Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (retired) has said Pakistan did not have a choice other than to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, days after his MiG-21 was downed in a dogfight in February last year. The Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot had also scored a kill, a Pakistani F-16, before his plane went down in Pakistan and he was captured.
The former IAF chief's comments came after a Pakistani politician in their national assembly revealed how Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa was "shaking and perspiring" during a meeting to discuss Wing Commander Varthaman's capture.
A dogfight had broken out less than 24 hours after Indian jets bombed a camp of terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan's Balakot, in response to Jaish's suicide attack on a convoy in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama that left 40 soldiers dead.
"Me and Abhinandan's father go back a very long time. We did the flying instructor's course together... When Abhinandan got captured... my flight commander Ahuja in Kargil war, he got captured and was shot on the ground, so that was playing in my mind. I told him, 'Sir, I know we couldn't get Ahuja back, but we will definitely get Abhinandan back'," Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa told news agency ANI. Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, who flew a MiG-21, was killed by Pakistani forces after his fighter jet was shot down by Pakistani forces in 1999.
In a speech in the National Assembly, Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Ayaz Sadiq said Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had in an important meeting said if Pakistan did not release Wing Commander Varthaman, India would attack Pakistan "that night by 9 pm." "I remember Shah Mahmood Qureshi was in the meeting in which (Prime Minister) Imran Khan had refused to attend and Chief of Army Staff General Bajwa came into the room, his legs were shaking and he was perspiring. Foreign Minister said for god's sake let Abhinandan go, India's about to attack Pakistan at 9 pm," Mr Sadiq recounted the events of the meeting.
Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said Pakistan knew India's capability and that could have acted as deterrence against any harm coming to Wing Commander Varthaman.
"There are two parts to it. The main pressure on Pakistan was diplomatic and political. But there was also a military posture, the way he (Mr Sadiq) is saying that 'his legs (General Bajwa) were shaking and all', it is because the military posture was very offensive of all the three services, Army, Navy, Air Force," the former IAF chief said.
"And God forbid had they hit our installations on February 27, we were also in a position to wipe out their forward brigades. They know our capability. Basically, if this thing is there in their mind that we are likely to strike, they first look at how their own military is doing. The American President Theodore Roosevelt used to say, 'Speak softly and carry a big stick'. So the big stick was the military," Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said.
The former Air Chief Marshal served in a MiG-21 squadron with Wing Commander Varthaman's father, who retired as an Air Marshal.
After healing from injuries, Wing Commander Varthaman returned to the cockpit in less than six months since he returned home from captivity.