Timeline: Events of the Feb 2019 Pak-India aerial combat

What were the events that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war in 2019?
Published February 26, 2020

This piece was originally published on February 26, 2020.

At 4:42am on February 26, 2019, Pakistan Army announced that India had sent its planes into Pakistani territory.

By the time Pakistanis started waking up, the army’s media wing had put forward more information: “Indian aircraft intruded from Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force, released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.

The next day, Pakistan responded.

But what happened prior to Feb 26, 2019, that led to an escalation between the two countries?

Here, Dawn.com takes a look back at the chain of events that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war and raised international alarm about the stability of the subcontinent.

Feb 14: IED blast kills 44 Indian soldiers

The epicentre of the escalation was an attack in occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama, in which more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed.

The attack, surpassing one in 2016 when 19 soldiers died, saw explosives packed inside a van rip through buses in a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying some 2,500 members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

Two blue buses carrying around 35 people each bore the brunt of the explosion around 20 kilometres from the main city of Srinagar on the main highway towards Jammu.

The banned outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, according to The Hindu and multiple other media outlets

Editorial: ‘Pulwama attack’

“The fact remains that until Delhi backs down from its militarised approach to the Kashmir issue, the violence will continue. Brutality will only beget more violence. It is only through the path of negotiations involving Pakistan, India and the Kashmiris that the stand-off can be resolved. But for that India will have to shed its rigidity and recognise that Kashmir is indeed a disputed territory — a reality the international community affirms.”

Read more here.

Feb 15: Modi vows ‘strong response’ to Pulwama

The next day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country would give a “strong response” to the Pulwama attack.

The “blood of the people is boiling” and forces behind the act of terrorism will be definitely be punished, he was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

Modi didn’t name Pakistan but went on to say: “If our neighbour, which is totally isolated in the world and thinks it can destabilise India through its tactics and conspiracies, then it is making a huge mistake”.

Even though the investigation was in its preliminary stages, the US singled out Pakistan in its statement condemning the attack.

“The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region,” the statement from the White House press secretary’s office said.

Meanwhile, Islamabad strongly rejected any insinuation that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.

India withdraws Most Favoured Nation status for Pakistan

The same day, the then Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in a press briefing said that Modi’s cabinet had decided to initiate steps to ensure the complete diplomatic isolation of Pakistan.

“The MFN status that had been granted to Pakistan stands withdrawn,” he said, adding: “The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) will initiate all possible steps — and I’m referring to […] diplomatic steps — which have to be taken to ensure the complete isolation from the international community of Pakistan.”

Jaitley said that there was “incontrovertible evidence” of Pakistan “having a direct hand in the gruesome terrorist incident”.

No evidence, however, was put forward.

Feb 16: Pakistan seeks ‘actionable evidence’

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi asked India to probe the Pulwama attack and share “actionable evidence” while assuring of Pakistan’s cooperation on the matter.

In an interview, he said he had told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and other foreign ministers, whom he met on the sidelines of Munich Security Conference, that the Indian government could undertake some misadventure to capitalise on the outpouring of grief and anger over the Pulwama incident.

Read: Pakistan asks India to share evidence, pledges cooperation

Qureshi said Modi had two options: “One is to act like a typical politician and stage his reactions and policy while keeping an eye on the next election. Alternatively, he has the option of being a statesman who thinks about his region, his country’s poverty, the betterment of his country, as well as regional betterment.”

The same day Indian Acting Deputy High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia was handed a protest note over the allegations levelled by Indian officials against Pakistan.

  Indian Acting Deputy High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia leaves the Foreign Office in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV
Indian Acting Deputy High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia leaves the Foreign Office in Islamabad. — DawnNewsTV

Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood was also summoned by the Indian external affairs ministry and issued a “strong demarche” in connection with the attack.

Additionally, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Bisaria was recalled by New Delhi for consultations in the aftermath of the bombing.

In the midst of escalating tensions between the neighbouring countries, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Pakistan on February 17 on his first state visit to the country since becoming the heir to the throne in 2017.

Feb 17: Fear engulfs Muslims living in IOK

Kashmiris in India and occupied Kashmir bore the brunt of the Pulwama attack.

According to a report by Al Jazeera, dozens of Kashmiris were threatened, assaulted or forced to vacate their residences.

  A protestor shouts slogans against the attack on a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama. — AP
A protestor shouts slogans against the attack on a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama. — AP

A complete shutdown was observed in occupied Kashmir against the “harassment and attacking” of Kashmiri citizens in India and the Valley.

PCB regrets India’s blocking of PSL coverage

The strained relations between India and Pakistan made their way to sports as well with the broadcast of the Pakistan Super League 2019 being blocked in India.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) regretted India’s blocking of “all digital coverage” of PSL. The cricket board’s statement came after the official Indian broadcaster for PSL, IMG Reliance, said it would no longer be producing live PSL matches.

Read: India urged to boycott Pakistan clash in World Cup

Feb 18: Pakistan calls back high commissioner in India

India begins arguments in Jadhav case before ICJ

Against the backdrop of already escalating tensions between the two nuclear powers, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) formally commenced a public hea­­ring on the conviction of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, with India presenting its arguments first.

This was the first official confrontation between the two countries post the Pulwama attack, albeit in robes, lawyer versus lawyer.

  Deepak Mittal, a joint secretary in India’s ministry of external affairs, avoids shaking hands with Pakistan’s then Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan and responds to the greeting by clasping his hands prior to the hearing of the case at the International Court of Justice on Monday. — AFP
Deepak Mittal, a joint secretary in India’s ministry of external affairs, avoids shaking hands with Pakistan’s then Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan and responds to the greeting by clasping his hands prior to the hearing of the case at the International Court of Justice on Monday. — AFP

The hearing didn’t commence without spectacle as MEA joint secretary Deepak Mittal clasped his hands in a dramatic Namastay ignoring the hand offered by Pakistan’s attorney general at the time Anwar Mansoor Khan.

Read: India fails to answer critical questions in Jadhav case: Pakistan

Op-Ed: ‘Shun the TV, stop a war’

“I have been studiously following the mantra given by George Perkovich, and, accordingly, haven’t watched Indian TV news for a couple of years or more. I would advise my Pakistani friends to do the same with their TV. Switch it off.”

Read more by Jawed Naqvi here.

Feb 19: PM Imran asks Delhi to share evidence

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first response to the Pulwama attack and the ensuing rhetoric from India came on February 19.

Via a video message, he addressed both the nation as well as India.

He said he wanted to respond right away after Delhi had accused Pakistan of having a hand in the attack, “but we had a very important visit from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, we had an investment conference happening that we had been preparing for for a long time”.

Prime Minister Imran said Islamabad would take action if Delhi shared any actionable evidence concerning the suicide bombing in Pulwama.

While offering cooperation and another chance at a dialogue over the Kashmir issue, the premier also warned India against any act of aggression, saying Pakistan would not hesitate in retaliating to a provocation.

He made it clear, however, that he hoped better sense would prevail.

“You wish to remain stuck in the past, and each time something happens in Kashmir, you want to hold Pakistan responsible. Instead of trying to resolve the Kashmir issue, start a dialogue or move forward, you want to make Islamabad your whipping boy again and again.

“I am telling you clearly, this is naya Pakistan. It is a new mindset, a new way of thinking. We believe that it is in our interest that our soil is not used for carrying out terrorist attacks in other countries, nor do we want outsiders to come and carry out terror attacks here. We desire stability.”

Read: ‘A measured and calculated response’ — analysts back PM Imran’s offer to India

India spurns PM Imran’s olive branch

In a statement that spurned Islamabad’s effort to defuse tensions, New Delhi described PM Imran’s statement that Pakistan itself has been the biggest victim of terrorism as “far from the truth”.

“We are not surprised that the prime minister of Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the attack on our security forces in Pulwama as an act of terrorism. Prime minister of Pakistan has neither chosen to condemn this heinous act nor condoled with the bereaved families,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) complained.

Editorial: ‘PM’s bold offer’

“No doubt Pulwama is a huge tragedy for India. But the alarming rise of war hysteria in that country — propagated unabashedly by chest-thumping nationalist elements in the Narendra Modi-led government as well as the media and entertainment industries — must be stemmed before it morphs into an unstoppable monster.

“India and Pakistan must collectively work towards engagement and rein in the forces that spew venom. Both must remember that even in times of discord between our governments, saner elements in the artist and sports communities have been the doves of peace.”

Read more here.

Feb 20: UN offers help in defusing tensions

With the rhetoric and tensions rising on both sides, the international community also began to express concern over the developing situation.

Expressing deep concern “at the increase in tensions between India and Pakistan”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asked both South Asian countries to exercise maximum restraint and offered his “good offices” to ease the crisis.

US President Trump gives measured response

United States President Donald Trump said that his government would comment on the suicide bombing in Pulwama at “an appropriate time”.

While answering a question from the media regarding the attack, Trump said: “I have watched; I have got a lot of reports on it. We will have comment [on it] at an appropriate time. It would be wonderful if they [Pakistan and India] get along.”

Earlier the same day, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino during a press briefing said the US government was in touch with both governments regarding the incident.

China hopes India, Pakistan can ‘exercise restraint’

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang, in a press conference, said: “Pakistan and India are both important countries in South Asia. A stable Pakistan-India relationship is crucial to regional peace, stability and development.

“At present, the situation in South Asia is generally stable, which is hard-won and should be cherished and upheld by relevant parties. China hopes that Pakistan and India can exercise restraint, engage in dialogues and realize an early soft landing of this issue.”

Saudi Arabia stresses need for ‘de-escalation’

In an exclusive interview with NDTV, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stressed the need for “de-escalation” between India and Pakistan.

“Will Saudi Arabia step in to mediate or help out in any way?” the host asked.

To this the foreign minister — after asserting that both countries were important to Saudi Arabia — responded by saying : “It pains us to see conflict between two countries that we believe to be friendly countries to Saudi Arabia.

“We believe that instability in this part of the world presents a danger to the rest of the world.”

Op-Ed: ‘Geopolitical challenges’

“The complex external circumstances surrounding the country demand prudent management of foreign relations. Fast-changing regional geopolitics have a direct bearing on our national security and internal political stability.

“Given our geostrategic position there is a greater need to take a more balanced approach.”

Read more by Zahid Hussain here.

Feb 21: UN chief calls for ‘meaningful’ engagement

United Nations Secretary General Guterres called upon India and Pakistan to resolve their differences through “meaningful mutual engagement”.

This was the second statement issued by the UN secretary general on the rising tensions between India and Pakistan since the Pulwama attack.

Congress tells Modi not to ‘play politics’ over Pulwama

India’s opposition Congress party echoed criticism of PM Modi that he was using the Pulwama tragedy for electoral gains and asked him to own moral responsibility for the intelligence failure in the killing of paramilitary men by a home-grown suicide bomber.

Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said: “Modi was shooting for a film (produced by Discovery channel) till about 6:45pm in Rampur the day the attack happened. The attack happened at 3:10pm, the Congress gave its reaction at 5:15pm. However, the prime minister came out of the Corbett National park at 6:45pm and encouraged slogans in his favour. He then went onto savour chai-naasta (tea and snacks) at 7pm at a government guest house when the nation was shocked and mourning.”

“When the whole country was mourning the loss of lives of our jawans in the Pulwama attack in the afternoon, PM Modi was busy shooting for a film till the evening. Is there any PM in the world like this?” he asked.

NSC orders acceleration of anti-terrorism ops

The National Security Committee convened at the Prime Minister’s Office for a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran, during which the nation’s top decision-makers discussed the geo-strategic and national security environment in light of the Pulwama incident and its aftermath.

Among key outcomes of the meeting was an order to accelerate anti-terrorism operations in the country to re-establish the state’s writ, and the reinstatement of a ban on the Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) and its charity arm, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF).

Feb 22: ‘Talks, not war,’ says army spokesperson

A day after the high-level NSC meeting, the then Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor held a press conference, in which he highlighted a pattern of “staged” incidents taking place in India and occupied Kashmir whenever Pakistan was “moving towards stability”.

“Whenever there is supposed to be an important event in Pakistan, or the country is moving towards stability, then there is always some sort of staged incident in either India or occupied Kashmir,” the DG ISPR said, adding that such incidents also seem to occur when India is just months away from elections.

Maj Gen Ghafoor rubbished rumours that Pakistan is preparing for war. “We are not preparing to initiate anything. We have the right to respond to your preparations for war.”

He warned that the Pakistan Army’s battle-hardened forces would provide a military response that would catch India off guard if and when necessary.

“We do not wish to go into war, but please rest assured that should you initiate any aggression ─ first, you will never be able to surprise us. Pakistan armed forces will never be surprised by you. But let me assure you, we shall surprise you.”

Army chief warns India against ‘misadventure’

Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, during a visit to the LoC, warned India against aggression, saying any misadventure would receive resolute response from his troops.

Speaking to the troops on the frontlines in Chirikot and Bagsar sectors, Gen Bajwa said: “Pakistan is a peace-loving country but we will not be intimidated or coerced. Any aggression or misadventure shall be paid back in same coin.”

Read more: ISPR DG suggests Indian army chief should follow ‘Gen Bajwa’s vision for regional peace’

Qureshi writes letter to UNSC

Foreign Minister Qureshi wrote a letter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) president, drawing his attention to what he called a “deteriorating security situation” in the region resulting from Indian rhetoric in the wake of the Pulwama attack.

In the letter, seen by Dawn.com, he also stressed the need for the international community to step in and “dissuade India from its current war-mongering”.

Feb 23: India, Pakistan facing a ‘very dangerous situation’: Trump

“Right now between Pakistan and India, there is a very, very bad situation. A very dangerous situation,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office.

“We would like to see it [hostilities] stop. A lot of people were just killed. We want to see it just stop. We are very much involved in that [process],” he added.

Dawn Exclusive: A time for restraint

“In the nuclear age, it is axiomatic that an all-out nuclear conflagration is unthinkable. So it should also be unthinkable for the two nuclear neighbours to initiate a conflict that has the potential of getting out of control. They must learn to prevent and manage crises rather than spawn and fuel them. It is painful to watch media these days where there appears to be a no holds barred frenzy to stoke fires of hatred.”

“From India, there are reports of instances of whipping up mob passions against Kashmiris and Pakistan. The leadership, intelligentsia, public opinion makers in the two countries, all have an urgent responsibility to exercise restraint and take measures to bring some equanimity to the troubled environment.”

Read the piece here.

Feb 24: Modi reminds Imran of promise to fight poverty with India

Modi, while speaking at a public meeting in Tonk in Rajasthan, recalled a promising conversation he earlier had with Prime Minister Imran and urged him to keep his word as a Pathan and fight poverty and illiteracy together with India instead of fighting each other.

He also targeted the Congress for its attack on the government over the Pulwama suicide bombing. “It is sad to see a few people speaking in the language of Pakistan while residing in India. These are the same people who will visit Pakistan and request them to do anything to overthrow the Modi government,” he said.

“These are the same people who failed to take any concrete steps to curb terrorism after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.”

Qureshi takes former envoys’ input

Foreign Minister Qureshi met former foreign secretaries and envoys in order to formulate a strategy to navigate developments on the foreign affairs front as New Delhi ratcheted up regional tensions.

Op-Ed: ‘A militant-free Pakistan’

“Both India and Pakistan need a paradigm shift to move from covert warfare to strategic realism, which can enhance the chances of the resolution of conflicts between the two countries. Strategic realism stands on the concept of the authority of the state as an authoritative actor, that can undermine or limit the functionality of individuals or non-state actors — if both sides agree to do so.”

Read more here.

Give peace a chance: Imran responds to Modi

Prime Minister Imran, responding to Modi’s comments, assured him that he stands by his words that if India provides Pakistan with “actionable intelligence” regarding the February 14 attack in occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama, “we will immediately act”.

PM Imran sought to reiterate Pakistan’s desire to see stability in the region, saying Modi should “give peace a chance”.

Read more: The losers in political chest-thumping

Feb 25: FM postpones Japan tour

The Foreign Office announced that Foreign Minister Qureshi had postponed his trip to Japan due to the “sensitive situation” brewing in the region in the wake of the Pulwama attack.

‘Pakistan armed forces fully prepared for befitting response to Indian aggression’

The Pakistani armed forces are fully prepared to give a “befitting response” to India if it resorts to any aggression or misadventure, the military’s media wing said.

The statement came after a meeting between the army and air chiefs of the country, which followed a visit by the COAS to the Air Headquarters in Islamabad.

Feb 26: Indian aircraft violate LoC

The very next day, Indian military planes violated the Line of Control, intruding from the Muzaffarabad sector.

“Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled” and Indian aircraft went back, said ISPR.

  A screenshot of Dawn newspaper the morning after India violated Pakistani airspace.
A screenshot of Dawn newspaper the morning after India violated Pakistani airspace.

‘Time for India to wait for our response’: ISPR DG

The same evening Maj Gen Ghafoor held a press conference, debunking India’s claims on the LoC violation.

Read: Experts question India’s claim of destroying militant camp near LoC

“Today, the prime minister has asked everyone to get ready for every eventuality. We are all ready. Now it is time for India to wait for our response,” he asserted.

“The response will come at a point and time of our choosing where our civil military leadership decides, and as a matter of fact, has decided,” he added, reiterating the statement issued after the NSC meeting convened by the premier.

“We have already exposed India and will do it again so the world knows what exactly India wants.”

Feb 27: 2 Indian aircraft shot down; pilot captured

The next day Pakistan Air Force (PAF) undertook strikes across the LoC from Pakistani airspace.

“The sole purpose of this action was to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defence. We do not wish to escalate, but are fully prepared if forced into that paradigm,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said in a statement.

“In response to PAF strikes this morning […] Indian Air Force crossed the LoC. PAF shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace. One of the aircraft fell inside Azad Jammu and Kashmir while the other fell inside IOK,” said ISPR.

“One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in the area.”

  A screenshot of Dawn newspaper on February 28.
A screenshot of Dawn newspaper on February 28.

On March 1, Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan was handed over in a gesture of peace to India — announced by Prime Minister Imran.

Read: ‘Real statesmanship’: Twitter erupts in praise over PM Khan’s decision to release Indian pilot

“In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” said PM while addressing a joint session of Parliament on February 28, warning: Pakistan’s efforts for de-escalation should not be construed as a “weakness”.

Editorial: ‘Towards normality’

“The political opposition in India has begun to ask tough questions of the narrative put forward by the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but hawkish elements in Indian politics and the media may try and push for further reckless action.

“For its part, Pakistan must continue with its measured response of pledging to act only in self-defence, while emphasising the need for peace in the region.”

Read more here.

Header illustration by Leea Contractor.