Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, the Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.
After the Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019, the propaganda war began with India, without conducting any investigation, placing all culpability on Pakistan. Then on February 26, India proceeded to invade Pakistan’s airspace to conduct a “surgical strike” in Balakot. India claimed that it destroyed a terrorist facility, however, international media and agencies later touted this as false.
In retaliation, Pakistan launched jet fighters the next day and conducted an airstrike in India, which then led to an aerial dogfight between the two nations. In the chaos that ensued, Pakistan Air Force shot down an Indian jet in Pakistan’s airspace and captured the Indian pilot, wing commander Abhinandan.
This event sparked a massive narrative war that dominated the airwaves as well as the imaginations of billions of people for weeks if not months. This article endeavors to highlight not Pakistan’s downing of Abhinandan’s MiG-21 but the downing of the jingoistic propaganda war by India against Pakistan.
Post-Dogfight and India’s False Claims
After the dust settled, an already rampant narrative war between both countries was fanned even more. India did acknowledge that it lost a singular MiG-21 Bison and the pilot was in Pakistani hands but lied that it also downed a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan challenged this assertion and claimed no Pakistani jets were downed.
The international media heavily sided with Pakistani assertions as the country provided the evidence i.e. a captured MiG-21 pilot, Abhinandan, and the footage of his destroyed jet. Conversely, India could not produce the same. Skepticism that India downed an F-16 was rampant among Pakistani and even Indian Air Force officers (retired and serving). They stated that easily available proof such as Abhinandan’s radio transmissions to the flight controller, video recordings of air engagement, and loss of radar blip had not been provided.
The BJP government’s heavy influence over the Indian media meant that it completely towed the government’s line. The government and media began advertising pictures and videos claiming that it was the downed F-16. Upon further analysis, the reputable Bellingcat asserted that this visual proof provided by the Indian media was not “compelling evidence” and that “all signs point to MiG-21 wreckage having been on display thus far” and not F-16 wreckage.
During a live TV show, an Indian anchor boisterously shouted to the audience that he was displaying visuals of the downed Pakistani F-16 – unfortunately for him, the Indian expert that he had on as a guest remarked, “I do not think that it is entirely accurate. That part is actually a MiG-21 part.”
As the hours ticked by, more proof against Indian lies surfaced – for example, the service hatch on the wreckage that India promulgated contained a “CU” format serial number, which is used on upgraded Indian MiG-21s. Even American scholar and stark critic of Pakistan, Christine Fair, disagreed with the Indian version.
At the Indian-hosted Military Literature Festival in Chandigarh, she asserted in front of serving and retired Indian officers, “I say this clearly with 100% certitude that there was no F-16 struck down. I do not believe you did. I believe that my bonafides as a critic of Pakistan stand for itself.” She also asserted that “India has lost a lot of credibility in the ways that certain images have been deployed through social media that do not show what they show, with the level of certainty that is asserted.”
The Indian government and media, surely embarrassed, but as obstinate as ever continued to try their best to make narrative gains. However, there was more mortification to be had as a Foreign Policy article completely uprooted India’s claims. It noted that the Pentagon had accounted for all of Pakistan’s F-16 jets and therefore none could have been shot down – two US Defense Department Officials made this assertion.
The US government would have denied such a strong claim if it was untrue but it never did. The article further stated, “Indian authorities may have misled the international community about what happened that day.” After this article was published, the Indian Air Force provided so-called “irrefutable proof” that the F-16 was downed which included radio transcripts and electronic signatures. However, several US and even Indian analysts refuted this citing it as circumstantial at best.
One article stated that “Furthermore, it’s unclear why India waited more than a month to release this latest information, which still does not conclusively prove that the IAF shot down an F-16 in any tangible way.” An article in the Washington Post alluded that India was desperate to prove the F-16 was shot down due to nearing elections and BJP wanting momentum on its side.
The truth is that the BJP and the Indian Armed Forces tried their best to sell a faux narrative, and while it probably succeeded in convincing the BJP’s electorate, it failed miserably vis-à-vis convincing the world. Furthermore, how low the media in India, barring a few credible outlets, could stoop when it came to the propaganda war against Pakistan was also on full display. Before leaving Pakistan, even Abhinandan regretted that the “Indian media always stretches the truth. The smallest of things are presented in a very incendiary manner and people get misled.”
Pakistan’s Narrative set by the Media and ISPR
Pakistan’s ISPR was extremely pivotal in dispelling lies by India that even retired Indian generals such as Syed Ata and Rajesh Pant heralded as a masterstroke in the propaganda war. The ISPR, for example, took international journalists to Balakot to expose Indian lies and provided mostly solid and at times irrefutable evidence to the public that was mostly scrutinized later in Pakistan’s favor by international outlets. Coupled with the ISPR, Pakistan’s media was at the frontlines itself.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how truth-driven journalists such as the late Arshad Sharif, then anchor for ARY News, did his best to unearth the reality. He was one of the first reporters, if not the first, who went to Balakot, and his exposé of Indian lies regarding the F-16 was sublime.
While it is true that the Pakistani media, consumed by patriotism, did make certain mistakes while reporting the news but juxtaposed to the Indian side – and its pandemic of fake news – it came out looking much better. The media on the Pakistani side of the border was relatively more reserved as well.
It is then safe to conclude that in this fiasco, the only casualty was not just an Indian MiG-21 but also the jingoistic propaganda spewed by the Indian government and the country’s media.
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