hard stand against Pakistan. Terrorism has to end. Earlier governments did not do enough," said Anil Sharma, a 35-year-old government official from Gurdaspur, Punjab.
After a week that saw a rapid escalation of India-Pakistan conflict since the Pulwama attack, Indians heaved a sigh of relief on Abhinandan’s return.
On Tuesday, India launched air strikes against terror launch pads in Pakistan in response to the Pulwama terror attack. This was followed on Wednesday by Pakistani fighter jets entering Indian airspace and being repelled by IAF aircraft. That led to Abhinandan's aircraft being shot down and his capture by Pakistan.
Locals at Attari-Wagah said the tough stance taken by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government is a positive development. “The tough stand of the government is a positive development. There should be no talks with Pakistan till the time terrorism ends. Pakistan should understand that terrorism will create problems for India but also destroy Pakistan," said 61-year-old retired Capt. J.S. Soni, who was part of an elite army commando unit.
The return of the IAF officer is being seen as a major diplomatic victory for India as New Delhi had categorically told Pakistan that there will be no negotiation on Abhinandan and that he should be immediately sent back to India unharmed.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday said Abhinandan would be sent back to India on Friday as a “peace gesture" and with the hope of resumption of the dialogue process between the two countries.
“It is a major diplomatic victory for India. The government has managed to put immense pressure on Pakistan, which was forced to send Abhinandan back," said Devendra Kumar, a businessman from Amritsar who came to welcome the Wing Commander.
Slogans of "Hindustan Zindabad" and "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" rent the air early in the morning as the crowd started to trickle in at Attari-Wagah border in anticipation of Varthaman’s arrival.
People who came to receive Varthaman also felt that his safe return to India would help lower tensions between the two countries. Residents said if terrorism from Pakistan ends, development would become a priority in both countries.
Some said talks are a better way forward. “The diplomatic pressure and raids by IAF are good short-term tactics, but the long-term solution is to resume talks so that Pakistan can understand that India does not want war but will defend itself. We are only taking steps to safeguard ourselves. We don’t want war, but Pakistan should also understand that we won’t tolerate terrorism," said Gayatri Devi, who came from Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan to get a glimpse of Abhinandan.
Coinciding with his arrival, an unverified video was televised by Pakistani news channels on Friday night, which prima facie looked doctored. The video seemed edited to suggest that instead of chasing Pakistani aircraft, Varthaman was intending to bomb targets.