The nation was in a shock after the gruesome terror attack in Pulwama that killed 40 soldiers. The TV warriors, led by macho news anchors, launched themselves through a barrage of trailers to attract viewers to their prime-time and each of them exhorted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to draw the first blood.
Twelve days after the terror attack, an air strike was carried out by the Indian Air Force targeting a Jaish-e-Mohammed training academy in Balakot, Pakistan. This bold but calculated blitz took everyone by surprise, and Pakistan though expecting some sort of retaliation like the earlier surgical strike in Uri in 2016, was clearly caught off guard.
Destruction of buildings and installations by precision laser-guided bombs or other technologies, however accurate while revealing evidence of the success of the air attack through infrared cameras, do not reveal if any people or how many were killed and injured inside the buildings and beneath concrete bunkers. At best, it has to be gathered and cross-checked and extrapolated by intelligence agencies over a period of time after the attack.
But the unambiguous message was driven home to Pakistan that, notwithstanding nuclear capabilities that both countries may possess, India will not sit by idly but hit terror targets inside Pakistani territory. This was probably a valid decision in the given circumstance to a military adversary gone rogue. This was a bold departure from the earlier responses from India. After the 26/11 attack in Mumbai during UPA, the Kargil War and the Parliament attack both of which occurred during the Vajpayee's NDA era, India did not cross the Line of Control. And to that extent, a precise and limited objective was achieved by the Air Force in the attack on the Jaish camp, as mandated by the government.
Social media went berserk after the Indian air strike. The mainstream media, including the few sober ones, went hysterical in tandem with social media and crassly boasted of Pakistan being taught a befitting lesson. Instead of restraint and quiet dignity of the strong, the atmospherics descended into gutter politics - vulgar chest beating by the ruling party spokespersons and equally unbecoming comments of ridicule against the prime minister by the opposition parties.
The euphoria soon evaporated as Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan struck back in retaliation. In an audacious move, 24 Pakistani fighter jets crossed into India and bombed border areas. The Pakistani Air Force drew the Indian fighter jets in hot pursuit and shot down an Indian MIG-21 inside Pakistani territory and captured the Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
Pakistan, widely believed to be led by a puppet prime minister, was not only compelled to appease his political constituency by not seeming like a pusillanimous leader, but was under pressure from the military to strike back with the naive assumption that India will not risk a full-scale war. Khan even hinted the 'N' word.
TV warriors and sabre-rattlers on social media were caught flat-footed. Seemingly, Pakistan had an upper hand. They shot down an Indian fighter jet and also had our pilot in custody. Varthaman, going by every account including the Pakistan media, showed exemplary dignity and indomitable courage in captivity.
Even as PM Modi went into a huddle with the defence chiefs to consider various options, Khan sprang a kind of a coup de grace. He announced the release of the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture. Maybe he wanted to score brownie points with the international community to be regarded as a statesman, or he caved in under diplomatic pressure from many countries and including the US, or he wished to avoid an escalation of a full-scale war, which he knew Pakistan could ill afford and or he had no other choice.
It' s also likely that Khan realised he was buffeted between strong headed, power-hungry army generals in his own country on one side and a right-wing prime minister on the other end. He publicly cautioned things going out of his and Modi's hands, offered an olive branch and a face-saving exit to both sides for a dialogue to find a middle ground and stave-off the crisis.
These can only be speculations at best. But the party hardliners in India at the ground level, the largely nameless social media and mainstream television channels, in crass stupidity, beamed the gesture of Khan as triumph of Modi, taunting him as a chicken-hearted coward, even as the brave Indian pilot was still in Pakistani custody. If a lunatic has a gun to your child's head, you have to be prudent and tread cautiously. It soon became a travesty and shameful political charade and both parties and their cohorts egged-on by the media circus feasted on the dead.
Amidst all this, the biggest casualty has been sanity and objectivity. We are blaspheming the sacrifices of many of our martyrs and the thousands of innocents who have died under continuing terror attacks over the years.
We have failed our defence forces in equipping them adequately to fight terror. That's the stark truth. Retired general V K Singh, as Chief of Army Staff during UPA-II, had written a scathing letter to the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, accusing his government of total indifference in not addressing the inadequacy of the Army and its poor weaponry including a deficit in budgetary allocations. He was celebrated by the BJP for speaking the truth and the UPA ministers tried to silence, browbeat and discipline him.
Air Chief Marshal Tipnis (retired), who was heading the Indian Air Force during the Kargil War, said, after the Kargil war, he had told the then PM Vajpayee, his NSA team and the defence minister that the IAF was authorised 40 Squadrons of fighter jets. The Air Force had only 30 squadrons, out of those effective combat ready fighters were only 25. He had urged the government to urgently make sweeping reforms and increase the authorised squadrons to 50. He added that he's deeply dismayed that even today after 20 years after the Kargil War India had only 25 combat ready squadrons. He added that's its unfortunate that while our soldiers will always fight with dedication and courage they are made to fight under huge stress of inadequate and modern armaments. Similar sentiments have been reinforced by many commanders of all the three forces but it has fallen on deaf ears with successive governments.
Now, we must begin to improve our capabilities, both for conventional warfare and nuclear options. However, the war with Pakistan has to be fought on the terror front. This needs not just clarity in our strategy but investment in technology, intelligence gathering, massive recruitment of a new breed of tech-savvy sleuths and building weapons and technical capabilities both to prevent and fight terror. The rhetoric should match with achievements on the ground.
The wife of squadron leader Ninad Mandavgane, Vijeta, at the funeral ceremonies of her husband who died in the helicopter crash in Budgaon Kashmir a couple of days ago, in a touching message during a very poignant moment appealed to the television channels and social media to leave defence forces alone and beseeched them not to whip up war hysteria and spread hatred and vitiate the atmosphere. But if they are sincere and keen on defending the country to go and join the defence forces without bombast and demonstrate their love for the country. ‘
The pilots wife echoed what Plato the Greek philosopher said so perceptively and wisely two thousand years ago, "Only the dead have seen the end of war. “
Let's show restraint and dignity of composure and get off the twitter wagon, abandon the campaign trail for making war cries, stop lighting the fireworks in TV studios with hollow courage and commit to strengthening our soldiers on the front-line. The soldier, though has sworn to the profession of arms and has only one commitment -- to win wars for his country -- plods on and on, never wavering or quitting, is not a warmonger.
Gen Douglas McArthur, a veteran of two world wars and after having led the troops in more than a hundred battles had this to say: “On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan. He served in Kashmir and took part in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
First Published: IST