|Born||June 21, 1983|
Tamil Nadu, India
|Service/||Indian Air Force|
|Years of service||2004 to present|
|Battles/wars||2019 India–Pakistan standoff|
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, VrC (born 21 June 1983) is an Indian Air Force fighter pilot who, during the 2019 India–Pakistan standoff, was held captive in Pakistan for 60 hours after his aircraft was shot down in an aerial dogfight. He was awarded with Vir Chakra by the Indian government for the shooting down of a PAF F-16 with his MiG-21 Bison. However, this claim has been disputed by Pakistan and independent sources.
Pakistan released videos and images showing Varthaman being rescued from a violent mob of villagers by its soldiers, receiving first aid and being questioned while blindfolded. Pakistan decided on 28 February 2019 to release him. He returned to India at Wagah on 1 March 2019. Varthaman was conferred the Vir Chakra gallantry award in August 2019. He is also known for his distinctive style of moustache.
Abhinandan was born in a Tamil Jain family on 21 June 1983. Abhinandan's family is from Thirupanamoor, a village about 19 km (12 miles) from Kanchipuram. His father is a retired Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Marshal (OF-8) and his mother is a doctor.
Abhinandan was educated at Sainik School, Amaravathinagar. He graduated from the National Defence Academy and was commissioned into the combat (fighter) stream of the IAF as a flying officer on 19 June 2004. He was trained at the IAF centres in Bathinda and Halwara, promoted to flight lieutenant on 19 June 2006, and to squadron leader on 8 July 2010. Abhinandan was a Su-30 MKI fighter pilot before being assigned to the MiG-21 Bison squadron. He was promoted to wing commander on 19 June 2017.
Abhinandan is married to a retired Squadron Leader and lives in Chennai. They have two children.
On 27 February 2019, Varthaman was flying a MiG-21 as a part of a sortie that was scrambled to intercept an intrusion into Indian-administered Kashmir by Pakistani aircraft. In the dogfight that ensued, he crossed into Pakistani airspace and his aircraft was struck by a missile. Varthaman ejected and safely descended into the village of Horran in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, approximately 7 km (4.3 miles) from the Line of Control.
Local villagers said Varthaman could be identified as an Indian pilot by the Indian flag on his parachute. Upon landing, Varthaman asked the villagers whether he was in India, to which a young boy said yes. Varthaman reportedly said pro-India slogans, to which the locals responded with pro-Pakistan slogans. Varthaman began to run while firing warning shots. He ran for approximately 500 m (1,600 ft) to a small pond, where he attempted to sink and swallow some of his documents. The villagers captured and manhandled Varthaman before he was rescued by the Pakistan Army.
Later that day, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs confirmed an Indian pilot was missing in action after a MiG-21 Bison fighter aircraft was lost while engaging with Pakistani jets. A statement released by the IAF also said before the crash, Varthaman had shot down a PAF Lockheed Martin F-16. At a media briefing on 2 March 2019, nearly two days after the aerial engagement between PAF and IAF, the IAF displayed the parts of AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, which could be used only by the PAF's F-16. The IAF also said they had identified the electronic signatures of the aircraft and confirmed that F-16 were used during the skirmish. As claimed by Indian media, according to an agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan, Pakistan is only allowed to use the F-16 against terrorists. However, a U.S. official stated the agreement did not involve any such terms "limiting the use of the F-16s." Pakistan's Inter-Services Public Relations Director General refuted the later claims and said F-16s had not been used in the incident. The US-based Foreign Policy magazine, quoting two anonymous U.S. Defense Department officials, reported in April 2019 that an audit didn't find any Pakistani F-16s missing, and that all jets were accounted for. U.S. officials also refused to confirm whether Pakistan had used F-16s in the conflict, citing it as a bilateral matter between the U.S. and Pakistan.
Videos and images released by Pakistani authorities showed Varthaman being rescued from a violent mob by Pakistani soldiers and being interrogated while tied and blindfolded with a bloody face. Other videos showed him receiving first aid and being further interrogated over tea. The media received a mixed reception; some commentators criticised the reports as a "vulgar display" while others praised the intervention of the Pakistani soldiers when Varthaman was in the hands of the mob and was being beaten. The release of the videos was suspected of being a violation of the Geneva Conventions and were deleted by Pakistani authorities after they went viral. Experts gave different opinions about the validity of the Geneva Convention to this case.
On 28 February 2019, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan announced at a joint sitting of the Parliament of Pakistan the government had decided to release Abhinandan the next day as a "gesture of peace". A petition was filed before the Islamabad High Court seeking an injunction to stop his release but the court dismissed it the same day. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, said his government announced the release of the IAF Wing Commander out of a desire for peace and that there was no compulsion or pressure on Pakistan, as was implied by the Indian media.
However, in October 2020, a senior opposition leader who was Speaker of the National Assembly during the PML-N government in Pakistan, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq had claimed in the National Assembly that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released after Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a meeting of Pakistan's top leaders that India would attack Pakistan if Abhinandan weren't released.
Varthaman crossed the India-Pakistan border at Wagah on 1 March 2019. At a political rally, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed Abhinandan's release, saying the nation was proud of him. Hours before his release, a new video showing Varthaman praising the Pakistani army while criticizing the Indian media was released to the Pakistani media. IAF later said it had been filmed while Varthaman was under duress. A medical check-up upon his return located multiple bruises and a fractured rib but no 'significant injuries'. Abhinandan said the Pakistani authorities did not physically torture him but subjected him to considerable "mental harassment". Pakistan said he was treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
Akhil Bharatiya Digambar Jain Mahasamiti chairperson Manidra Jain announced Varthaman would be awarded the Bhagwan Mahavir Ahimsa Puraskar on 17 April 2019, the date of Mahavir Jayanti. In August that same year, he was presented with the Vir Chakra gallantry award.
Varthaman's style of moustache has become popular in India and is widely called the "Abhinandan cut".
The style is similar to a combination of old gunslinger moustache and mutton chops worn by Franz Joseph I of Austria. It resembles the moustache worn by actor Suriya in the Singam film series and Rajinikanth's moustache in Petta (2019).
Indian actor Ranveer Singh's barber, Darshan Yewalekar, has quoted saying that "the beard sported by the IAF pilot will soon be called India's very own Abhinandan style." A number of companies used the moustache in their advertisements. Dairy company Amul produced a video showing a young girl wearing an Abhinandan-shaped milk moustache. The advertisement was posted on Twitter and received more than 170,000 views within 24 hours. Pizza Hut also posted a tweet showing the Abhinandan moustache on 3 March 2019.
The controversy flared up when a Foreign Policy article stated that the Pentagon had accounted for all of Pakistan’s F-16 jets... The IAF responded last week by releasing “irrefutable” evidence — including electronic signatures and radio transcripts — that Pakistan lost a fighter jet during the February aerial combat. A number of U.S. and Indian defense analysts called the evidence circumstantial... The Pentagon, like the State Department, has yet to issue a public statement on the F-16 count, but there have been no counter-leaks contradicting the Foreign Policy report.