Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, who downed an enemy jet during an aerial combat with Pakistan on February 27, 2019, was conferred with the Vir Chakra award by President Ram Nath Kovind on Monday for displaying an "exceptional sense of duty" in the dogfight.
Wing Commander Varthaman (now Group Captain) shot down the Pakistani F-16 jet before his MiG 21 Bison aircraft was hit. Pakistan launched the retaliation against India a day after it carried out the Balakot airstrikes in response to the Pulwama attack.
Vir Chakra is the country's third-highest wartime gallantry award after Param Vir Chakra and Maha Vir Chakra.
The awards conferred by the president, the supreme commander of the armed forces, included two Kirti Chakras, one Vir Chakra and 23 Shaurya Chakras. Kirti Chakra and Shaurya Chakra are the country's second and third highest peacetime gallantry awards after Ashok Chakra.
The awards were conferred in two separate ceremonies held at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and they were attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and several other dignitaries.
"Attended the two Defence Investiture Ceremonies at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Proud of all those who have been conferred the Gallantry Awards. Their courage and dedication will keep motivating our citizens," Modi said in a tweet.
Kirti Chakra was awarded posthumously to Sapper Prakash Jadhav of the Rashtriya Rifles for his bravery in a counter-insurgency operation in Jammu and Kashmir three years ago.
Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) Deputy Commandant Harshpal Singh was also awarded Kirti Chakra.
Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal of the 55 battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles and Naib Subedar Sombir of the 34th battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles were both posthumously awarded Shaurya Chakra.
The Shaurya Chakra awardees included Sepoy Karmdeo Oraon of the eighth battalion of the Bihar Regiment, Rifleman Ajveer Singh Chauhan of the sixth battalion of the Garhwal Rifles, Constable Zaker Hussain of the CRPF, Jammu and Kashmir Police Head Constable Subash Chander and Sable Dnyaneshwar Shriram, a CRPF constable.
Lance Naik Sandeep Singh of the fourth battalion of the Parachute Regiment, Brajesh Kumar of the Punjab Regiment and Sepoy Hari Singh of the Grenadiers were posthumously conferred with the Shaurya Chakra award.
Ashiq Husain Malik and Aman Kumar, both from the Jammu and Kashmir Police, were also posthumously conferred with the Shaurya Chakra award.
"President Kovind presents Vir Chakra to Wing Commander (now Group Captain) Varthaman Abhinandan. He showed conspicuous courage, demonstrated gallantry in the face of the enemy while disregarding personal safety and displayed an exceptional sense of duty," the Rashtrapati Bhavan said in a tweet.
Varthaman's citation said a large force of Pakistan Air Force fighter aircraft, consisting of advanced fourth-generation F-16 and JF-17, was detected heading toward the Line of Control (LoC) around 9:55 am that day.
It said displaying exceptional air combat acumen and knowledge of the enemy's tactics, Varthaman scanned the low-altitude airspace with his Airborne Intercept (AI) radar and picked up an enemy aircraft that was flying low to ambush the Indian fighter-interceptor aircraft.
It said he alerted the other formation pilots about the "surprise threat" and then consolidated the riposte against the hostile Pakistani aircraft that were attempting to drop weapons on Indian Army positions.
"This audacious and aggressive manoeuvre forced the enemy aircraft into tactical chaos. All the enemy aircraft thereafter turned back, including the rear echelon aircraft that were yet to launch their air-to-ground weapons," the citation said.
Varthaman then pursued a retreating enemy fighter bomber aircraft and in the ensuing aerial combat, shot down an F-16 aircraft with his onboard missile, it said.
"However, in the melee, one of the enemy aircraft fired multiple advanced BVR (beyond visual range) missiles, one of which hit his aircraft, forcing him to eject in enemy territory," it said.
The citation said despite being captured by the enemy, Varthaman continued to display exceptional resolve in dealing with the adversary in a brave and dignified manner till he was repatriated on March 1, 2019.
"His actions raised the morale of the armed forces in general and the IAF in particular," it said.
The strike by India's warplanes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist training camp in Balakot and the Pakistan Air Force's subsequent retaliation the next day triggered fears of a war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
The government had announced its decision to confer the Vir Chakra award on Varthaman in 2019.
The defence minister, in a tweet, said he interacted with the family members of the brave soldiers who were presented with the Gallantry awards and distinguished service decorations for serving the nation with "utmost courage and diligence".
"India is proud of its brave soldiers and their families," he said.
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