The case of the ‘downed’ F-16

Updated April 06, 2019


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

LARA Seligman, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon correspondent, will definitely not be the favourite journalist among the ultra-nationalist sections of the Indian media today.

In her scoop in, she has attributed to US officials a statement that they have counted the number of Pakistan Air Force F-16s in service and can say that none were lost to the Indian Air Force on Feb 27 this year.

After the Pulwama suicide bombing by a young Muslim man born and bred in India-held Kashmir killed at least 40 paramilitary personnel on Feb 14 last and a claim of responsibility was purportedly made by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, India launched punitive air strikes against a JeM target, a madressah, in Pakistan’s KP province on Feb 26.

While the Indian side claims to have inflicted heavy loss of life, killing up to 300 fighters belonging to JeM, Pakistan denied the claim, saying that the IAF warplanes were forced to drop their payload when confronted by Pakistani interceptors and only damaged some trees.

However, Pakistan appeared determined to answer in kind to a violation of its airspace and sovereignty by its eastern neighbour and the very next day avowedly first locked on to Indian military and administration targets before firing on uninhabited ground in IHK.

India will need to learn that peace in the region will make genuine and meaningful development possible.

Pakistan made clear it had not violated Indian airspace and used ‘stand-off’ weapons from its air force assets while remaining in its own airspace and chosen targets so as to avoid loss of life on the other side.

At some point during this operation, one, possibly two, IAF planes that were also airborne, flew across the Line of Control towards Pakistan and were engaged by the PAF which claimed shooting down both.

However, one downing of a MiG-21 Bison was verified as its wreckage was found on the Pakistan side and its pilot IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured after he ejected over Azad Kashmir. Pakistanis suggested that the other plane possibly a SU-30 fell on the Indian side.

Some 60 hours after the Indian wing commander was handed back to India, sections of their media started to claim that before being hit himself the Indian flier had also shot down a PAF F-16, a claim contemptuously dismissed by Pakistan.

But more than the Indian authorities, sections of the Indian media continue to propagate the myth that indeed a Pakistani F-16 had been downed. An embarrassing moment came for the host of a TV show when his expert demonstrated to him live on air why the wreckage of an engine belonging to a crashed jet could not have been a Pakistani F-16 as was being claimed.

Even this did not dissuade other TV hosts and even some newspapers continued to make the same claim. So much so that the crash of an IAF Mi-17 helicopter that claimed the lives of six servicemen did not receive the kind of attention it should have.

While the crash, on the same day as the dogfight between Pakistani and Indian jets on Feb 27, had been initially blamed on an unknown technical fault, subsequent investigations which got only low-key coverage by very few in the media, suggested it may have been downed by a missile mistakenly by the Indians themselves.

In her piece, Ms Seligman rather generously suggests that Wing Commander Vartharam may have locked on his weapons on a PAF F-16 and genuinely believed he’d scored a hit but it was not the case as the US ‘count’ has now established.

With this latest news of yet another Indian military success that was not, will Prime Minister Modi now seek to try something else? This would obviously be the question on many lips. His decision to ‘target’ Pakistani soil earlier was also seen as an attempt by him to bolster his electoral prospects.

The BJP and Narendra Modi may not have been doing so well when the Pulwama bombing happened but the aura of ‘success’ created around India’s military action against the JeM by large swathes of the media sympathetic to the governing party has indeed given its chances a fillip.

The so-called Balakot strike and a blundering Congress party, whose intransigence in going for triangular fights, for example, against the BJP on the one hand and the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party alliance on the other in UP and against the BJP and Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, seem to have taken the pressure off the governing party.

All opinion polls so far have suggested good prospects of government formation for the BJP, despite a reduced margin of victory compared to the last elections. One can only hope that once he is in the saddle again for a full term Mr Modi will shrug aside all aggressive intent.

The only way forward in a nuclear-weapons South Asia is dialogue and concessions by both India and Pakistan over the entire range of issues that has plagued their relations, with the Kashmir question as well as terrorism to figuring near the top of the agenda.

India will need to learn for the sake of its billion-plus population, a majority of which is steeped in poverty and all its attendant problems, that peace in the region guarantees an environment where genuine and meaningful development is possible. And that riding roughshod over, for example, the will of the Kashmiri people, as the BJP-appointed army chief Gen Bipin Rawat has chosen to do, will only brutalise the Kashmiris more and force them into desperate, violent countermeasures.

Pakistan, too, will have to learn that Kashmiris’ cause is best served by providing them diplomatic and moral support. The international environment today warrants that anything more will be counterproductive and may delegitimise the indigenous struggle for self-rule of the Kashmiris.

Accommodation, and not war drums, delivers a much bigger dividend and can be the only way forward.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2019