Revisiting happenings leading to Feb 2019 Pak-India aerial combat

At 4:42am on February 26 last year, Pakistan Army announced that India had sent its planes into Pakistani territory.

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By the time Pakistanis started waking up, the army’s media wing had put forward more information: “Indian aircraft intruded from Muzafarabad sector. Facing timely and effective response from Pakistan Air Force, released payload in haste while escaping which fell near Balakot. No casualties or damage.”

The next day, Pakistan responded.

But what happened prior to Feb 26 that led to an escalation between the two countries?

Here, we take a look back at the chain of events that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war and raised international alarm about the stability of the subcontinent.

Feb 14: IED blast kills 44 Indian soldiers

The epicenter of the escalation was an attack in occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama, in which more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers were killed.

The attack, surpassing one in 2016 when 19 soldiers died, saw explosives packed inside a van rip through buses in a convoy of 78 vehicles carrying some 2,500 members of the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

Two blue buses carrying around 35 people each bore the brunt of the explosion around 20 kilometres from the main city of Srinagar on the main highway towards Jammu.

The banned outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, according to The Hindu and multiple other media outlets.

The next day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his country would give a “strong response” to the Pulwama attack.

The “blood of the people is boiling” and forces behind the act of terrorism will be definitely be punished, he was quoted as saying by Hindustan Times.

Modi didn’t name Pakistan but went on to say: “If our neighbour, which is totally isolated in the world and thinks it can destabilise India through its tactics and conspiracies, then it is making a huge mistake”.

Even though the investigation was in its preliminary stages, the US singled out Pakistan in its statement condemning the attack.

“The United States calls on Pakistan to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil, whose only goal is to sow chaos, violence, and terror in the region,” the statement from the White House press secretary’s office said.

Meanwhile, Islamabad strongly rejected any insinuation that sought to link the attack to Pakistan without investigations.

India withdraws Most Favoured Nation status for Pakistan

The same day, the then Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in a press briefing said that Modi’s cabinet had decided to initiate steps to ensure the complete diplomatic isolation of Pakistan.

“The MFN status that had been granted to Pakistan stands withdrawn,” he said, adding: “The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) will initiate all possible steps — and I’m referring to […] diplomatic steps — which have to be taken to ensure the complete isolation from the international community of Pakistan.”

Jaitley said that there was “incontrovertible evidence” of Pakistan “having a direct hand in the gruesome terrorist incident”.

No evidence, however, was put forward.

Feb 16: Pakistan seeks ‘actionable evidence’

Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi asked India to probe the Pulwama attack and share “actionable evidence” while assuring of Pakistan’s cooperation on the matter.

In an interview, he said he had told his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and other foreign ministers, whom he met on the sidelines of Munich Security Conference, that the Indian government could undertake some misadventure to capitalise on the outpouring of grief and anger over the Pulwama incident.

Qureshi said Modi had two options: “One is to act like a typical politician and stage his reactions and policy while keeping an eye on the next election. Alternatively, he has the option of being a statesman who thinks about his region, his country’s poverty, the betterment of his country, as well as regional betterment.”

The same day Indian Acting Deputy High Commissioner Gaurav Ahluwalia was handed a protest note over the allegations levelled by Indian officials against Pakistan.

Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India Sohail Mahmood was also summoned by the Indian external affairs ministry and issued a “strong demarche” in connection with the attack.

Additionally, Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan Ajay Bisaria was recalled by New Delhi for consultations in the aftermath of the bombing.

In the midst of escalating tensions between the neighbouring countries, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrived in Pakistan on February 17 on his first state visit to the country since becoming the heir to the throne in 2017.

Feb 17: Fear engulfs Muslims living in IOK

Kashmiris in India and occupied Kashmir bore the brunt of the Pulwama attack.

According to a report by Al Jazeera, dozens of Kashmiris were threatened, assaulted or forced to vacate their residences.

A complete shutdown was observed in occupied Kashmir against the “harassment and attacking” of Kashmiri citizens in India and the Valley.

PCB regrets India’s blocking of PSL coverage

The strained relations between India and Pakistan made their way to sports as well with the broadcast of the Pakistan Super League 2019 being blocked in India.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) regretted India’s blocking of “all digital coverage” of PSL. The cricket board’s statement came after the official Indian broadcaster for PSL, IMG Reliance, said it would no longer be producing live PSL matches.

India begins arguments in Jadhav case before ICJ

Against the backdrop of already escalating tensions between the two nuclear powers, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) formally commenced a public hea­­ring on the conviction of Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, with India presenting its arguments first.

This was the first official confrontation between the two countries post the Pulwama attack, albeit in robes, lawyer versus lawyer.

The hearing didn’t commence without spectacle as MEA joint secretary Deepak Mittal clasped his hands in a dramatic Namastay ignoring the hand offered by Pakistan’s attorney general at the time Anwar Mansoor Khan.

Feb 19: PM Imran asks Delhi to share evidence

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first response to the Pulwama attack and the ensuing rhetoric from India came on February 19.

Via a video message, he addressed both the nation as well as India.

He said he wanted to respond right away after Delhi had accused Pakistan of having a hand in the attack, “but we had a very important visit from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, we had an investment conference happening that we had been preparing for for a long time”.

Prime Minister Imran said Islamabad would take action if Delhi shared any actionable evidence concerning the suicide bombing in Pulwama.

While offering cooperation and another chance at a dialogue over the Kashmir issue, the premier also warned India against any act of aggression, saying Pakistan would not hesitate in retaliating to a provocation.

He made it clear, however, that he hoped better sense would prevail.

“You wish to remain stuck in the past, and each time something happens in Kashmir, you want to hold Pakistan responsible. Instead of trying to resolve the Kashmir issue, start a dialogue or move forward, you want to make Islamabad your whipping boy again and again.

“I am telling you clearly, this is naya Pakistan. It is a new mindset, a new way of thinking. We believe that it is in our interest that our soil is not used for carrying out terrorist attacks in other countries, nor do we want outsiders to come and carry out terror attacks here. We desire stability.”

India spurns PM Imran’s olive branch

In a statement that spurned Islamabad’s effort to defuse tensions, New Delhi described PM Imran’s statement that Pakistan itself has been the biggest victim of terrorism as “far from the truth”.

“We are not surprised that the prime minister of Pakistan refuses to acknowledge the attack on our security forces in Pulwama as an act of terrorism. Prime minister of Pakistan has neither chosen to condemn this heinous act nor condoled with the bereaved families,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) complained.

US President Trump gives measured response

United States President Donald Trump said that his government would comment on the suicide bombing in Pulwama at “an appropriate time”.

While answering a question from the media regarding the attack, Trump said: “I have watched; I have got a lot of reports on it. We will have comment [on it] at an appropriate time. It would be wonderful if they [Pakistan and India] get along.”

Earlier the same day, State Department Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino during a press briefing said the US government was in touch with both governments regarding the incident.

Congress tells Modi not to ‘play politics’ over Pulwama

India’s opposition Congress party echoed criticism of PM Modi that he was using the Pulwama tragedy for electoral gains and asked him to own moral responsibility for the intelligence failure in the killing of paramilitary men by a home-grown suicide bomber.

Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said: “Modi was shooting for a film (produced by Discovery channel) till about 6:45pm in Rampur the day the attack happened. The attack happened at 3:10pm, the Congress gave its reaction at 5:15pm. However, the prime minister came out of the Corbett National park at 6:45pm and encouraged slogans in his favour. He then went onto savour chai-naasta (tea and snacks) at 7pm at a government guest house when the nation was shocked and mourning.”

“When the whole country was mourning the loss of lives of our jawans in the Pulwama attack in the afternoon, PM Modi was busy shooting for a film till the evening. Is there any PM in the world like this?” he asked.

NSC orders acceleration of anti-terrorism ops

The National Security Committee convened at the Prime Minister’s Office for a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran, during which the nation’s top decision-makers discussed the geo-strategic and national security environment in light of the Pulwama incident and its aftermath.

Among key outcomes of the meeting was an order to accelerate anti-terrorism operations in the country to re-establish the state’s writ, and the reinstatement of a ban on the Hafiz Saeed-led Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) and its charity arm, the Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF).

Feb 22: ‘Talks, not war,’ says army spokesperson

A day after the high-level NSC meeting, the then Director General (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor held a press conference, in which he highlighted a pattern of “staged” incidents taking place in India and occupied Kashmir whenever Pakistan was “moving towards stability”.

“Whenever there is supposed to be an important event in Pakistan, or the country is moving towards stability, then there is always some sort of staged incident in either India or occupied Kashmir,” the DG ISPR said, adding that such incidents also seem to occur when India is just months away from elections.

Maj Gen Ghafoor rubbished rumours that Pakistan is preparing for war. “We are not preparing to initiate anything. We have the right to respond to your preparations for war.”

He warned that the Pakistan Army’s battle-hardened forces would provide a military response that would catch India off guard if and when necessary.

“We do not wish to go into war, but please rest assured that should you initiate any aggression ─ first, you will never be able to surprise us. Pakistan armed forces will never be surprised by you. But let me assure you, we shall surprise you.”

Army chief warns India against ‘misadventure’

Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, during a visit to the LoC, warned India against aggression, saying any misadventure would receive resolute response from his troops.

Speaking to the troops on the frontlines in Chirikot and Bagsar sectors, Gen Bajwa said: “Pakistan is a peace-loving country but we will not be intimidated or coerced. Any aggression or misadventure shall be paid back in same coin.”

Feb 24: Modi reminds Imran of promise to fight poverty with India

Modi, while speaking at a public meeting in Tonk in Rajasthan, recalled a promising conversation he earlier had with Prime Minister Imran and urged him to keep his word as a Pathan and fight poverty and illiteracy together with India instead of fighting each other.

He also targeted the Congress for its attack on the government over the Pulwama suicide bombing. “It is sad to see a few people speaking in the language of Pakistan while residing in India. These are the same people who will visit Pakistan and request them to do anything to overthrow the Modi government,” he said.

“These are the same people who failed to take any concrete steps to curb terrorism after the 2008 Mumbai attacks.”

Give peace a chance: Imran responds to Modi

Prime Minister Imran, responding to Modi’s comments, assured him that he stands by his words that if India provides Pakistan with “actionable intelligence” regarding the February 14 attack in occupied Kashmir’s Pulwama, “we will immediately act”.

PM Imran sought to reiterate Pakistan’s desire to see stability in the region, saying Modi should “give peace a chance”.

‘Pakistan armed forces fully prepared for befitting response’ to Indian aggression’

The Pakistani armed forces are fully prepared to give a “befitting response” to India if it resorts to any aggression or misadventure, the military’s media wing said.

The statement came after a meeting between the army and air chiefs of the country, which followed a visit by the COAS to the Air Headquarters in Islamabad.

Feb 26: Indian aircraft violate LoC

The very next day, Indian military planes violated the Line of Control, intruding from the Muzaffarabad sector.

“Pakistan Air Force immediately scrambled” and Indian aircraft went back, said ISPR.

‘Time for India to wait for our response’: ISPR DG

The same evening Maj Gen Ghafoor held a press conference, debunking India’s claims on the LoC violation.

“Today, the prime minister has asked everyone to get ready for every eventuality. We are all ready. Now it is time for India to wait for our response,” he asserted.

“The response will come at a point and time of our choosing where our civil military leadership decides, and as a matter of fact, has decided,” he added, reiterating the statement issued after the NSC meeting convened by the premier.

“We have already exposed India and will do it again so the world knows what exactly India wants.”

Feb 27: 2 Indian aircraft shot down; pilot captured

The next day Pakistan Air Force (PAF) undertook strikes across the LoC from Pakistani airspace.

“The sole purpose of this action was to demonstrate our right, will and capability for self defence. We do not wish to escalate, but are fully prepared if forced into that paradigm,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said in a statement.

“In response to PAF strikes this morning […] Indian Air Force crossed the LoC. PAF shot down two Indian aircraft inside Pakistani airspace. One of the aircraft fell inside Azad Jammu and Kashmir while the other fell inside IOK,” said ISPR.

“One Indian pilot arrested by troops on ground while two in the area.”

On March 1, Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan was handed over in a gesture of peace to India — announced by Prime Minister Imran.

“In our desire for peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” said PM while addressing a joint session of Parliament on February 28, warning: Pakistan’s efforts for de-escalation should not be construed as a “weakness”.

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