Unravelling Balakot: Clearing the fog that shrouds India’s air strike on Pakistan
Find the answers to queries that have bedevilled us for weeks.
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Over a fortnight after the Indian Air Force (IAF) bombed a terror training camp in Balakot, Pakistan, the action has shifted to the political arena. There are claims and counter-claims over the effectiveness of the strikes launched by the government, the pitch no doubt being dictated by the upcoming general election.
BJP president Amit Shah said that over 250 terrorists were killed in the Balakot air raid. The Indian Air Force and the external affairs ministry, who made the only official comment on the strikes, have not revealed any precise death toll, though foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale did speak of “a very large number” killed in the operation.
As Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said recently, “It had hit all the targets and the air force doesn’t count casualties.” That should have been the end of the matter, but the controversy took another turn when the Opposition parties started demanding proof of the people killed and whether it was actually a terror training camp. Some members of the ruling party labelled anyone raising questions as unpatriotic. To my mind, the demand to show bodies is not only pointless, but also unfeasible. There is no doubt that the IAF bombed a target not in disputed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) but in Pakistani territory.
In spite of this remarkable achievement, in the fog of war, some interesting questions remain. Was the air strike as effective as it was made out to be?
India Today cover story, Balakot: The Inside Story, for March 25, 2019.
Has Pakistan’s deep state got the message that terror attacks would attract consequences?
Why did Prime Minister Narendra Modi take the high-risk decision to cross the rubicon and strike at nuclear-armed Pakistan? As he suggested at the India Today Conclave earlier this month, the raid was meant to strike fear in the hearts of terrorists. “Dar achchha hai (Fear is good),” he said. Was this a one-off strike or the new normal when it comes to dealing with terror attacks like Pulwama?
Why was Balakot chosen and not any other terror training camp?
Pakistan claims it was only a madrasa and their military spokesperson promised to take journalists to the spot soon after the air strikes to debunk the Indian claim of having bombed the location. However, conflicting narratives are emerging now. Pakistani authorities have cordoned off the area. This only raises more questions than answers and strengthens India’s narrative that Jaba Top was indeed a centre where terrorists were being trained to carry out more Pulwama-style terror attacks.
The Pakistan Air Force launched a counter-strike the following day during which one Indian MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot captured. Was a PAF F-16 also shot down, as the IAF claims? Pakistan denies this is the case.
The special investigation team of our TV channel, India Today TV, carried out a brilliant sting operation on March 11. They used sophisticated call-masking techniques to dial more than 200 numbers of residents and officials in Pakistan. Posing as intelligence officers calling from army headquarters, they spoke to a local maulvi who confirmed at least four Pakistani soldiers had died apart from the terrorists.
The investigation also revealed that the local station house officer in Bhimber received instructions from his seniors not to speak about or allow anyone near the suspected F-16 crash site. It was a significant addition to the growing body of evidence that there were casualties in Balakot and that an F-16 had been downed. The defence minister had at the recently held India Today Group’s security summit confirmed that India knew the identity of the pilot flying the downed F-16.
In our cover story this week, Balakot: The Inside Story, Group Editorial Director Raj Chengappa posed some of these questions to key agencies and institutions which were part of the operation. He has got us the best obtainable version of the truth as he pieces together what went on before, during and after the air strikes.
These are answers to queries that have bedevilled us for weeks. Many other questions will continue to puzzle us in the weeks and months ahead as the Balakot debate rages. In the end, the truth will finally emerge. Let’s not forget, it took Pakistan over a decade to admit losing over 700 soldiers in its disastrous misadventure of trying to alter the Line of Control at Kargil in 1999. Denial and deception are essential standard operating procedures for the Pakistani deep state.
That apart, I believe, we have reached a watershed moment in our prickly relationship with Pakistan.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Balakot: The Inside Story, for March 25, 2019)