It was a cold and breezy day of 14th February 2019 in the northern most Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and a large convoy of the para-military Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in over 75 vehicles was moving from Jammu to Srinagar on the national highway 44. As the road was closed for the last two days due to unusually harsh weather, traffic on the highway was a little high than usual on the fateful day. The distance between the two winter and summer capitals is approximately 300 km with a large tract comprised of the hilly terrain. As a considerable part of the state, particularly the Valley, remains disturbed due to terrorist threat and constant Line of Control (LOC) violations, the travellers including security personnel prefer to conclude journey during the day hours just around dawn and before sunset. Accordingly, the CRPF convoy had left Jammu around 03:30 IST and was scheduled to reach its destination before it got dark.
Around 15:15 IST at Lethpora near Awantipora in Pulwama district, a SUV car carrying heavy load of explosives rammed into one of the buses carrying security personnel killing at least 40 personnel on the spot and injuring a host of others. Almost immediately after the incident, the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack. The alleged outfit even released a video of the suicidal attacker Adil Ahmad Dar, a 22-year old local Kashmiri youth who had reportedly joined the terrorist outfit about a year back. Though the JeM Chief, Masood Azhar, is well known to operate from the country under the patronage of the Pakistani ISI and military, Pakistan denied any involvement or role in the heinous crime. This was another large attack since 18th September 2016 on the Indian Army brigade headquarters at Uri, wherein 17 army personnel were killed and over two dozen were injured. The current incident is considered the deadliest terror attack on the Indian security forces in Kashmir since 1989.
Was it a Terror Attack or Agenda?
Undoubtedly, it was neither just another terror attack nor agenda but "a terror attack with an agenda"; and this agenda is almost of the same vintage as the independent India. I recall to have stated earlier in one of the articles in the context of Pakistan sponsored terrorism that one cannot choose his neighbour and neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the secular and democratic India had to share this destiny with the Islamic Pakistan. The two countries were carved out from one geographic entity "British India" in August, 1947 on the basis of the doctrine propounded by handful Muslim leaders that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations that cannot coexist in peace together. The partition led to displacement of over fourteen million people and large scale violence with an estimated loss of two million lives. Pakistan claimed Kashmir on the plea that it was a Muslim majority state.
The Kashmir problem was inflicted upon the nations largely on account of the unscrupulous handling, lack of foresightedness and perspective of a few Congress and Muslim League leaders in 1947. The two countries fought fierce wars in 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 over Kashmir, and having realized that their objective was impossible to achieve through war, Pakistan resorted to wage its proxy war on India through terrorism towards late seventies. It is no more a secret for the international community too how Pakistan has been fomenting trouble through the insurgency and terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir over the years. The Pakistani leaders and army are known for their constant resolve and rhetoric of bleeding India with a thousand cuts and they believe it a right thing to do. Thus far them it is not terrorism but part of sustained agenda which they are religiously pursuing for the decades now.
In today’s world, the terrorism is the biggest threat to the peaceful living and progress of the international community and humanity at large. The origin of Pakistan itself is based on the hate agenda but the chief reason for its enmity against India since independence has been the merger of the Jammu and Kashmir state in the latter against the former’s aspirations. Another reason why Pakistan is so vehemently pursuing anti-India agenda is its ignominious defeat and dismemberment during the 1971 India-Pakistan War.Some classic stances and statements of Pakistani ex-rulers reflecting their hate agenda and anti-India rhetoric are cited below:
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah was first to cite Kashmir as the “Jugular Vein of Pakistan”; subsequent heads of state and army chiefs in Pakistan are known to have constantly repeated this phrase despite lawful integration of the state with India in 1947.
- The late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the former president and prime minister, is known to have said once - “We (Pakistan) will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own (Atom bomb).... We have no other choice!”
- Bhutto is also known for his historical and hysterical speech in the Security Council on 22 September 1965 during India-Pakistan war wherein he inter alia said, “Jammu and Kashmir is more a part of Pakistan than it can ever be of India, despite India's eloquence and all its extravagance with words. The people of Jammu and Kashmir are part of the people of Pakistan in blood in flesh, in life, in culture, in geography, in history and in every way and in every form. They are a part of the people of Pakistan…We will wage a war for a thousand years, a war of defence.”
- His late daughter Benazir Bhutto reiterated the same resolve of waging war on India for a thousand years in 1990.
- The former military ruler Pervez Musharraf had on many occasions openly supported dreaded terrorist organizations like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in Pakistan citing them as their strategic assets. He even declared that he was the ‘biggest supporter’ of the LeT chief Hafiz Saeed justifying his terrorist activities as the freedom struggle of Kashmir.
Of course, Bhutto despite his hatred and ill-will for India had misfortune to be hanged by his own countrymen under the Supreme Court orders in 1979. There is yet another reason for Pakistan’s constant hate agenda and proxy war against India. Many Pakistani Ulema, Clerics, professional scientists, army personnel and defence experts, citing it a Hadith, are aggresively spreading the ideology of “Ghazwa-e-Hind” (Conquest of India) for years. For them, Ghazwa means a war to kill Kafirs and Hind (India) is the land of Kafirs; these people constantly preach and teach the Pakistani masses to be ready for the day when the Idolaters of the Hind (Hindus) shall be conquered and wiped out from the face of the Indian subcontinent through their valiant efforts as rightful action and religious duty.
Indian Crack Down on Terrorists and Sponsors
The first fourty-eight hours after the Pulwama attack were a shock for the grief and sympathy ridden nation as the mortal remains of the deceased jawans in coffins were carried to the families in various parts of the country for their last rites with state honours. These had generated an intense wave of anger, resentment and revenge in the psyche the members of the security forces and ordinary masses across the nation. Reflecting the mood and resolve of the people and nation, the Indian prime minister publicly spoke more than once that the terrorists had committed a grave blunder this time and they and their sponsors will have to pay a heavy price. Protests and candle light marches were organized in many parts of the country. Many associations and organizations associated with sports, entertainment and other professional walks announced ban or boycott of the Pakistani participation.
India swiftly moved forward diplomatically and strategically to expose Pakistan on global platform for its use of terrorism as the state policy. India also took punitive action to revoke the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) granted to Pakistan in 1996 thereby scrapping all concessions in trade and commerce. In addition, the customs duty was hiked to 200 per cent on all imports from Pakistan. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the multilateral body on terror financing too condemned the Pulwama terror attack issuing a stern message to Pakistan, already on the grey list, to curb the terror financing or face further action. The United States condemned the terror attack asking Pakistan to reign in the terror groups operating from its soil. France expressed its resolve to move a fresh proposal in the Security Council to ban JeM Chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.
Almost all major countries including the European Union and Russia as also countries in the South Asian region condemned attack and need for the action against the JeM and such other terrorist groups. In a major breakthrough within just three days after the Pulwama attack, the Indian security forces cornered Abdul Rasheed Ghazi alias Kamran and killed him in Pulwama area on 18 February along with three accomplices in a fierce encounter that lasted almost twelve hours. This was a big kill and success of the security establishment offering some solace to the kin of the slain CRPF jawans. Kamran was allegedly a Pakistani national designated as top commanders of Jaish-e-Mohammad and a close confidant of Masood Azhar. Reportedly, he was the brain behind Pulwama attack as also the man who actually trained and persuaded Adil Dar for the suicide attack on the CRPF convoy.
Then followed the pre-dawn swoop on terror on 26 February 2019 when the Indian Air Force raided on a major JeM terror training facility at Balakot, deep inside Pakistan’s province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This was also very significant being a departure from India’s own self-imposed manacles in countering the cross-border terrorism for over the last four decades. The main attack was reportedly carried out by about a dozen Indian Mirage-2000 fighter aircrafts with back-up support from the latest Sukhoi-30MKI multirole air superiority fighters giving air defence cover, Ilyushin-78 for mid-air refueling, if required, AEW&C aircraft for the airborne early warning and control and Heron drone for the real time surveillance.
According to formal statement made by the Indian Foreign Secretary later in the day, credible intelligence was received that the JeM was planning another suicide attack for bigger and fatal that made this non-military preemptive strike necessary. Reportedly, during the attack a mix of long range Spice-2000 precision guided bombs and Popeye-2 (AGM-142) missiles were used to destroy the pre-determined targets at the Jaba hilltop in Balakot which possibly housed approximately 300 terrorists, trainers and handlers around that time. The facility at Balakot was reportedly headed by Azhar Yusuf alias Ustad Ghouri, a close relative of the JeM Chief Azhar Masood, who was also involved in the Indian Airlines IC-814 hijack in 1999. Senior representatives from the Defence Services and the Ministry of External affairs in India publicly stated that the non-military strike was targeted at the JeM terror camp and their objective was accomplished with precision.
On their part, Pakistan refuted the Indian claim and at the same time expressed their resolve to respond to the Indian airstrike at a time and place of their choice. In a usual rhetoric, the Pakistani Premier Imran Khan declared the Indian claim as false and fictitious, and it was done for the domestic consumption in the election environment. On the other hand, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that it was a day for paying homage to India’s bravehearts, avowing that he would not let the country bow down. The US supported India’s right to self-defence asking Pakistan to reign in the terror groups operating from its soil. While the other prominent nations asked both countries to exercise restraint, India received significant diplomatic and moral support from many of them particularly Germany and France asking Pakistan to stop cross border terrorism.
However, Pakistan carried out its threat on the following day i.e. on 27 February when it dispatched about a dozen F-16 multirole fighter aircrafts, JF-17 multi-role combat aircraft and possibly some Mirage-5 attack aircrafts in the Indian airspace in an aggressive mission in Kashmir. Their intended targets were possibly some military units and formations in the region. They were, however, immediately intercepted by the alert fighter jets of the Indian Air Force and were forced to retreat in a haste dropping some bombs near Narian and Bhimber Galli which the Indian side maintains did not cause any significant damage. However, during the brief melee in the air, a close dogfight ensued between the jets of the two adversaries which led to the loss of one Pakistani F-16 and one Indian Mig-21 Bis.
Assertions, Lies and Truth
There is a famous saying that truth is the first casualty in the event of a war and the recent Indian Air Force strike on terrorists’ training facility at Balakot and consequent faceoff between the two traditional adversaries is no exception.
In a clear and crisp press briefing on 26 February 2019 (afternoon), the Indian Foreign Secretary VK Gokhale said that they had credible intelligence about the JeM planning more suicide terror attack in parts of the country and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. Therefore, India took a non-military pre-emptive strike on the JeM’s biggest training camp in Balakot, Pakistan wherein a large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, and senior commanders were eliminated.
In contrast, Pakistani military spokesmen and politicians made varying and often contradictory counter-claims following the aforesaid Indian assertion:
- Initial Pakistani response was that it was a limited incursion by a few Indian Air Force fighters, which fled when the Pakistani Air Force scrambled its jets. Major General Asif Ghafoor said that they were seen coming towards LOC for four minutes and when challenged, they were seen going back.
- Then the same Pakistan army's public relations chief claimed that the Indian war planes intruded up to five miles inside Pakistani air space and when rebuffed, retreated dropping their payloads without casualties or damage. A little later, they even released few images on social media showing some uprooted trees and cratered soil.
- Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said that India’s assertion of hitting a terrorist training camp at Balakot was “a self-serving, reckless and fictitious claim”.
- By end of the same day, the Pakistani narrative completely changed when they asserted that it is now India’s turn to wait and Pakistan military will respond to India’s aerial bombing as per their choice of time and place.
Pakistan's military had cordoned off the affected area at Jaba hilltop and even the local police were not allowed in, so quite obviously, rest of the world will actually know only what their military establishment decides to share with about the extent of damage following the Indian attack. So far, at least three neutral fact finding teams of international organizations and news agencies have visited Balakot but they have been denied access to the Jaba hilltop citing security reasons. This is the precise location where the JeM terrorist training camp (camouflaged as Madrasa) is located and was hit by Indian planes with precision bombs and missiles on 26 February.
The following day, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) indeed retaliated with a counter air attack in the morning on certain Indian military targets. Without specifying the name or number of aircrafts engaged, Pakistan’s Major General Asif Ghafoor told a media briefing following the aerial skirmishes that Pakistan had struck six targets on the Indian side of the LOC, ensuring a safe distance from the civilian, administrative or military sites. This assertion followed the following claims and counterclaims by the two sides.
In a press briefing by the senior officers of MEA and three Defence Services on 27 and 28 February, the Indian side divulged with the following details:
- The Pakistan Air Force targeted Indian military installations without any significant damage. In the counter air operations, one Pakistani F-16 fighter was shot down but India also lost a MiG-21 Bis in the engagement and its pilot has gone missing. The Pakistan airplane was seen by the ground forces falling from the sky on the Pakistan side.
- In support of their claim, the Indian Air Force officials produced damaged parts of an AIM-120 AMRAAM Missile recovered from Rajouri area on the following day. These missiles are currently in use of only the F-16 fighters of the Pakistani Air Force in the region. In addition, some images also revealed Pakistani uniformed personnel quietly removing and taking away wreckage of an aircraft on another heavy vehicle across the LOC.
Once again conflicting versions with shifting stand came from Pakistan military and political sources:
- Initially Pakistan said that their aircrafts had not entered Indian airspace as they just wanted to send the message about their ability to strike and the capability for self-defence in a manner of a responsible nation.
- Later countering the Indian claim of targeting their military installations and bombs dropped in the compound of a military formation, Pakistan said that they had aimed six targets and weapons were intentionally dropped in open air space.
- In the forenoon of 27 February, Pakistan said that two Indian Air Force planes violated the LOC to enter their air space but the Pakistan Air Force was ready. Consequently, there was an engagement and both the Indian planes were shot down.
- Later in the day, even the Pakistani prime minister reiterated and endorsed this claim.
- Pakistan initially claimed that they had captured three Indian pilots. Then they said that they had two pilots; one in custody being interrogated and the other admitted in hospital for treatment of injuries received. By end of the day, the narrative again changed when they admitted that they had only one Indian pilot in custody.
- Now on 6 March, the Pakistani Foreign Minister has even read with honours the names of two fighter pilots Squadron Leader Hassan Siddiqui and Wing Commander Nauman Ali Khan who according to them are the ones who shot down two Indian (unspecified) war planes.
- In their constantly changing stand and narratives, they conspicuously avoided any mention about the other injured pilot and his fate after hospitalization besides constant refusal of F-16 even used during the air operations.
In a nutshell, Pakistan has offered no explanation why numbers of captured pilots were frequently changed and what happened to the pilot admitted in the hospital. While Pakistan is still engaged in making tall claims of bravery and accomplishment against their traditional adversary in air skirmish, several media reports emanating from Pakistan from the independent and non-government sources tell an altogether different story that suggests the truth is opposite to what has been narrated by Pakistanis so far.
According to these reports, the Pakistani fighter pilot, whose F-16 was shot down by the Indian Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthman before his Mig-21 Bis was downed in the enemy territory, safely landed in own territory after getting hit in the aerial engagement. He has been identified as Wing Commander Shahzaz Ud Din of 19 Squadran of Pakistan Air Force. However, there is no official confirmation as yet about the pilot's identity and information is based on media reports which at time turn out to be inaccurate. Circumstantial evidences indeed suggest that the locals thrashed him badly under the impression of an enemy pilot. Later he succumbed to injuries in the hospital and the Pakistani military establishment suppressed the news. The Indian pilot too had same nemesis at the hands of local civilians but was fortunate in that Pak army personnel timely reached and took him in custody.
Telling lies has never been a taboo for the Pakistani military and political establishment but there is another reason too why they will probably never admit the loss of one F-16 fighter jet. Though exact nature of contract was never revealed by Americans, it is broadly known to the rest of the world community that these fighter planes were supplied to Pakistan with the condition that they will be used only for the counter-terror operations and in self-defence. The use of F-16 fighters on 27 February against the Indian military targets was an offensive operation; hence Pakistan will never concede its use and loss, and in the process, the martyrdom of the Pakistani fighter pilot too is likely to remain unacknowledged.
Braveheart Returns Unscathed
The current air scuffle between India and Pakistan once again proved that a superior machine and technology is not enough to win or succeed; instead, equally important is the training, skill and commitment of the man behind the machine. In 1965 War too, Pakistan boasted superiority with their US supplied F-86 Sabre jets but the better trained and skilled Indian fighter pilots with their less advanced Folland Gnet fighters outsmarted and outfought their adversaries in every department so much so that the Indian jet was nick-named as Sabre-slayer. So it is not surprising that the Indian 3rd generation Mig-21 Bis shot down a far more advanced fourth generation Pakistani F-16 fighter jet in a dog-fight during the current face off.
On 27 February 2019, a host of Pakistani jet fighters, reportedly mainly a mix of F-16 and JF-17 currently the most advanced ones that Pakistan has, intruded the Indian airspace in Kashmir in offensive overtures. Anticipating such eventuality from the developments of the previous day, the Indian Air Force was already under high alert with some planes already in the sky to keep vigil. As per reports, two Mig-21 Bis interceptors challenged the intruder planes and more Sukhoi-30MKI and Mirage-2000 aircrafts too were diverted from nearby locations. Consequently, there was a brief air scuffle before the intruder planes retreated towards LOC dropping few bombs in a hurry and confusion. While other Indian war planes did not pursue enemy planes beyond LOC, one Mig-21 Bis was already engaged and locked with F-16, knowingly or unknowingly, crossed it reportedly despite message from the ground control.
While chasing its target, the fighter pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan managed to let off a short-range R-73 air-to-air missile that brought down the enemy plane. However, either a surface-to-air missile from the ground or another air-to-air missile from another Pakistani fighter jet almost simultaneously hit and downed his plane. Abhinandan safely ejected before his plane went down and was taken into custody by the Pakistan army. Later during the day, they released two videos on social media; in one, he was seen being beaten by the locals before the arrival of Pakistani soldiers while in the other he was shown blind-folded, hands tied on the back and face soaked with blood being interrogated by the captors.
This followed an overt warning and demand from the Ministry of External Affairs for the Indian pilot’s immediate safe return besides an intense back door diplomatic maneuvering. Apparently, some Western foreign governments and diplomats were also roped in the process as it appears from the statement of the American President on the following day, while he was engaged with the North Korean President in a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Efforts indeed succeeded when Pakistani premier announced in their national assembly on the same day that the Indian pilot would be released on the following day as a peace gesture. Thus after two days of detention and a high-pitched melodrama, the Pakistan indeed released Wing Commander Abhinandan through the Wagah-Attari border but not before inflicting ISI managed intense mental torture on him and recording a publicity Video wherein he is shown in low esteem praising Pakistan army and criticizing Indian media.
Diplomacy, pressure, fear and possibly keenness to deescalate, as claimed by the Pakistani premier, ensured an early release of the Indian braveheart, otherwise the Pakistani track record on human rights and prisoners of wars is far from satisfactory. The last two incidents during the Kargil Conflict in 1999 are quoted for record: Captain Saurabh Kalia and five soldiers were captured on a routine petrol and tortured to death by burning their bodies with cigarettes, piercing the ear-drums with hot rods, puncturing eyes before removing them, breaking their teeth and bones, fracturing the skulls, cutting the lips, chipping the noses, chopping off limbs and private organs before finally shooting them dead; however, Flight Lieutenant K Nachiketa (now Group Captain) had better luck who was captured by Pakistani Northern Light Infantry soldiers after the failed engine of his Mig-27 forced him to eject on Kargil heights, brutally beaten and tortured before his release after eight days consequent to intense efforts made by the Indian government.
This entire episode had a rolling ball effect not only impacting India and Pakistan but sending shock waves across the globe in the context of terrorism and its potential to spoil peace and harmony of nations. As the Parliamentary elections are shortly due in India, political parties, media and their sympathizers have taken the whole events with a coloured vision and made irresponsible statements complicating the already complex situation. All this perhaps needs altogether a different piece of writing to evaluate and analyze these developments in right perspective.
In the current faceoff, almost all major nations have supported the Indian position and their right to act in self-defence as mandated under the United Nations Charter. France, US and UK have together moved a fresh proposal in the United Nations Security Council to declare JeM Chief Azhar Masood as global terrorist. In the past, such attempts were frustrated by China who constantly supports Pakistan militarily and diplomatically due to mutual regional interests. In the meantime, Pakistan continues with its double standards and double-speaks; only few days back, Pakistani foreign minister had publicly conceded that the JeM Chief Azhar Masood is in Pakistan but seriously ill and cannot even walk out from his house. Now Pakistani military spokesperson has out rightly denied the existence of the JeM network in Pakistan.
Though a section of national and international media and politicians are raising questions and doubts about the Indian air strike on the Balakot terrorist training camp, they fail to realize the fact that it is not the number of terrorists casualties in the attack that is important but the resolve and determination of the country to go beyond its borders, where necessary, to tackle the terror menace for the security and safety of its citizens. During the air strike on the terror camp, the Indian Air Force had used a combination of Popiye-2 missiles and SPICE-2000 bombs which are known for the utmost smart, precise impact and cost-effective technology. There should be no reason to doubt the Indian Air Force when they pronounce that the targets were destroyed with precision.
The Indian masses were very hurt and angry over the killings of 44 CRPF jawans in the suicidal terrorist attack on 14 February 2019; the recent punitive action by the Indian Armed Forces against the terrorists to avenge these deaths would bring some solace to the people and kin of martyrs. Though India had acted on the terror camp in Balakot and not on any civil or military installation after Pakistan repeatedly ignored and failed Indian appeal to stop and dismantle terror network on their soil, the latter attempted an attack on the Indian military establishments in Kashmir in retaliation. This indeed was an act of war but the Indian political and military establishments have exercised restraints so far in escalating further hostilities giving yet another chance to peace.