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Balakot and beyond

Updated March 02, 2019

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The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

IN what Prime Minister Imran Khan said was a gesture of peace the release of the Indian pilot, whose warplane was shot down over Azad Kashmir, may have de-escalated the fast-spiralling confrontation between the two countries but the crisis is yet to see a line drawn under it.

That was abundantly clear from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in his own country where he told the audience what they witnessed was “a pilot project” which would be scaled up to the “real” thing.

Also read: Pakistan's response to Indian 'strike' has silenced war mongers but the situation is still fraught with danger

Many Pakistanis on Twitter were quick to point out that Mr Modi had no sense of irony, using the word ‘pilot’ at a time one of his country’s fliers, who had ejected when his plane was shot down after crossing the Line of Control, was a prisoner in Pakistan.

But, of course, the Indian prime minister was not referring to the captured pilot but the ingress by his country’s warplanes beyond the LoC and into Pakistan where they dropped their payload as they were chased away by the PAF.

The crisis and violation of the country’s territorial sovereignty brought disparate groups of Pakistanis together.

This attack, which was aimed at what was described by India as a Jaish-e-Mohammad ‘training camp’ east of the Pakhtunkhwa town of Balakot, at Jabba in the mountainous area, seemed to have actually damaged nothing more than one mud house and some trees.

However, while the Indian military in a briefing said they were still waiting for the bomb damage assessment details, most of their media went to town, claiming a death toll “at the camp” of several hundreds. No satellite or on the ground evidence exists to support this claim. (The following day, there was also an utterly ludicrous claim of shooting down a PAF jet.)

Take a look: When truth is the first casualty

Pakistan was quick to respond, the next day locking on to Indian military establishment targets in India-held Kashmir, using stand back or BVR (beyond visual range) weapons, before firing into a vacant, open space on the Indian-held side in what Imran Khan described as a demonstration of its capability.

Shortly thereafter, two Indian fighters were lured into Pakistani airspace. One plane could not return and was shot down and its pilot was captured. Apparently, the other was also shot down but fell on the other side. Again the Indian media acted triumphalist as the pilot’s planned release was announced by Pakistan attributing it to “Indian pressure”.

It was left to Kashmiri politician Omar Abdullah to remind them of the folly as the captured pilot was still in Pakistan and such jingoism could jeopardise his release. Gratefully, Pakistan ignored the ratings-hungry media and transferred the pilot back to India.

However, with the Indian prime minister’s words reflecting his mindset a few weeks ahead of an important election and war hysteria being drummed up by their media (honourable exceptions not counting for much) a continuing crisis seems to be on the cards.

If solely words are used to beat the war drums and there is no further military adventurism, hundreds of millions in South Asia would heave a sigh of relief as the horrors of what an ever-spiralling conflict between two nuclear powers could lead to are too grave to contemplate.

So far one of the most significant repercussions of the crisis and the rash Indian decision to send warplanes into Pakistan, which the bulk of the international community seemed to be comfortable with, was the closing of ranks within Pakistan.

Opposition parties said they were standing shoulder to shoulder with the government and the armed forces and would not play politics at such a critical juncture for the country. A majority of dissidents, who have been critical of the establishment’s handling of domestic dissent, were quick to vocally back the armed forces efforts to ensure the defence of the motherland.

Basically, the crisis and violation of the country’s territorial sovereignty brought disparate groups of Pakistanis together and throughout this period nobody has questioned the patriotic credentials of anybody else as used to happen more often than not.

One earnestly hopes that this closing of ranks thanks to the Modi government’s electoral desperation and subsequent developments is built upon. It is up to the government and the guardians of our national security to build bridges and draw in their citizens of different shades of opinion.

If this entails a domestic policy rethink so be it as the benefits are infinite. Unity where willing people come together for a common cause voluntarily must be oceans better than a contrived consensus or coerced silence.

Explore: Indian Twitter erupts in praise over Imran’s decision to release IAF pilot

Some Indian commentators including a former ambassador and an armed forces officer have lauded Pakistan for keeping ahead of India in the PR initiative and not putting a foot wrong. It is another story that the bulk of their media does not agree with them.

But PR successes are defined by the impact these have and whether they deliver long-term benefits. Until and unless Pakistan demonstrates an ability to win over global opinion via policy initiatives this PR win may not have delivered anything substantial.

Pakistan’s decision not to attend the OIC moot in the UAE was triggered by the organisation’s move to invite the Indian foreign minister as a special guest without Islamabad’s agreement as the rules mandate. But this to me does not appear to be a prudent call.

'Pakistan's only mistake': Reactions on Qureshi's absence from OIC moot

The invitation extended, in all probability, by Abu Dhabi which is hosting this meeting, may not have had anything to do with Islamabad. The UAE and Saudi Arabia see India as a huge market for their oil and petroleum products. Also, it is likely they are also trying to wean Delhi away from its close partner Tehran.

Pakistan should have attended the meeting and robustly presented its case and called out India for its grave human rights violations in Kashmir. Not for a moment should anybody lose sight of the fact that this whole spiral was triggered by India-held Kashmir and its people’s demands for self-rule. That is supreme.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, March 2nd, 2019