Speaking at an event jointly organized by the Islamabad-based Centre for International Strategic Studies and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad, former Director General of the Strategic Plans Division of Pakistan Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Khalid Ahmed Kidwai said that the launch of an Indian missile into Pakistan earlier this year was “no accident.”
On March 9, an Indian BrahMos cruise missile landed in a sparsely populated area near the town of Mian Channu in Pakistan, causing no casualties. The Indian authorities termed the incident an accident. Even though Islamabad summoned the Indian charge d’affaires on March 11 to register its protest, overall it showed a considerable amount of restraint in response, in order to avoid another costly confrontation between the two adversarial nuclear states.
While denying Pakistan’s request for a joint probe, the Indian government constituted an internal court of inquiry into the incident, which concluded in August. The inquiry found a group captain, a wing commander, and a squadron leader of the Indian Air Force were negligent in following standard operating procedures. All three were fired from service.
Islamabad, however, termed the findings of the Indian court of inquiry “unsatisfactory, deficient, and inadequate.” Pakistan reiterated its call for a joint inquiry, stating that India had “evaded the questions raised by Pakistan regarding the command-and-control system in place in India, the safety and security protocols, and the reason for India’s delayed admission of the Missile launch.”
While clarifying his assertion about the launch of missile into Pakistan being deliberate, Kidwai argued that missiles could not be accidentally launched into a neighboring country as if they were bullets fired from infantry rifles. He added that the coordinates of missile trajectories were pre-fed into the system on the basis of high-level approvals. This, he asserted, required extensive preparation that could not occur on the spur of the moment, implying that the Hindutva-inspired Indian government had given the required high-level approvals before the missile was “deliberately” fired into Pakistani territory.
The problem with this line of argument, however, is that the Indian court of inquiry did not deny the prior feeding of the waypoints into the missile’s path of trajectory – which, according to the Indian authorities, is done by countries as a war-preparedness measure, to the extent that missiles need only minor last minute adjustments to hit the exact targets.
The Indian explanation at first was that the accident was caused by a technical malfunction leading to the bypassing of certain in-built pre-launch checks; later, the launch was blamed on human error. Some observers believe, however, that a technical fault could have been the culprit, but that the government of India would not want to admit it. Acknowledging a technical flaw could jeopardize India’s $375 million deal to export BrahMos missiles to the Philippines, an agreement concluded in January and regarded as the country’s largest defense export contract.
Whether due to a technical malfunction or human error, owing to the murky state of affairs between India and Pakistan, high-ranking Pakistani policy influencers are terming the incident an example of the “toxic mix of poisonous ideology and custody of nuclear weapons.”
The pertinent question, however, is not whether Kidwai’s assertion passes the test of technical analysis, but where such anxiety is originating from. He is not alone in believing this missile launch was a deliberate act by an Indian government inspired by an aggressive nationalistic ideology. This perception might have to do not only with the recent Hindutva-inspired developments inside India, but also the provocative pronouncements of senior Indian ministers with regard to Pakistan.
For instance, addressing a gathering in the state of Himachal Pradesh on September 25, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh expressed his regret that the question of Pakistan-administered Kashmir was not settled in the aftermath of the 1971 war that resulted in the dismemberment of Pakistan. Similarly, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has threatened Pakistan with surgical strikes. Scores of similar statements have emanated from other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, as well as other groups associated with the Hindutva ideology, in the past.
While Indians and Pakistanis could split hairs over the veracity of Kidwai’s claim, the very presence of such apprehensions in Pakistan should be a source of concern on both sides of the border. Perhaps a joint probe might have helped the situation, but the current state of diplomatic relations between the two countries did not leave room for it. That is precisely the reason that tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors should not be where they are right now.
Anxieties about India’s surging Hindutva ideology have already manifested among the diaspora communities of the two countries and it looks like they are permeating into minds of the policymakers and policy influencers in Pakistan as well. India and Pakistan, being nuclear powers, need to exhibit a higher level of consciousness about the dangers of a lack of trust. That is why the two countries need to open a window of dialogue to assuage each other’s critical concerns at one level or another.