Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot Abhinandan Varthaman — who was captured by Pakistan in 2019 after his MiG 21 Bison aircraft was shot down by a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) jet and later returned to India — was awarded India's third-highest gallantry medal on Monday, local media reported.
According to The Indian Express, Abhinandan received the Vir Chakra — the third-highest wartime gallantry award after Param Vir Chakra and Maha Chakra — from Indian President Ram Nath Kovind at an investiture ceremony in the capital. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh were also present at the ceremony.
According to the report, Abhinandan, who was recently promoted from wing commander to group captain, was awarded the medal for "showing conspicuous courage" while shooting down a Pakistani F-16 aircraft in February 2019 — a claim that has been rubbished by the Pakistan military, independent observers as well as the international media.
According to the report by The Indian Express, the citation for the award stated: "Wing Commander Abhinandan showed conspicuous courage, demonstrated gallantry in the face of the enemy while disregarding personal safety and displayed exceptional sense of duty."
In addition, Abhinandan's unit — 51 Squadron — also received an award citation, according to India Today.
Reacting to the reports, PPP Vice President Sherry Rehman tweeted: "Is this for real? Award for drinking tea in Pakistani custody? #paralleluniverse"
"Fantastic," wrote Focal Person to the Prime Minister on Digital Media Arslan Khalid. "Actually, I feel for Abhinandan. Just because of @narendramodi and Indian media denial of the defeat and embarrassment they had [back] then, poor Abhinandan is reminded of the episode every second month."
According to a BBC report from 2019, the officer — who is the son of a decorated former pilot — was first commissioned as a fighter pilot in 2004.
Abhinandan was arrested on Feb 27, 2019, after his aircraft was shot down by the PAF upon violating Pakistani airspace.
He was initially captured by locals in Azad Kashmir before being taken into custody by Pakistan Army personnel. Videos of his capture showed army soldiers and officers intervening forcefully to save him from a crowd of angry citizens.
A wide cross-section of the Pakistani citizenry had subsequently called for him to be treated with respect and dignity.
Famously, a video released by the ISPR had shown the officer conversing with military officials in a congenial environment and acknowledging that he had been treated well.
"I'd like to put this on record; I will not change my statement even when I go back to my country. The officers of the Pakistan Army have looked after me very well," Abhinandan had acknowledged in the video.
He was later handed over in a gesture of peace to India at the Wagah border on March 1, 2019.