by Dr D K Giri

On 10th March, the Director General of Inter-Service Intelligence public relations confirmed and alleged in a press conference that a flying object launched from Sirsa, Haryana landed on 9th at Mian Channu, in the North-West of Multan. Apparently, it damaged some civilian property and is under examination by Pakistani scientists. Pakistan, as expected, summoned the Indian Chief of Mission in Islamabad and admonished him voicing, ‘strong condemnation of this blatant violation of Pakistani airspace. ‘India promptly admitted that a missile has indeed gone off accidentally from Indian territory and deeply regretted the incident but the story does not end here.

In the climate of deep mistrust and suspicion prevailing between the two countries, a mountain is made out of a mole hill. The machines and missiles are run by human beings and possibility of error is endless. Major nuclear countries like Russia, Japan, China, US, France — all have experienced nuclear accidents, but leaders and experts did not apportion motive.

In this case it is not so. Beijing the ‘eternal’ critique of India has jumped into the fray nudging Pakistan to demand a thorough enquiry, usual devious tactic of fishing in troubled waters. Beijing wants to sound important in the region, but its own conduct at home and on the borders, it shares with neighbours leave a lot to desire.

Worse, the social media in both countries have spun outlandish and incredible theories on the incident. As a sample, ‘India had deliberately fired the missile to test Pakistan’s missile defence readiness'. The second one is even more far-fetched; that India had fired the missile in order to scare Pakistan from doing anything silly in the Kashmir borders.

The above speculation was fuelled by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s dash to Moscow immediately after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. It is also a common sense that no responsible country will risk firing a modern missile without a warhead to test the enemy’s readiness and risk it falling into inimical hands.

It is pertinent to look at the human error dimension in this sad incident. While it somewhat questions Indian handling of strategic weapons and launching protocols, the hard fact seen world over is that human errors are commonplace. To use a slice of statistics, since 1950, there have been 32 recorded nuclear weapons accidents –launching, firing, detonating, theft or loss. To date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never been recovered.

In 90s and of late, Washington complained that China posed a direct threat to the United States because, for several decades, it has systematically stolen the United States nuclear weapons design information. In 1970s, the United States through CIA reported that Uranium from its nuclear fuel-processing plant was stolen and found in Israel.

However, the above examples do not dilute or automatically defuse the tension between New Delhi and Islamabad. Thanks to restrain exercised by Pakistan and the innocuous nature of the missile, the incident did not lead to an escalation to a nuclear level.

Interestingly, the response time between United States and Russia for an ICBM launch is above 25 minutes; but in case of India Pakistan which are contiguous country, it is much less. According to the reports, the Indian missile was in the air for above 7 minutes before it crashed near Multan, which is one of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sites. It could have easily prompted Pakistan to retaliate.

It is not clear whether there is any forewarning between India and Pakistan on any test or drills with ballistic or cruise missile under the prevailing agreement. At any rate, both the countries have behaved commendably. Pakistan did not retaliate as India instantly admitted the slip and regretted. This showed the maturity of the leadership which should persist for the sake of strategic stability in the sub-continent.

The missile story would not be complete without referring to the United States. It has endorsed India’s version on the missile and has supported New Delhi. The State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at his daily news conference on 14th March, “We have no indication as you also heard from our Indian partner that this incident was anything other than an accident.” He added, “We refer you of course to the Indian Ministry of Defence for any follow up. They issued a statement on March 9th to explain precisely what had happened. We don’t have a comment beyond that.”

A small incident can trigger speculations and diplomatic scrambles. Such is the international climate. The political climate has become worse after the invasion of Ukraine by its big neighbour Russia. The international community is standing by; the western powers are clandestinely supporting the victim with weapons and sanctions against the invader. Is that adequate?

The matter of deep concern is that war is being made a tool for promotion of national interest. The countries in South Asia, explosive as it is, with unremitted enmity between India and Pakistan. The missile incident should be put to bed without further rancour.

China’s interference is uncalled for. Their patronising suggestion that India and Pakistan should sort things out, is not in the good taste. India and Pakistan are capable of solving their tensions bilaterally. In fact, they had done so on the missile episode until China popped in with the unwanted advice for a thorough probe.

Admittedly, the India-Pakistan tensions have been escalated by the meddling of big powers in the region. They had found an opportunity to trade in arms with both countries plunging them into an unnecessary, unaffordable arms race. It is a challenge for the ingenuity of the leaders in the region to build peace, security and goodwill.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a sportsman by training made good sounds as he took over. He identified the common enemy in the region to be poverty. We wished he could continue that spirit, but alas, the Pakistani army, which has a vested interest in continuation of the conflict, tied his hands and like his predecessors he played into their hands.

So obviously, there are much larger issues than the accidental landing of the missile in Pak territory. This incident should be buried sooner than later, and no further bickering is in order on it. India has expressed regret, and should offer to pay for the damages if needed. It is in interest of both New Delhi and Islamabad to build normalcy between them, and handle the third countries with great caution and care. More important, do not let the small issues become big and bothersome. If Russia and Ukraine have common ancestry, India and Pakistan were one people, one country, not so long ago. They must invoke the common past to moderate the shared present.