Abhinandan Varthaman: Hero, yes, but victim first

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 02, 2019 11:11 hrs
Wing Commander Abhinandan

The war hysteria has, perhaps temporarily, turned into hero worship.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was the picture of courage and dignity as he stood, bleeding behind his blindfold, and answered questions from an interrogator with polite precision.

Perhaps it was his composure which brought home just what the cost would be of the war for which the rabble on either side of the border have been hankering – it would be brave men, captured in “enemy” territory by other brave men doing their national duties. The cost of the war would be families from both India and Pakistan losing their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands.

A day later, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan uttered arguably the most sensible words spoken by any leader of the subcontinent in a very long time – as a gesture of peace, the wing commander would be released unconditionally on March 1.

Yes, Wing Commander Varthaman is a hero. But first, he is a victim – a victim of the decisions made by the powers that be, a victim of history and politics, a victim of the nature of war, a victim of the media, and a victim of sensationalism.

When the video of his interrogation went viral, information that he had withheld from Pakistan with a soft, “I’m sorry, sir, that is all I’m supposed to tell you” was readily supplied to anyone who cared to know by the media.

He was still in the custody of Pakistan’s military when the race for eyeballs sent journalists and cameramen swooping like a wake of vultures to the residence of the wing commander. They quickly listed which part of which city was home to the family, put up pictures of his wife, minor son, and parents – all clearly without permission, since the family had requested privacy and refused to interact with the media – and mentioned details of his family’s connections with the armed forces.

Among the distasteful articles put out by the media was one about how the wing commander’s father, a retired officer of the Indian Air Force, had helped Tamil film director Mani Ratnam with information on air force protocol for his Kaatru Veliyidai, and how his life had “gone from reel to real”, since his son – like the hero of the film – was captured in Pakistan.

It so happened that Wing Commander Varthaman was treated well in custody. He need not have been. Since war has not been declared between India and Pakistan, he would not have been protected by the Geneva Convention. Technically, he was an enemy intruder into Pakistan.

As the media fed information to Pakistan, Bollywood producers rushed to register titles such as “Pulwama”, “Balakot”, and “Abhinandan”, the politicians stayed largely silent. The Prime Minister was at a rally.

A BBC report quoted the headman of a village in Pakistan saying that Wing Commander Varthaman stuffed documents into his mouth, fired in the air, and tried to fight off a mob once he ejected from his fighter jet, which had been shot down by the Pakistani military.

He was fortunate to have been captured by the Pakistani army, and even more fortunate to have been released within two days.

The viral spectacle of the wing commander walking through the Wagah-Attari joint checkpost might well not have played out.

There is little history of a military man from either side of the border finding a happy ending.

The Indian government, which left it to the media to report on Pulwama, on the air strikes, and on the capture of the officer, and avoided the cameras, was suddenly patting itself on the back.

In yet another asinine display of punning and wordplay, politicians hailed the “successful completion” of the “pilot project”.

The success was certainly not Modi’s. It was Imran Khan’s. Khan, who has often put his foot in his mouth in the past, looked more dignified and spoke more sensibly than any Indian politician has.

The warmongers ought to be ashamed. The “leaders” ought to be even more ashamed.

The Indian media, which has long been beyond redemption, stayed true to form.

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman could well have been a “martyr”.

The difference between war and peace is the difference between death and life.

Now that Pakistan has made a move towards peace, how will India respond? By figuring out ways to work together, by restoring bilateral ties, by resolving the “Kashmir question”?

Or by escalating hostilities in an adolescent move, and hoping its next hero won’t return in a coffin?

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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com  

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