Pakistan offers to release captured Indian air force pilot, calls for de-escalation

Both India and Pakistan attempted cross-border air incursions into the airspace of the other, in the last two days, in the biggest escalation of tensions since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks

February 28, 2019 by Umer Beigh
India Pakistan LoC
Border patrol forces patrolling the highly militarized Line of Control that divides the two nation's dominion over Jammu and Kashmir (Photo: PTI)

A day after the Pakistani government claimed to have shot down two Indian Air Force jets in a major air raid that resulted in seven casualties (six airmen and one civilian), an Indian pilot was taken into captivity. Pakistan authorities have finally decided to release the captured wing commander, Abhinandan Varthaman, as a “gesture of peace”. Indian counterparts rejected Pakistani claims by stressing that they lost the MiG 21 due to some technical failures, and not due to enemy action.

However, amid the security alert, authorities from both sides temporarily suspended the air traffic in the region. Major hospitals in Srinagar city were asked to paint red cross signs on their rooftops, sensing emergency or chances of bombardments.

The cross-border tension has been simmering in the region, particularly after the deadly attack in Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14, in which at least 50 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed by a suicide bomber. In the aftermath of the attack, public outrage and panicking of the mainstream media in India compelled the Indian government to swiftly retaliate with airstrikes in the Balakot area of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The airstrike, according to Indian narrative, wiped out “deadly terrorist bases” and killed over 300 militants. This was contested by some international reports, which said that there was no casualty in the Balakot area. On Thursday, Indian army establishment, in a media briefing, continued to maintain that its preemptive strike at Balakot achieved the results it intended, and that the number of casualties could not be estimated at the time.

On February 27, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterated in his speech that “only dialogue can solve the outstanding issues with India”, stressing that “better sense should prevail in Pakistan as well as in India”. Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister of India, who was on an official visit to China, also spoke on similar lines, stating that “India does not want to further escalate the situation and the country will act with responsibility and restrain”. The international community, especially countries like Australia, the United States, Russia, China, Turkey and the European Union, requested both countries to avoid further escalation of hostilities.

Since the general elections are approaching in India, chest-thumping about retaliations and warmongering are on the rise, especially mediated by the pro-right wing lobby in social media and public debates. A section of the Pakistani media also played its part in the blame game by persuading for more offensives. In actuality, both India and Pakistan cannot afford further escalation of the situation, taking stock of the nuclear capabilities and weaponry with them, which is going to prove deadly, especially for the people of Kashmir living in the divided territory, who will face the major brunt of violence. A large portion of the population living across the Line of Control (LoC) in Poonch, Rajouri and Uri, facing the heavy mortar shelling, was asked to shift to safer locations as the incidents of cross-firing and rise in tensions around the 3,323 kms-long border became more prominent. Since 2016, almost 300 civilians have lost their lives in the cross LoC skirmish. Most of the time, the first casualties of border escalations are people living in remote areas.

Scores of left-leaning activists and academics spoke out against the escalation and the inefficiency of the Hindu right-wing government to rationally address the crisis. The ongoing warmongering that was whipped up by newspeak media, and the use of aggressive statements in favor of war by a number of Indian national celebrities, has been countered by the #SayNoToWar campaign that has overtaken the social media following the toppling of two Indian Air Force jets and the announcement of the release of the captured pilot.

Activists are countering the social media warmongering by invoking anti-war poems and articles to showcase the devastating effect the war will have across the entire South Asian territory and its population. There is no denying the fact that India and Pakistan cannot afford any military adventure which can lead to a war between the two, considering the overwhelming poverty, malnutrition, low employment generation, shoddy health and education levels afflicting them both.

The outstanding issues between the two countries, especially the Kashmir dispute, need to be resolved through a peaceful dialogue. Only a political leadership capable of pitching in with mature response can avert further escalation of the Indo-Pak conflict.