In a “pre-emptive” move against terrorist attacks like the one in Pulwama, India sent twelve Mirage-2000 fighter jets, which dropped five one-tonne bombs on the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camps in Balakot Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi, addressing the people at a rally in Rajasthan, said that the nation is in safe hands.
The government estimated that the Balakot facility housed around 150 militants, and that 200-250 militants had moved there from the LoC after the Pulwama attack. 1 This marked a decided shift in India’s counter-terror policy, which so far consisted largely of ground operations across the LoC. In her statement at the trilateral Russia-China-Indian meet, the Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said that India wished for no further escalation, and would exercise responsibility and restraint. 2
Pakistan in turn termed this act of India’s as “uncalled for aggression” and promised to retaliate. Prime Minister Imran Khan then called an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The NSC stated that India’s claims of targeting a militant base was “self-serving, reckless and fictitious”.
“Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force, released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot,” was the statement made by a spokesperson for the Pakistani army General Ghafoor, about the Indian jets. It has been remarked that India was “making a calculated bet to assuage public anger but minimize the risk of a major Pakistani military response”. 3
Whatever be the case, this incident led to further escalations, with Pakistan launching air strikes in India targeting military installations in the Nowshera sector, and claiming to have shot down two Indian fighter jets initially. India stated that the IAF fighters who foiled the attack shot down a Pakistani F-16 fighter plane in this aerial encounter, whose wreckage fell into Pakistan. The Pakistani side denied any such losses, but captured an Indian Air Force MIG-21 Bison pilot, Wg. Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman. The propaganda division of the Pakistan Army changed their earlier statement that they captured two Indian pilots, as they realised only later that the second pilot was from the shot down F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force.
While Pakistani officials stated that the Wing Commander was treated as per military ethics, Pakistani news-houses showed videos of the pilot, supposedly blindfolded and bloody-faced. India raised strong objections against these violations of the Geneva convention, and immediately called for his safe return. Experts across the globe feared a breakout of war between India and Pakistan, both of which are nuclear states.
While France and Australia, among others had expressed support for India’s initial airstrike in Balakot 1, the US, the EU, China and others, seeing how easily the situation could lead to an all-out war, urged both India and Pakistan to cease fighting and stop the situation from escalating any further. 4
Later, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to release the captured pilot as a “peace gesture”, which seems to have brought some amount of uneasy peace.
In a local response to the situation, the Opposition in India hit out at the Modi government for “blatant politicization” of the security situation and the deaths of security personnel, and called for a change in this “narrative of Jingoism”. 5
While the Government and Opposition may be trying to milk the situation to their best advantage against the backdrop of the upcoming elections, the truth remains that this entire escalation was blown out of proportions. Both sides— India and Pakistan— stand guilty of responding to popular cries for revenge and war-mongering. What one finds appalling is the enthusiasm with which people called for war, knowing full well the consequences of two nuclear powers engaging in a full-blown war.
Those who cry for blood seem to be blind to the fact that losses are never one-sided, that there are no real winners in any drawn-out conflict. In case of a war, it is always the common man who suffers the most— right from the very threat to safety, to the longer lasting economic side effects of inflation and scarcity. Yet, a large portion of this very section ironically supports war.
It cannot be ignored that many citizens, on both sides, also took to social media with the hashtag #SayNoToWar. This however remains largely limited to the younger, educated masses. Why then, is the common man supporting that which would harm him the most?
It is time that we question our ideas of patriotism and nationalism, which don’t seem to extend to those people of our nation who would be at the frontlines of such a conflict, or the parts of our nation which would suffer the most. Our patriotism seems rather shallow, doing nothing but clamouring for violence in the name of Kashmir, whose very people were attacked not two weeks ago, in retaliation for Pulwama. At the larger level, all that the two countries seem to have established with this endeavour is having proven that they can each enter the others’ territory, and giving the morbid assurance that if at all there is a war, mutual destruction is just as easy.
- The Hindu, dated Wednesday, February 27, 2019