On February 26, Indian fighter planes crossed over into Pakistan to drop bombs on a target in Balakot. The strike was in retaliation for an attack in Kashmir by a militant from Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, that killed around 40 Indian security personnel.
The Balakot strike resulted in heightened activity in the skies near the border. The next day, the Indian Air Force scrambled to keep out enemy aircraft. The melee resulted in one Indian pilot being captured by Pakistan. It also left six Indian Air Force personnel dead, as a helicopter was shot down in Budgam, Jammu and Kashmir.
For more than two months, the Budgam incident was shrouded in mystery. It was only on Tuesday – with the general elections finally over – that news reports have appeared making it clear that the Indian Air Force personnel were killed in “friendly fire” when Indian forces shot a missile at their own helicopter.
NDTV reported that the Indian Air Force chopper was mistaken for an enemy aircraft. The Economic Times reported that the officer responsible for firing the missile could be charged with culpable homicide. Both made a reference to an investigation conducted by the Indian Air Force.
However, these articles on Tuesday had been prompted by a report in the Business Standard on April 27, which predicted that though it was clear that the Budgam incident was a case of friendly fire, details of the inquiry would only be released after the Lok Sabha elections. The reason: “With the Balakot bombing and the Pakistani response, including the alleged shooting down of a Pakistani F-16 fighter, being painted in election campaigning as a major Indian victory, admitting the loss of a helicopter and seven personnel due to friendly fire would present a bleaker picture.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s use of the Balakot strike during its campaign is troubling, given that it violates the Model Code of Conduct under which politicians cannot refer to the armed forces while electioneering. However, it would be far more worrying if the armed forces themselves kept the Budgam incident under wraps till the elections had concluded so as not to embarrass the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
The past few years have seen a troubling politicisation of India’s armed forces. VK Singh, a former Chief of Army Staff, is now a Union minister. On several occasions, the Indian Army has jumped in to directly criticise Opposition parties.
Across the post-colonial states of Asia and Africa, it has been the norm for militaries to have a deep stake in politics. India was an exception, as its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the Army the country had inherited from the British Raj was placed firmly under civilian control.
The country’s new government must work hard to resist the temptation to enmesh India’s armed forces in politics. It does not have to look far to see how disastrous the involvement of the military in civilian affairs can be. Its South Asian neighbours of Pakistan and Bangladesh, each of which has suffered long years of military rule, are a testament to the folly of this path.