Pakistan-India: Post Pulwama Lessons

Spearhead Analysis – 14.03.2019

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The month of February 2019 precipitated tensions between Pakistan and India- the downward spiral initiated following an attack on Indian paramilitary forces on February 14th. The Indian government hastily pointed fingers at Pakistan, while Pakistan’s response not only denounced the attacks but also sought proof from India for its allegations. Following the Pulwama attacks the Indian government assumed an aggressive posture, a media campaign maligning Pakistan’s role was launched, India withdrew the most-favoured nation (MFN) trade status given to Pakistan and threatened to take all possible diplomatic steps to isolate Pakistan. On the 26th of February, the Indian government attempted to enter Pakistani territory and carried out airstrikes in Balakot. The Balakot incident was highly controversial. The Pakistani and international pictorial evidences and media coverage was in direct contrast to the Indian version of the Balakot incident. The Pakistani air force forced back the Indian planes and averted any civilian casualties. The Pakistani government continued to warn India against any adventurism, called for regional stability and to engage in dialogue over bilateral issues.

On the 27th of February- news of attempted Indian incursions into Pakistani territory began to circulate. This led to Indian aircraft losses, one its MiG-21 was shot down and its pilot was captured non-Pakistani soil. Another aircraft also shot down fell in Indian territory.

Prime Minister Khan made a video appeal for peace, urging India to join Pakistan in de-escalating the crisis- for the sake of regional peace and stability. As a gesture of peace and goodwill, Pakistan released the Indian pilot- Abhinandan Varthaman- and ensured that the captured pilot was treated with due code of conduct.

Following the Pulwama attacks, the situation between Pakistan and India remained highly volatile. Pakistan clearly demonstrated its resolve towards regional peace but also exhibited its capability to thwart to any external aggression. Amidst these crises, the Pakistani civil-military response was harmonious and mutually supporting. PM Imran Khan won widespread praise for his measured approach to the conflict. On Twitter, a hashtag calling for Mr Khan to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize was trending for a while.

The Pakistani media responsibly covered the crisis and projected the leadership’s policy of regional peace. All this was supported by public denunciation of war.

Nonetheless, such volatile situations raise concerns regarding human miscalculations- that could result in devastating outcomes. The recent crisis revealed several challenges that have the potential to complicate an adverse situation. Some of which include: 

Social Media:

Most of the media coverage in both countries was nationalistic, but Pakistani media inclined towards peace journalism. On the other hand, the Indian media was largely beating war drums. Moderate voices or peace activists were labeled as anti-nationals or traitors. Reportedly, independent fact-checking groups struggled to keep pace with the spate of fake videos and images of the Pakistan India tensions- released by Indian media. However, the Indian media-unlike the Pakistani- was unable to reveal concrete officially supported pictorial evidences of its claims. The media carries the ability to shape public opinion- hence the trickled down war hysteria was becoming evident through the swathes of Indian public opinions on prominent social media platforms. Indian fake news has been exposed in an NYT article. 

Government responses:

The media reporting and political agenda setting is another interlinked phenomenon. The Pakistani civil-military and media responses were in line with one another. Pakistan’s collective message was that differences should be addressed via dialogue, better sense for the sake of regional peace should prevail and that any external adventurism would face retaliation.  An alarming void was visible between the official Indian responses and the Indian media. The official responses were either muted or delayed, while the media filled the gap by keeping the war hysteria alive. All this was seen as a backfiring game plan, during which the media was used for diversion purposes. Such responses increase the chances of miscommunication and miscalculations. There is also a widespread belief that the timings of the Pulwama and post Pulwama developments are interlinked to India’s national political landscape.

National Politics:

India is about to embark on its general election season on 11th April, the outcome is likely to present itself by end of May 2019. The Indian political landscape is currently vibrant and electioneering is at its peak– populism often takes centre stage during such times. Modi managed a sweeping victory in 2014 elections but the current political predictions are said to be unpredictable, because several questions are being raised on governance under Modi’s tenure. 

One of the major promises undertaken by the Modi government was to provide employment to Indian youth and cater to rural India.  According to a report , the unemployment rate in February this year stood at 7.2%, up from 5% in February, 2017. Meanwhile, India’s farmers have staged numerous protests in recent years, due to increasing distress in the agricultural sector. Nearly 70 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people live in the towns and villages in the countryside– unsatisfactory responses from this segment of the Indian population would play an integral role in how the election results shape up. Amidst the fragmented opinions regarding BJP’s rule– the sudden spike in tensions with Pakistan- prior to elections, has diverted national attention towards war hysteria. It is seen that the timings of the incident, virulent media propaganda campaigns and politicizing security issues- is linked with amassing national political clout.  It is yet to be seen how the recent developments would ultimately impact upcoming elections in India. Nonetheless, national politics at the cost of regional peace is a precarious equation. 

Impact on minorities:

One of the major criticisms against the BJP has been the emboldening of right-wing hardliners. Attacks against Muslims and their properties have significantly grown in India and IOK after Pulwama attacks. Reportedly, In the latest act of brutality more than 200 homes of Muslims in Meerut were set on fire by police forces during an operation against encroachments in the area.  The situation in Kashmir has exacerbated post 2014.  Human rights groups say India has been responding to public protests with disproportionate force. Such mismanagement and identity stigmatization can produce detrimental impacts in the diverse South Asian arena.


The post Pulwana crisis between Pakistan and India spared the world from a grave catastrophe – primarily due to the mature responses exhibited by Pakistan and due to eventual intervention of the global community. The crises also revealed how collusion of media wars, oppression and, national politics can enhance chances of miscalculations under volatile situations.

Thus, Pakistan has repeatedly asked India to engage in dialogue on matters of bilateral concern- an offer which has been ignored by India.

The recent developments have placed the Indian claims in a questionable light, the global community has also taken notice of the Indian atrocities in Kashmir. However, it is widely predicted that till the election results , India may keep the war hysteria simmering and work towards gaining some form of a political win. Pakistan has proved itself a responsible nation that has supported counter terror efforts for its own and global interests and would continue to do so. Whereas, India continues to lobby against Pakistan even in the FATF. The regional players and the global community needs to encourage peace dialogue, and peaceful resolution of bilateral issues. Arms control mechanisms for sustainable peace and security of the entire region need to be seriously considered.

The role of India media has been irresponsible. Besides peddling fake news, they used senior military personnel to drum up various quixotic war scenarios completely ignoring the fact that both India and Pakistan are nuclear weapon states. Pakistan’s PM had pointed out in his speech that wars could be started but their end could not be predicted—a reference to the escalatory ladder. The general opinion in India is that the Indian Armed Forces were used for political gains and now the Armed forces are being dragged into the political campaign with pictures and military caps being used blatantly.

Pakistan continues to offer unconditional dialogue. A proposal by Pakistan for a restraint regime is in the table. Pakistan wants SAARC reactivated for regional cooperation, trade and counter-terrorism. Pakistan wants an end to the atrocities and humanitarian crisis in IOK.