Now that polls are over, IAF admits it shot down its own helicopter in Budgam


New Delhi: The Indian Air Force (IAF) has unofficially admitted that it had shot down its own helicopter killing seven Indians when Indian fighter planes were engaging Pakistani intruders on the day Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s jet was downed in Pakistan’s territory.

Six IAF personnel and a civilian were killed at Budgam in Kashmir when a missile blew up their Mi-17 helicopter on February 27, a day after India had launched the Balakot air strikes in retaliation to the Pulwama massacre. The chopper tragedy took place when Pakistani fighters launched an attack and India responded.

The strike was in retaliation for an attack in Kashmir by a militant from Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, that killed around 40 Indian security personnel in Pulwama.

Although former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and some media reports had suggested a friendly fire might have brought the helicopter down, the government and the IAF have not explicitly said so, preferring to wait for an internal probe to be over.

The capture and release of the wing commander had overshadowed the chopper tragedy. The IAF later had ordered a court of inquiry into the chopper incident.

“Details of the preliminary probe began to leak soon after the general election, prompting accusations that feet were dragged deliberately to ensure that Narendra Modi’s plank of Balakot-driven muscular nationalism is not undermined,” The Telegraph reported.

For more than two months, the Budgam incident was shrouded in mystery. It was only on Tuesday – with the general elections finally over – that news reports have appeared making it clear that the Indian Air Force personnel were killed in “friendly fire” when Indian forces shot a missile at their own helicopter.

NDTV reported that the Indian Air Force chopper was mistaken for an enemy aircraft. The Economic Times reported that the officer responsible for firing the missile could be charged with culpable homicide. Both made a reference to an investigation conducted by the Indian Air Force.

However, these articles on Tuesday had been prompted by a report in the Business Standard on April 27, which predicted that though it was clear that the Budgam incident was a case of friendly fire, details of the inquiry would only be released after the Lok Sabha elections. The reason: “With the Balakot bombing and the Pakistani response, including the alleged shooting down of a Pakistani F-16 fighter, being painted in election campaigning as a major Indian victory, admitting the loss of a helicopter and seven personnel due to friendly fire would present a bleaker picture.”

“The Bharatiya Janata Party’s use of the Balakot strike during its campaign is troubling, given that it violates the Model Code of Conduct under which politicians cannot refer to the armed forces while electioneering. However, it would be far more worrying if the armed forces themselves kept the Budgam incident under wraps till the elections had concluded so as not to embarrass the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” Scroll reported.

Though the court of inquiry (CoI) has yet to submit its final report, the findings reveal several lapses which led to the catastrophe.

An earlier report by defence analyst Ajai Shukla said that the CoI had “conclusively determined” that the Mi-17 V5 helicopter was brought down by friendly fire. Shukla said the IAF has been asked to “hold” the findings until after elections.

On Tuesday, two days after the final phase of voting, two national newspapers reported that the IAF is considering charging officers with culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

According to the Hindustan Times, the senior-most officer of the Srinagar air force base has been removed for related reasons. The Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Srinagar Air Base was removed as the incident occurred on his watch.

Newspapers reported that the proceedings could take months, even a year, to complete because the investigating team needs to meticulously collect data and evidence, in view of the serious charges that could be initiated against culpable officers.

While IAF sources told Shukla that they were keen to “serve justice quickly and make an example of those found guilty of operational lapses”, they were held back by a “go-slow” order from above, The Wire reported. The IAF strikes in Balakot and India’s claim that it shot down a Pakistani F-16 jet were heavily politicised during the election season. Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly evoked the strike as his government’s strong response to the Pulwama terror attack. In this scenario, “admitting the loss of a helicopter and seven personnel due to friendly fire would present a bleaker picture”, Shukla wrote.

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