If media reports on Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar's latest statement on the purported surgical strikes are true, then the country's top diplomat has essentially let the cat out of the bag on the issue.
His statement, that cross-LoC operations have been carried out earlier as well, invalidated Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar's emphatic assertions that the 29 September operation was an unprecedented one.
The statement was reportedly made at a meeting of the Parliament's Standing Committee on External Affairs. Committee members were briefed on the 'surgical strikes' by Jaishankar, Defence Secretary, Vice Chief of Army Staff and Special Secretary (Internal Security) in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
According to an Indian Express report that quotes sources,the Indian Army have carried out "limited-calibre, target-specific, counter-terrorist operations" across the Line of Control in the past too. The only difference was that "this was the first time the government went public" with the strikes "as part of a strategy", the newspaper added.
The Hindustan Times also carried a similar report, quoting unnamed sources. The report says Jaishankar told the committee, "If you are asking whether our troops crossed the LoC and conducted calibrated operations before, the answer is yes. If you are asking if they achieved their targets and returned to India, the answer is also yes".
The foreign secretary added, according to the newspaper, "The only difference... this time, we announced it a day later," and cited unexplained diplomatic reasons for publicising the operations.
Emphatic assertions belied
These reports, if true, blow a large hole in the narrative that the government has been trying to spin so far - that such strikes were indeed carried out and it happened for the first time ever. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stayed away from this campaign only for a few days but has now involved himself in it deeply. In several of his public speeches over the last fortnight, Modi has paid rich tributes to the armed forces, even asking countrymen to stop and salute soldiers wherever they come across them.
On 18 October, Modi clearly referred to the strikes in a speech at Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. He said that so far only Israeli forces were known for such strikes but now the Indian Army has shown that it too is capable of carrying them out.
Jaishankar's statement has shown that these statements are far removed from the truth. It has also come as a shot in the arm for the Congress party, which has repeatedly said that at least three such strikes were conducted during the UPA's tenure, but were never publicised.
Interestingly, former Army Chief General Bikram Singh has also said such strikes were not new. The Ministry of External Affairs is yet to comment on the media reports, so the government's official view on Jaishankar's purported comment is still not known.
The newspaper reports have also conveyed the government's firm decision against releasing any evidence of the 'strikes'. The Indian Express claimed that when a member of the panel asked for "evidence of the strikes", the government representatives said that the Special Forces crossed the LoC to carry out strikes, not to collect evidence.
According to the Hindustan Times, Vice Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant, General Bipin Rawat, said their troops "went for a swift, time-bound operation" and "were given specific targets and not told to collect evidence." Rawat reportedly also promised the committee that the Army was "trying to collate some proof.
This once again indicates that the government has decided to ignore the questions that have been raised from many quarters, including the international media, on the veracity of the 'strikes'.
The political campaign around them, on the other hand, is intensifying, with the prime minister joining in and gradually raising the level of his statements with every passing speech.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen