Explainer: What really happened at Balakot?

With captive IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan safe return on Friday, it is imperative that the nation returns to some pressing questions about the retaliatory strikes. Leading among them is: Which version of the Balakot air strike should you believe, given all the unanswered questions about it?

The short answer, based on the multiple different statements by India and Pakistan’s government, opposition, media, eyewitnesses victims, is none.

This is how Qrius arrived at this conclusion.

India’s version

Nearly two weeks after the suicide bombing that killed 40 CRPF jawans at Pulwama, India on Tuesday led an air raid allegedly destroying a major training camp of Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistan-based militant group that had claimed responsibility for the February 14 attack in Indian-administered Kashmir.

The “pre-emptive” strike had hit the northeastern town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was the first time since 1999 that combat air crafts had crossed the Line of Control.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale announced shortly after, that the “non-military pre-emptive action” had managed to eliminate “a very large number of Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists, trainers, senior commanders, and groups of jihadis who were being trained for Fidayeen action were eliminated.” Fidayeen refers to Islamist militants on suicide missions.

Another senior government official told reporters that about 300 militants had been killed.

Without any concrete or verifiable proof, Indian mainstream media had already the Balakot strike as a huge victory for the Modi government — a show of great bravado and supremacy which the erstwhile UPA government reportedly lacked.

A number of Indian journalists put out a casualty number especially after the Economic Times quoted unnamed sources to claim 300 dead. This number was also repeated by major news outlets such as ANI and the Times of India

Furthermore, ANI claimed that terror camps in three places had been hit: Balakot, Chakothi Muzaffarabad. The government later claimed at only one place: Balakot. Pakistani F16s aircraft that were scrambled to retaliate against IAF Mirage 2000s reportedly beat a hasty retreat due to of Indian formation, claimed ANI quoting unidentified IAF sources. 

But as pressure mounted on the government to provide evidence, on Thursday, a senior defence official appeared to backtrack on the claims. Asked about how much damage the warplanes had caused, Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor, while certain that India had hit the intended targets, said it was “premature” to comment on the casualties and “the kind of damage inflicted on the terrorists.” But the Indian armed forces had “fairly credible evidence” of the damage inflicted on the Jaish camp, he said at a joint press debriefing.

Branding the mission as successful, he said it was up to the political leadership to release the evidence of its success.

While prominent activists and authors have called out Modi for the “reckless” pre-emptive strike, experts and several members of the Opposition has demanded details of the raid, pushing the government to clarify the discrepancies in the mission’s results.

Mamata Banerjee on Thursday posed some cogent questions: “We want to know what really happened. National TV channels were showing that 300 to 350 people were killed, but international media is reporting that no such thing happened, that the bomb missed its target and no one died! So what is the truth? Where did they drop the bomb? Was it dropped at the right target?”

This has infuriated a few including BJP chief, Amit Shah, who asked, “When the whole world is with India, why are these people raising questions,” referring to a joint statement by over 20 Opposition parties. 

Pakistan’s version

India’s death toll estimates have been rubbished by Pakistan, which maintains that the operation was a failure that saw Indian jets bomb a largely empty hillside without hurting anyone.

In his statement, the Pakistan Army spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor said that Indian jets were first spotted on the radar in the Lahore-Sialkot sector, while Pakistan’s first combat air patrol scrambled to challenge it.

“A second formation of Indian jets then came close to Okara-Bahawalpur area of international border and the second CAP [combat air patrol mission] became airborne to counter it as per the SOP [standard operating procedure],” Ghafoor said.

“Our radars then picked a heavy formation in Muzaffarabad sector approaching from Keran valley. This was a heavy team – four minutes they crossed while coming in and four minutes while going back – they did not attack,” Ghafoor added.

“When our airforce challenged them – and repulsed them effectively, though they had come in four-five nautical miles – they retreated. While leaving, they jettisoned their payload. Given the angle of exit, the payload – four bombs – fell on Jaba and they went back,” he claimed.

“There was no strike. They went back under pressure from Pakistan airforce. When they jettisoned their payload, it fell on Balakot, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, out of Jammu and Kashmir,” Ghafoor said.

Pakistan has repudiated the Indian claim put forward by The Print that the attack lasted 21 minutes. Ghafoor did not, however, clarify how Indian jets were able to bomb Balakot—a known of JeM—despite being challenged.

What Pakistani media said about the Balakot strike

Most Pakistani dailies and news channels quoted the country’s military in declaring the IAF’s reported strike against Jaish-e-Mohammed camps a failure as well. Leading news website Dawn ran a report titled ‘Indian Aircraft Violate LoC, Scramble Back After PAF’s Timely Response: ISPR’.

The report added, “In their haste to escape, Indian aircraft ended up releasing payload which fell near Balakot, says DG ISPR.”

Another daily Express Tribune led with the following headline: “Pakistan chases away Indian jets after LoC violation.” Pakistan Today reported, “PM Imran summons meeting after LoC invasion by Indian aircraft.”

The News International paraphrased the Army’s claims to headline their lead article on their website as: “PAF repulses Indian attempt of incursion into Pakistan air space.”

How global media covered the Balakot strike

International media has reported on India’s alleged achievements more responsibly and with veritable caution.

Two Reuters reporters visited the site of the bombings, and reported the existence of four large craters, and were able to confirm that 15 pine trees had been splintered by the blasts. This is believed to have provided Pakistan with the grounds to bring charges of eco-terrorism against India before the UN.

The Independent later speculated that the Indian adventure into Pakistan might owe more to the imagination than military success. The “300-400 terrorists” supposedly eliminated by the Israeli-manufactured and Israeli-supplied GPS-guided bombs may turn out to be little more than rocks and trees.

The Reuters report says, “On the wooded slopes above Jaba [near Balakot], villagers pointed to four bomb craters and some splintered pine trees, but could see little from the series of explosions that blasted them awake at around 3.00 a.m.”

The journalists spoke to the villagers who dismissed Indian claims that hundreds of militants were killed. Their report claimed that the “Indian attack had missed its target as the bombs dropped exploded about a away from” a madrasa run by the Jaish. The publication concluded that the bombing wounded only one person.

The BBC also interviewed an eyewitness who claimed that one person had been injured.

What we still don’t but deserve to know

It isn’t clear whether the discrepancy in claims will have a positive or negative impact for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seeks a second term in India’s general election this summer. 

Writing for Arré, Tanvi Dhulia said that highly vitriolic media campaigns and misleading social media posts have created complete chaos. “We’d be doing ourselves a great service by arming ourselves with facts to take apart any piece of “news” that originates as a WhatsApp message.”

The State’s undisputably aggressive response has certainly been blown way out of proportion by the Indian media, that has left more lawmakers and civilians baying for blood. Unfortunately, but predictably enough, the post-Pulwama attack situation has become all about vested interests.

Even as the fate of Abhinandan was a point of international concern, Bollywood producers were fighting for rights to patriotic film titles including ‘Pulwama’ and ‘Abhinandan’. Similarly, projecting the Balakot attack in a glorious light is expected to reap electoral gains for the ruling government in the run-up of the polls. But will this strike quell fears of war? Has anything changed strategically? How will BJP spin it?

With these myriad facts and questions in mind, and given the lack of proper evidence, it is best for the national interest, to refrain from chest-thumping, hate-mongering, and believing in anything but facts. Points for governance and maintaining national security, after all, are not to be given away for free, especially when the entire has cost us the lives of 44 .

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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