If the Indian missile had hit a crowded area or a commercial flight, the situation would have taken a dangerous turn. It is for New Delhi now to find out what exactly happened and ensure that maintenance of missile systems is done under much stricter supervision

Ahead of his visit to South Asia in 2000, former US President Bill Clinton had referred to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan as “the most dangerous place in the world” and a potential flashpoint for a nuclear flare-up in the volatile region marked by decades of sabre-rattling on both sides.

Both India and Pakistan refuted Clinton’s argument and said they were responsible states and knew how to manage their arsenals. But the incident on Wednesday, March 9, of an accidental misfiring of an Indian missile that landed in Pakistan’s Mian Channu area drives home the point made decades back by Clinton. It was an unarmed missile and landed in private property and luckily did not cause any major damage.

The matter became public knowledge after Pakistan’s Director General of the Inter Service Public Relations (ISPR), Major General Babar Iftikhar, said at a specially-convened news conference that a high-speed flying object had entered Pakistan’s airspace and that it came from across the border. He said that the projectile had travelled 124 kilometres inside Pakistan’s territory in three minutes and forty-four seconds. Pakistan called in India’s charge d’affaires in Islamabad and protested.

India finally acknowledged that Pakistan was right. The Ministry of Defence expressed “deep regret” and said that a technical malfunction led to the firing of the missile during a “routine maintenance” operation. New Delhi’s clarification came two days after the incident.

An accident like this can happen but there are protocols in place on what to do in the event of this nature. Were they followed?

“The Director Generals of Military Operations' hotline is intended to provide a secure and fast channel of communication to deal with any incident that has a crisis potential and thereby avert any undue fallout,” said Ambassador Rakesh Sood, an expert on nuclear issues.

“Clearly, in this case, it doesn’t appear to have been used. Consequently, we are witnessing the unseemly exchanges that have taken place in recent days,” said Ambassador Sood.

It is not known if the backchannel lines were active and whether Pakistan was informed through these channels. Islamabad had acted with restraint to what could have been taken as provocation from India. There is no official confirmation but perhaps this was done. A dangerous escalation was avoided by both sides but Pakistan will use the incident to call for greater global scrutiny of India’s safety protocols.

In response to India’s admission that it was an accident and that an investigation would be conducted on the incident, Pakistan said it should also be involved as the incident affected Pakistan’s security. If the missile had hit a crowded area or a commercial flight, the situation would have taken a dangerous turn. It is for New Delhi now to find out what exactly happened last Wednesday and make sure that maintenance of such deadly missile systems is done under much stricter supervision. India is unlikely to allow Pakistan to be part of the investigation.

Pakistan’s foreign office made the point: “Given the short distances and response times, any misinterpretation by the other side could lead to countermeasures in self-defence with grave consequences.

“Pakistan, therefore, calls upon the international community to take serious notice of this incident of grave nature in a nuclearized environment and play its due role in promoting strategic stability in the region.”

The nuclear non-proliferation lobby in the US had always expressed concern about the safety of nuclear weapons and their handling by India and Pakistan. In the past, there were questions about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, with some expressing concern that jihadis could take control. The current incident will raise issues of safety on the Indian side. Expectedly Pakistan will use this incident internationally to prove its point that India’s systems are faulty and require constant global scrutiny.