Early morning on Wednesday, Pakistan reported capturing two Indian pilots after shooting down their aircrafts. However, in the videos and pictures shown, there was only one pilot in the custody of the Pakistani security forces. In the fog of war, Indian Ministry of External Affairs also claimed shooting down a Pakistani aircraft, but said that it fell on the Pakistani side. The ministry also admitted that one of their Mig-21 was downed in the combat. Indian media claimed that the downed Pakistani aircraft was an F-16 jet while the spokesman of the Pakistan military refuted this claim, and said the country did not send any F-16s into combat that morning. He also denied loss of any aircrafts.
After a meeting of the National Command Authority - the body that oversees Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs - Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a short video aired on Pakistani networks, once more extended the olive branch and asked India to come to negotiating table to deescalate tensions.
While most world leaders have asked both countries to exercise restraint, we have not seen much condemnation of the Indian intrusion on Tuesday morning. On the contrary, there is much mention of the Pulwama attack and pressure on Pakistan to cooperate on the Pulwama incident.
Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, in China for the Russian-India-China (RIC) meeting, pledged that India would act like a responsible country and exercise restraint. US Secretary Mike Pompeo, too, in his phone call with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi urged both India and Pakistan to have direct talks, avoid military activity. He also urged Pakistan to take “meaningful action against terrorists operating on its soil,” revealing his tilt towards India.
On Wednesday, the situation got so tense that Pakistan had to close its civilian airspace. As the situation deteriorated, reports of cross-border shelling on the Line of Control (LoC) and the working boundary from both sides started pouring. Deaths and injuries of the innocent civilians were also reported.
In the wake of the Indian intrusion in Pakistan in the wee hours of Tuesday, Pakistani opposition took on the ruling party over the fast deteriorating situation and forced the government to concede on convening a joint session of the parliament the next day.
The parliamentarians hit the government hard over news that Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was invited as a special guest of honour in a special session coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). This led to Shah Mehmood Qureshi announcing that he would abstain from the session where she would be speaking, an act short of boycotting the entire proceedings.
While many voices in India post-Pulwama were calling for revenge – with Indian media fanning the fire and beating war drums - the mood on Tuesday was celebratory after the air intrusion in Pakistan.
It seemed as if not only had India scored a major psychological victory against Pakistan, but the ruling party BJP seemed to be cashing in on the outcome. Prime Minister Modi spoke publicly about this by taking credit for the action across the border, despite the fact that this had no legitimacy in international law and it negated the positive space provided to India by the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous resolution in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack on February 14.
However, the situation changed on Wednesday after an Indian Air Force pilot was captured. While Pakistan claimed that it had stayed on its side of the LoC, it admitted to striking some targets on the Indian side. However, the Indian side accused Pakistan of invading its airspace and claimed to have chased Pakistani aircrafts out of its territory. While the Indian side claimed to have shot down a Pakistani aircraft that fell on Pakistani side, the latter refuted this claim and said all its aircrafts and personnel were accounted for.
At a time when US-Taliban talks were ongoing in Qatar and the US president was having talks with North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, the diplomatic corps looked very worried over the escalation between the arch rivals. The diplomats were concerned as they did not know at what point the conventional maneuvers could enter the nuclear threshold, bringing the entire region and the world at large to nuclear Armageddon.
Although on Tuesday, many analysts believed that India had called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff by intruding its air space, retaliatory actions by Pakistan show that the trajectory seems headed towards a dangerous escalation or a bilateral truce under international pressure, offering a face-saving to both countries.
Indian political scene, too, has started changing on Wednesday as the 21 party alliance led by Congress blasted Prime Minister Modi for politicising military action and capitalising it for the upcoming elections.
It is unclear how India would dismount from the tiger it has chosen to ride but all South Asia watchers were sitting on pins and needles watching this dangerous escalation. On Wednesday, the Indian government handed over what they called a dossier documenting the involvement of JeM in the Pulwama terror attack to the Pakistani deputy high commissioner in Delhi. Is that the evidence the Pakistani government was demanding all this time? Will it provide the path of de-escalation in the wake of international calls for diffusing the situation? We have to wait and see.