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  • A salesman displays a sari with a printed image of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured and later released by Pakistan, inside a sari manufacturing factory in Surat.

    A salesman displays a sari with a printed image of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured and later released by Pakistan, inside a sari manufacturing factory in Surat. | Photo: Reuters

Published 13 March 2019

Despite an apparent beating of war drums, neither side wanted a full-fledged war. Pakistan, in particular, wanted to avoid a direct confrontation.

Adil Ahmed Dar, a 20-year-old Kashmiri-origin suicide bomber, rammed his explosives-laden truck into an Indian military convoy in Pulwama district of Kashmir Valley, claiming 40 lives. On Feb. 14. Most deadly attack since 1989 on Indian forces, ‘Pulwama attack’ was claimed by Pakistan-based militant outfit, Army of Muhammad/Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM).

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On Feb. 28, a squad of 12 Indian Air Force (IAF) jets, in a stealth attack, targeted a JeM madrassa in northern Pakistani district of Manshera. Since 1971 India-Pakistan war, India had crossed into Pakistani borders for the first time. According to New Delhi, the attack left over 350 JeM terrorists dead. Islamabad denied that there was any madrassa/installment, let alone any casualties, bombed by Indian jets.

The global media outlets have also contradicted the Indian claims. Most likely, nobody was killed and Indian claims were exaggerated for domestic consumption since Indian media and ruling party, Bhartia Janata Party (BJP), were baying for war to ‘avenge Pulwama’. Consequently, the war hysteria created in India by Hindu fundamentalist BJP and a BJP-supportive media, required a ‘loud message’.

Hence, the IAF attack.

Next day, on March 1, Pakistan, in a tit-for-tat attack bombed certain undisclosed locations in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. A low-intensity war was about to start. Airports were shut down in Pakistan as well as some border towns on the Indian side. Global air-traffic was advised to avoid Pakistani airspace. Train link (Samjhota Express) between Pakistani town Lahore and New Delhi was suspended. Troops movement was being reported on both sides of the border. Air patrolling along the border was too loud to be avoided even by scared children.

Ironically, a chance happening averted what could have led to a possible war. Chasing Pakistani jets that entered Indian Occupied Kashmir on Feb. 29, an IAF plane was hit by the Pakistani pilot. As luck would have it, the Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan, ejected last moment and his parachute landed him in Pakistani Occupied Kashmir where he was captured by Pakistani troops. As was expected, Abhinandan was flashed on Pakistani television screens as a war trophy.

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In a matter of moments soon after his capture, his face was most visible, watched, tweeted, and Facebook-posted image in India as well as Pakistan, both in the case of television screens and blogspehere.

In 24 hours, triumphalist BJP propaganda and media hype, since IAF attack on Pakistan, subsided. On March 1, Pakistani media and government were taunting Indian military, the BJP government, and the Indian media. Not only Indian claims had proven false, Pakistani side could also flaunt a ‘war trophy’.

But despite an apparent beating of war drums, neither side wanted a full-fledged war. Pakistan, in particular, wanted to avoid a direct confrontation. Hence, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced in his address on the floor of parliament to hand back the captured Indian pilot on March 2 (Abhinandan’s return was converted into a tele-spectacle at Indo-Pak border telecast live by all the news channels in both countries).

At the time of writing these lines, while the media in both countries keeps stoking war frenzy: the situation has been effectively de-escalated. The train service, Samjhota Express (Agreement Express) between Lahore and New Delhi has been revived while some airports are back in traffic.

What now? The answer lies in an understanding of the just de-escalated conflict narrated above. The BJP government has been campaigning in India that it would deal in the case of any Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir/India with an iron hand. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was boasting to Indian audiences that in the case of Pakistani-sponsored attacks in India, Pakistan would be taught a lesson.

Now post-Pulwama, he had become a prisoner of his discourse. Secondly, India is soon going to general elections. Given the poor performance by Modi government on economic front and BJP’s electoral losses in certain key states recently coupled with history’s biggest strikes, Modi seized the Pulwama opportunity to divert the forthcoming electoral canvassing from economy to war.

In the case of a BJP victory in the forthcoming elections, Indo-Pak borders will remain tense since Kashmir Valley is least likely to pacify when New Delhi is ruled by the BJP. Turmoil in the Kashmir Valley, led by Muslim fundamentalist forces as is the case for now, is what unites New Delhi-under-BJP and Islamabad.

Farooq Sulehria is an Assistant Professor at the Beaconhouse National University Lahore in the Department of Liberal Arts.

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