New Delhi: The nation had been waiting with bated breath for his return but Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot held captive by Pakistan since Wednesday, was handed over way past 9 PM on Friday.

The IAF official looked calm as he waited in Pakistani territory along with Indian High Commission officials from Islamabad and Pakistan Rangers before getting the final nod for him to cross over.

Varthaman was received by senior Border Security Force (BSF) officers at Zero Line that marks the India-Pakistan land border. The BSF then handed him over to the IAF. The IAF said it was happy to have him back and that the pilot would be taken for a detailed medical checkup.

Delay Tactics

Pakistan changed the time of the handover twice during the day. Initial reports suggested that Varthaman would be handed over in the morning. However, procedural delays were cited as the reason for shifting the handover to around 4 PM.

Later, that time was again shifted to around 9 PM and the eventual return of the IAF official happened closer to 9.30 PM.

On Thursday, when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced that the pilot would be released as a ‘peace gesture’, India had sought permission to send a special IAF flight to bring him back, but Pakistan had turned down the request.

It said, instead, that Varthaman would be handed over at the Wagah-Attari border.

Addressing a press conference right after Varthaman was back, IAF said that they hadn’t asked Pakistan what led to the delay. However, reports emerging later suggested that Varthaman was asked to record a statement on camera before he was allowed to cross the border.

The video, which was released by Pakistan government to the local media at 8.30 PM (local time), had several jump cuts indicating that it had been edited heavily, apparently to fit the Pakistani propaganda.

Such videos had emerged soon after Varthaman’s capture as well; some showed him injured while others had him being interrogated. With the apprehension of such propaganda doing more harm than good, the IT Ministry had to direct YouTube to remove around 11 videos with such content.

Messages Pour In

Meanwhile, congratulatory messages started pouring in as soon as Varthaman was whisked away by the IAF officials. President Ram Nath Kovind tweeted, “India is proud of your courage, sense of duty and above all, your dignity.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “The nation is proud of your exemplary courage…our armed forces are an inspiration for 130 crore Indians.”

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman welcomed Varthaman back while BJP President Amit Shah said, “May you continue to serve the nation and IAF with unparalleled passion and dedication. Best wishes for your bright future.”

The Congress called Varthaman a “true hero to all of us”.

How Varthaman Landed On The Other Side

Varthaman’s MiG 21 had crashed while he chased down Pakistan’s F16 jets early on Wednesday morning. He ejected successfully but his parachute took him to the other side. Pakistan was retaliating to India’s pre-emptive strike at Jaish-e-Mohammed’s terror camp in Balakote a day ago, which had left over 400 terrorists dead.

Alluding to the strike, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said on Thursday that the “pilot project” was over and it was time for a scale-up.