It’s never over till it’s over. The downing of the Pakistani reconnaissance plane over Sir Creek on 10 August was a swift and troubling reminder that the fallout of Kargil will be felt much farther afield and for much longer than the hostilities themselves. India-Pakistan relations were in a stall after Kargil, and the downing of the Atlantique aircraft helped send relations into a tailspin.
Pakistan’s intrusion into Indian airspace appears to have been fairly well-substantiated notwithstanding Islamabad’s denials, and that was the original sin. Even Washington, which criticised India for over-reacting, does not take issue with the claim that the plane strayed into Indian territory. Pakistan must therefore be held responsible for a rather foolish act. Foolish, for several reasons. For one thing, the Kargil war (and it must be reckoned as the fourth India-Pakistan war, given the intensity and length of hostilities) had just ended. Feelings were, and are, running high on both sides. Indian forces were, and remain, on a razor’s edge in terms of their alert status: nobody wants a Kargil on their watch. Moreover, the Indian elections are just around the corner. Any security lapse at this moment could change the course of the elections.
But for all that, the Indian authorities would do well to re-examine their reaction. The reference here is not so much to the shooting itself, although a review of interception procedures would be helpful. Given the tensions and the significance of Sir Creek/Rann of Kutch, the downing of the plane was not particularly surprising. The Indian government says that Pakistan had violated Indian airspace over 50 times in the past year or so. It also claims that the Pakistani air force had intruded into the Sir Creek/ Rann of Kutch area eight times before the Atlantique was shot down. The question then is: why did New Delhi not promptly protest and demand an investigation by the Pakistani authorities as implied in the 1991 agreement on the prevention and handling of airspace violations? If India had made a public issue of the violations as and when they happened, the entire incident could well have been avoided.
The Sir Creek misadventure indicates that the 1991 agreement on airspace violations probably needs amendment. The agreement expressly forbids both sides from flying combat aircraft —including reconnaissance planes and from operating in a no-fly zone within 10 kilometres of the international boundary. But the latest act suggests that both sides have been fairly routinely violating the agreement.
The Indian helicopter flight ferrying journalists to the crash site may also have been such a violation. Brajesh Mishra, the Indian national security adviser, interviewed on TV days after the shooting seemed to say that India had informed Pakistan of the flight (as mandated by the 1991 agreement), but his language was equivocal enough to suggest that perhaps New Delhi had not honoured the agreement either.
What can be done to improve the agreement, if anything? First of all, it may be useful to look at the no-fly zones regime in West Asia, which the Israelis and the Arabs have been implementing rather successfully for much longer than the Indo-Pak 1991 agreement. Secondly, better communication between the two air forces would seem to be indispensable. As things stand, it is not clear how they talk to each other. The 1991 accord mentions that air advisers on both sides should be kept “informed” of flight safety and urgent air operations that affect the other side. But how this is done and with what dispatch, is not known. The agreement also suggests that such matters should be brought to the notice of the other side over the phones at the two army headquarters. This seems a rather tortuous procedure. Can’t the two air forces speak to each other directly? And can’t they do so, sector by sector, rather than going through Islamabad and Delhi?
Thirdly, Indian planes (perhaps Pakistani as well) should be fitted with more than two communication channels. Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis admitted after the incident that the Indian MiGs have only two communication channels and these were both in operation during their interception flight. As a result, the Indian pilots could not establish radio contact with the Atlantique on the international communication frequency available for such contacts. The amended 1991 agreement should mandate that both sides carry at least a third channel of communication.
It’s always better to jaw-jaw than war-war, especially when there are nuclear weapons around. India and Pakistan can mull over whether and when they want to get down to business a la Lahore. Neither side can afford to ride a high horse in the shadow of the bomb.