Although hostilities by Pakistan on the Indian border continue to present risks of an escalation in military conflict, its decision to return Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman will help in pulling the two countries back from the edge. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that Wing Commander Varthaman, whom they captured a day earlier after his MiG-21 was shot down while thwarting an air attack, will be sent home on Friday as a gesture of peace. The announcement is crucial in ensuring the nuclear-weapons-capable nations are able to find common ground to pull back from a dangerous escalation in a military conflict and sit across the table to re-engage in dialogue.
For India, it will be a major diplomatic win, being able to create enough pressure to bring back their pilot unharmed from Pakistan’s captivity. Pakistan’s record of how it treats enemy soldiers in captivity is poor and any harm to the Indian pilot would have caused already-aggravated domestic tempers to flare more and make conciliation difficult. Besides, through the Indian Air Force’s precision strikes on Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) terror camps deep inside Pakistan earlier this week, India has already sent an emphatic message that it won’t anymore tolerate Pakistan’s continued support to terror groups. Further military action at this point would only push Khan into a corner domestically where he is under pressure from hardliners, in the army and outside, to present a brave image of a country ready to take on any kind of Indian aggression. But now, Pakistan too will be satisfied, having been able to show that it has taken the moral high ground by releasing the Indian pilot and offering to engage in peace talks. India should allow the Pakistani prime minister that space to pander to his domestic audience. That, however, shouldn’t mean easing diplomatic pressure on it to stop harbouring terrorists or giving up the right to carry out more military strikes on terrorist camps if Pakistan still doesn’t act.
With world opinion on India’s side, it is in a better bargaining position. The biggest global powers, including the US, UK and France, have sided with India following the Pulwama terrorist attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary jawans. At the same time, Pakistan’s relations are strained with its other neighbours Iran and Afghanistan, who have accused it of fomenting terrorist activities in their countries. India has good relations with both these countries and should join hands with them to pressure Pakistan into giving up support to terrorism and handing over Masood Azhar, chief of JeM, which has taken responsibility for the Pulwama attack. Economically too, Pakistan is in no position to fight a prolonged battle with India. It is in the throes of a bankruptcy with $8 billion worth of foreign exchange reserves that are barely enough to cover two months’ worth of imports. On the other hand, India has grown to become the world’s sixth largest economy and has almost $400 billion in foreign currency reserves. By deciding to release Varthaman, Pakistan may have just bought itself a way to talk peace without having to swallow its pride. India, too, would be happy it got its pilot back. But the pressure on Pakistan should continue to cut its tentacles to terror.