Security forces remain engaged, with terrorists being armed, trained, funded and diplomatically supported by Pak. India must continue with retaliatory strikes.
What a week it was! Several unprecedented incidents in four consecutive days! An unprecedented airstrike by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the darkness of night on terror camps located in not just Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) but also in Pakistan. An attempted broad daylight counter-strike by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in Jammu region of J&K. The purported downing by the IAF of a US-supplied PAF F-16 multi-role fighter and the supposed death of its pilot. The shooting down of an IAF MiG-21 Bison and the pilot being taken captive, followed by his eventual return within 60 hours. And the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) disregarding the Pakistani Foreign Minister’s unprecedented boycott of its inaugural session because of the first-ever address by an Indian Foreign Minister to this international body, to which India has been steadfastly denied membership or even observer status due to Pakistan’s persistent opposition.
In much of the country, the death of over 40 CRPF constables in a 14 February suicide terror attack in Pulwama has been overtaken by euphoria and celebration at the release of the IAF fighter pilot. Pakistani TV made a spectacle of the return of the IAF officer through its crass live worldwide telecast aimed at deriding India.
What a cycle of emotion and a change in narrative it has been—from anguish and anger at the Pulwama attacks to euphoria and jingoism over India’s airstrikes to relief and celebration of a released pilot taken captive by Pakistan. And yet also, what a repeat of the past—a quiet diplomatic mediation by foreign powers aimed at de-escalating tensions between the two nuclear armed states viewed with relief all around. Very soon the country will be in election mode, with politicians likely to be engaging in claims and spats to milk last week’s events for electoral gains just as it happened during the general elections soon after the May-July 1999 Kargil War.
Yet, the fact remains that nothing has changed on the ground in Jammu & Kashmir, which, in the first place, was the cause for these fast paced military developments. Violence continues unabated in Kashmir. Security forces remain engaged, with terrorists still being armed, trained, funded and diplomatically supported by Islamabad. Pakistan continues to treat terror as an instrument of foreign policy. Alienation among a vast section of the Kashmiri population continues, while the quality of politics and governance in the state remains a challenge.
The events have hence raised more questions than answers. How effective were the IAF’s airstrikes? It should not be difficult to furnish such evidence considering that the Mirage-2000s, employed in the strikes are fitted with cameras. Besides, India’s satellites, including military satellites, continue clicking and beaming pictures. Sections of the foreign media have reported the ineffectiveness of India’s airstrikes. This should be countered if New Delhi has to establish credibility in the world community. Besides, it will also convey a message to the people of Pakistan that their country not only nurtures terrorist training camps but has a military incapable of defending the country. It would be a useful exercise in psychological operations.
India is being watched by the world community, particularly its neighbouring countries, for various reasons. Several South East and East Asian countries, wary of China, see New Delhi as a counter-balance to Beijing. Demonstrating effectiveness of the airstrikes establishes India’s credibility as a country with military capability and delivery, along with, of course, political will. It similarly establishes India’s credibility among the more powerful countries. It also sends a message to India’s other immediate neighbours, some of which are under the influence of China or deride India as being militarily incapable. In the world of realpolitik, the weak and the strong alike respect strength. And strength needs demonstration with credibility.
Similarly, India must obtain evidence of having shot down the F-16 belonging to the Pakistani Air Force. This again has many implications—that a vintage Cold War era Soviet-origin MiG-21 has outmanoeuvred a more advanced fly-by-wire American fighter aircraft equipped with beyond visual range missiles. Surely, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman should be awarded a gallantry medal for this feat, if established?
Incidentally Wg Cdr Varthaman is not the first pilot to be taken captive after being shot down by the Pakistan Air Force. Unfortunately. India has a track record of losing aircraft to Pakistan and of pilots being held captive. On 27 May 1999, an IAF MiG-21 piloted by Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja was shot down in the Batalik sector of J&K during the Kargil War. He was killed on landing in POK. Flight Lieutenant Kambampati Nachiketa Rao was taken captive after he parachuted into POK after the engine of the MiG-27 he was flying flamed out, while on a strike mission moments before Sqn Ldr Ahuja’s aircraft was shot down. Flt Lt Nachiketa was returned to India eight days later.
The very next day, on 28 May 1999, an IAF Mi-17 helicopter, fitted with rocket pods, was shot down by Pakistan near Tololing in Kargil district’s Dras Sector, killing Sqn Ldr Rajiv Pundir, Flt Lt Subramaniam Muhilan, Flt Sergeant P.V.N.R. Prasad and Sergeant Raj Kishore Sahu. While these aircraft were lost during combat, there have been three other incidents.
On 19 February 2002, the Pakistanis shot an IAF An-32 transport aircraft piloted by Air Marshal Vinod Kumar Bhatia, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Western Air Command after it crossed the LoC in Ladakh’s Batalik Sector. One engine was hit but fortunately did not explode. The An-32 managed to limp back to Leh where it landed safely. Air Marshal Bhatia, an otherwise decorated officer, was subsequently removed from command.
Then in a major goof-up, a Cheetah helicopter belonging to the Army Aviation Corps that had taken off from Leh, ended up mistakenly landing in Skardu in POK on 23 October 2011. However, Pakistan permitted the two pilots to return to India with the helicopter within a few hours.
Forty-one years prior to this helicopter incident, a similar goof-up had occurred. A disoriented Sqn Ldr Brij Pal Singh Sikand ended up landing his Gnat fighter jet in an abandoned airfield in Pasrur in Pakistan on 3 September 1965 during the India-Pakistan war. He was taken captive but later returned. However, the Gnat in a flyaway condition remains a prized possession with the PAF. In contrast, no PAF pilot has been taken captive since the 1971 war. Neither has any of their aircraft been captured by India in flyaway condition. However, on 10 August 1999, the IAF did shoot down an intruding Pakistan Navy Atlantique maritime reconnaissance aircraft over the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, killing on board all 16 Pakistani navy personnel, which included five officers.
These statistics and facts apart, a moot question is whether India will and should continue retaliatory strikes against Pakistan’s terror factories on their soil. Will such actions depend on the nature of terror attacks inflicted on India or will it depend on the government in power?
By carrying out retaliatory strikes, India is doing what it should have started doing decades ago. But such strikes, including during Congress rule at the Centre, have been too few and far between to have deterred the Pakistani deep state and its proxies. Diplomacy, which regardless must always be in a continuous state of being, has not helped much except to an extent when a ceasefire along the LoC was agreed to during Pervez Musharraf’s tenure as Pakistan’s President.
So long as terrorism remains Pakistan’s instrument of foreign policy, India must continue with retaliatory strikes, both overt and covert. These must be relentless and continuous pressure, irrespective of the political dispensation in power. If the Pakistani heart bleeds for Kashmiris, then Indian hearts must also start bleeding for the Baloch, the Sindhis and the Pashtuns in the same way.
Defence and security is not the preserve of any single political party or a handful of politicians. It is the need of the country and the political executive of the day must perform its duty to the nation.
The end game is to ensure that Pakistan stops its terror warfare. Retribution has to be one of the answers, along with strengthening internal security, the quality of governance and politics and continuing with diplomatic measures. But the question is: How prepared are India’s defence, security and intelligence agencies? Do we have the stamina and stomach to sustain it like the Israeli state has displayed in the 70 years of its existence?
Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst.