Ghost Air Strike in Balakot?
Excitement following the expedited return of Wing Commander Abhinandan spread like wildfire across the nation. In Abhinandan's context, India united despite the fuming political rivalry. However, moving beyond the repatriation of a hero who shot down a Pakistani F-16, the cross-border tension has not rescinded with incessant shelling at LoC. The South Asian neighbours are yet to make it to the negotiations table, with Pakistan PM Imran Khan offering a hand since his formal statement post the dastardly attack on Pulwama. With an outright denial of harbouring terror outfits such as JeM, Pakistan instead poses with a strict ban it put on JeM since 2002. Pakistan's lie over the terror links to its soil witnessed strong censure from the international community – condemnation statements from more than 110 countries, especially from Pro-Pakistan nations such as UAE, Saudi, Turkey in the wake of Pulwama, stands testimony to it. While India, expectedly, assumed a strong diplomatic stance to isolate Pakistan on the global front, Pakistan ran the 'good neighbour' image when it expeditiously repatriated the IAF pilot, highlighting it as a 'gesture of peace' - though India cited the Geneva Conventions as the reason for Abhinandan's return. The difference of opinion, as expected, features across all events involving the neighbours. But, one significantly stands out, apparently pivotal to the Indo-Pak tension – The Balakot Airstrike: India's prized display of retaliation to Pulwama through its strategically planned and executed mission to obliterate the biggest JeM camp in Balakot, as substantiated by the intelligence. Balakot Air Strike initially garnered a lot of praises for being a befitting response to the terror outfits in the wake of Pulwama. However, lately, it has become contentious with the opposition parties vigorously attacking the government for politicising Balakot and exaggerating about the number of casualties. Open resources, without doubt, are to be the sources for corroboration of such accusation against the Centre who has advocated about India being in 'safe hands' post-Balakot. From Tamil Nadu to Gujarat to Bihar, the lotus party's assertions have criticised the opposition for criticising them over Balakot. At the centre of the heated argument lies the truth behind the Balakot Air Strike. BJP President Amit Shah adamantly stated how "more than 250 terrorists" were killed on the February 26 Balakot strike by IAF besides affirming that it was Modi administration's impact that expedited the repatriation of the IAF pilot. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa asserted that IAF doesn't take human casualties into account but only the number of targets hit. A score of politicos criticising the Centre for exaggerating the number of casualties (if at all any) stretched to demand of evidence regarding the same. And, on the other side of the border, Pakistan continues to deny any casualties, citing fallen pine trees as the total destruction that took place – maintained from Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor first pictorial twitter post following the Balakot Aerial raids by IAF. Since Pakistan has maintained that it has no evidence of JeM functioning on its soil from the first go itself, India, in this context, gets a free hand to publish any number of casualties with the exact figure, 250 or 300, becoming a matter of just preference. And, thanks to electronic media on either side of the border, matters have escalated to a war-like scenario even when on the ground they seem under control. Jingoism and war-mongering are exceedingly evident on the Indian television which denigrates the state of affairs, fueling wrong interpretations of cross-border tension to the general public. It is also but obvious that either side of the Media will cite a biased perspective to the conflict owing to the escalated tension between the nuclear-armed neighbours. It is here that a neutral eye can be helpful to solve the impasse – though even then the veracity of the source will face abject criticism given the sensitive nature of the conflict. An interesting perspective was offered by Al Jazeera after their visit to the site of Airstrike. In their view, the Indian air raids launched on Pak territory only destroyed parts of a mostly uninhabited forest – corroborated by witnesses and local officials as told to Al Jazeera upon their visit. Splintered pine trees and rocks at the blast site with no evidence of any building debris or casualties though metal shrapnel from the bombs was visible in four distinct craters. This perspective urges them to cite how the IAF Airstrike misfired. Their discovery of a religious school run by JeM less than a kilometre to the east of one of the bomb craters with a signboard citing Masood Azhar as its leader and Muhammad Yousuf Azhar as its administrator piques curiosity. If what Al Jazeera states is an unadulterated version of their findings then matters get really ugly with respect to the statements made by both the nations and its leaders. Open source analysis of the airstrike site by independent experts narrates a different story than what India has been told. In the light of the ambiguity which hovers over the Balakot Air Strike, pursuing the truth becomes paramount – especially since the issue has been severely politicised to suit whims!