Abhinandan dares, India unites

Pakistan violates Indian airspace, leading to dogfight, but IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman captures a nation’s heart with his bravery

New Delhi: India and Pakistan simulated war-like hostilities on Wednesday, with both nations claiming to have downed the other’s fighter jets, New Delhi accusing Islamabad of targeting Indian military facilities and Pakistan taking an Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot into its custody.

Temperatures soared, with India summoning Pakistan’s deputy high commissioner to the external affairs ministry to protest what it said was an act of aggression—Pakistan’s targeting of Indian military installations—and to demand the early release of detained IAF pilot Abhinandan Varthaman.

In a situation that could potentially worsen, New Delhi also warned Pakistan that India “reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism", an Indian external affairs ministry statement said—a clear sign of the changed paradigm in India-Pakistan ties. It also signalled that India would not back down from its position of imposing a cost on Pakistan for carrying out terrorist strikes, like the 14 February Pulwama attack that claimed the lives of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel.

It was a message underlined by finance minister Arun Jaitley, who said: “The kind of things we see... I remember when US Navy SEALs had taken Osama bin Laden from Abottabad; can’t we do the same?" The reference was to a strike by US Navy SEAL commandos in 2011 on Pakistan’s Abbottabad town to take out the Al Qaeda chief and 9/11 attacks mastermind.

Tensions were also heightened by India announcing a temporary shutdown of several airports in the northern part of the country and Islamabad declaring a closure of its airspace. India later lifted its closure notice. There were also reports of heavy shelling along the border with Pakistan.

Trouble started on Wednesday morning when Pakistani fighter jets intruded into Indian airspace in the Mendhar sector, two people familiar with the developments said, in an act that the Pakistan foreign office said was “not a retaliation to continued Indian belligerence. Pakistan has, therefore, taken strikes at non-military targets, avoiding human loss and collateral damage".

The Pakistani version was contradicted by India, with external affairs ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar stating that Islamabad had targeted Indian military installations—a move that analysts said could be construed as an act of war, potentially leading to an escalation of hostilities.

Pakistan in its statement said the “sole purpose being to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self-defence...we have no intention of escalation, but are fully prepared to do so if forced into that paradigm." It added that the action was taken in broad daylight as a clear warning to India.

In response to the airspace intrusion, MiG-21 Bison jets of the Indian Air Force engaged Pakistani jets in the Rajouri area of Kashmir, one of the two people cited earlier said.

According to Pakistan’s version of events, two Indian jets were shot down when they crossed into Pakistani airspace, with the debris of one falling in Indian Kashmir and the wreckage of the other falling into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Pakistan also claimed to have arrested two Indian pilots—one of whom was injured and admitted to hospital, said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence military spokesman, Asif Ghafoor. Later, Islamabad backtracked, saying only one Indian pilot was in its custody.

India’s external affairs ministry spokesman, Kumar, said IAF shot down an intruding Pakistani aircraft, something Pakistan did not acknowledge. According to the second person cited earlier, debris of the Pakistani aircraft fell in PoK in the Lam valley.

“In this engagement, we have unfortunately lost one MiG-21. The pilot is missing in action. Pakistan has claimed that he is in their custody," Kumar said. A third person familiar with the developments said Pakistan had not allowed consular access to the captured Indian pilot. The external affairs ministry later summoned the Pakistani deputy high commissioner to protest the intrusion by Pakistani jets and targeting of Indian military installations.

“It is unfortunate that instead of fulfilling its international obligation and bilateral commitment to take credible action against terrorist entities and individuals operating from its soil, Pakistan has acted with aggression against India," an Indian statement said.

It also demanded humane treatment for Abhinandan while in Pakistani custody, slamming the “vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention."

“It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return," the statement added.

Shortly after Wednesday’s airspace intrusion by Pakistan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a joint meeting with the three service chiefs and national security adviser Ajit Doval.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan also chaired a meeting of the National Command Authority, comprising the top military brass and which controls the country’s nuclear weapons.

Pakistan seemed unfazed, with Khan stating that its action was aimed to “convey that if you can come into our country, we can do the same", as he offered to defuse tensions.

Noting that all wars are miscalculated, and no one knows where they lead to, Khan said better sense must prevail and the two sides should act with caution. “I ask India: with the weapons you have and the weapons we have, can we really afford a miscalculation? If this (situation) escalates, it will no longer be in my control or in Narendra Modi’s," Khan said.

Indian analyst Mrinal Suman, a retired major general, said Pakistan’s targeting of Indian military installations was in itself an act of war. “It is the point of the start of a war—targeting military facilities and shooting down an aircraft," said Suman.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal agreed that skirmishes such as the one on Wednesday could trigger a heightening of hostilities. “What happens next depends on Pakistan," he said, pointing to Islamabad’s support for terrorism and capturing an Indian pilot.

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