Social media videos of Varthaman—calm while being interrogated by Pakistani army officers—won him admirers in both India and Pakistan. His arrest brought back memories of the capture of two Indian pilots by Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil conflict. While India was able to secure the release of one unharmed, the second was killed by Pakistan.
“In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow (Friday), and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody," Khan said after New Delhi issued at least two strong demarches to Pakistan to ensure the pilot’s immediate release.
“The only purpose of our strike was to demonstrate our capability and will," Khan said. “We did not want to inflict any casualty on India as we wanted to act in a responsible manner."
Khan packaged his surprise announcement as a peace offering, but a person familiar with the development said New Delhi would only be satisfied with credible and verifiable steps taken by Pakistan to end terrorism against India. There would be no engagement with Pakistan till it takes steps to eliminate terrorist training camps in its territory, the person added in response to Khan’s statement that he had “tried to call" Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the phone on Wednesday.
Analysts said the decision to release Varthaman might have been prompted by the fact that, after the Pulwama attack, the international community was more supportive of India’s position than Pakistan’s.
Khan’s gesture could defuse immediate tensions with India—to the relief of the international community that has been alarmed by the spike in temperatures between the two nuclear powers. But there would be no let-up in diplomatic pressure to compel Pakistan to give up on the use of terror against India.
An indication that there was some announcement in the offing to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan— running high since the suicide attack that killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel—came earlier on Thursday with a remark by US President Donald Trump. Trump, in Hanoi for his second summit with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, told reporters: “I think reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India, they have been going at it and we have been involved and have them stop, we have some reasonably decent news, hopefully it’s going to be coming to an end."
In the short term, “this Pakistani gesture could help bring relief to the international community that has been alarmed about tensions rising between two nuclear armed countries", said Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary.
“There has always been concern as to how to contain a conflict between India and Pakistan before it reaches the nuclear level," he said.
Even after Pakistan agreed to release Varthaman, there were clear signs from India that it would not be business as usual with Islamabad, Mansingh said, agreeing with the person cited earlier that New Delhi would keep its focus on pressuring Pakistan to relent on terrorism.
India’s air strike on Balakot on 26 February showed that it would conduct another counterterrorist strike if its security was threatened, he said. According to a defence ministry official, Varthaman is likely to cross into India from Pakistan through the Attari-Wagah border on Friday.