Nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India are locked in the worst crisis in years over the disputed region of Kashmir, and the capture of an Indian fighter pilot could mean the confrontation will only get worse, former diplomats and regional analysts say.
The pilot, wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, was in Pakistani military custody after his MiG 21 was shot down on Wednesday along the disputed border between the two countries.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi now faces a crucial crossroads, experts said, to either hold back and seek to settle the dispute or to take further military action. With elections in less than three months in India, hitting back at Pakistan could play well to nationalist sentiment — but it could also risk a full-blown war.
“New Delhi is in a really tough spot now,” said Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center think tank. “Domestic political considerations make it very unlikely that India would want to de-escalate right now.”
In any talks with Pakistan, which India has so far rebuffed, the captured pilot would give Islamabad valuable leverage, and make it difficult for New Delhi to drive a hard bargain, Kugelman said.
The hostilities began with a suicide car bomb attack this month that left 40 Indian paramilitary police dead in the Indian-controlled side of Kashmir, one of the worst attacks in years against India. New Delhi responded with an air strike on Tuesday, but this time India chose to strike inside Pakistani territory. The operation targeted what India said was a terrorist training camp for Jaish-e-Mohammad, the militant group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack.
On Wednesday, Pakistan retaliated by shooting down at least one Indian fighter jet while trying to attack Indian military sites along the de facto border.
Pakistan aired footage of the purported Indian pilot, blindfolded at one point and then thanking his captors for rescuing him from a mob after his plane was downed. India expressed outrage over what it called “Pakistan’s vulgar display,” accusing it of violating the Geneva Conventions and warning it not to harm the pilot.