On February 26, hours after the Indian Air Force’s “non-military, pre-emptive action” on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Pakistan’s Balakot, tickers and Twitter feeds were lighting up with “exclusive details” on the airstrikes. India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale issued a statement at 11.30 am saying the operation killed “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action … As the strike has taken place only a short while ago, we are awaiting further details.”
It was already too late. Media houses were jumping the gun to assign a number to this “large number of casualties”, and continued to do so in the days that followed. They cited “sources” and, in some cases, “top government sources” as reference points, placing the number at 200-300.
CNN-News18 was one of the first media outlets to “break” the figure at 9 am on February 26.
News18 India went even further, claiming that their source indicated casualties as high as 400.
NDTV said: “The government has said that at least 300 Pakistani terrorists have been eliminated.”
Zee News reported that 200-300 terrorists were killed in the attack.
Republic TV very specifically reported casualties of over 254 on screen, even though the anchor mentioned 245.
The print media wasn’t far behind. Economic Times reported that “Indian estimates of casualties in the air strike are in the excess of 300 though a detailed post mission analysis is still awaited.” NDTV produced similar estimates, adding that an important JeM leader was also eliminated in the strikes: “Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter jets dropped six bombs at the biggest camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot, killing over 300 terrorists including Jaish chief Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law Yousuf Azhar, sources said.”
India Today’s report said: “As per an initial estimate, around 300 terrorists are believed to have been killed in the airstrike, sources said.” Mellowing the estimate, a Hindustan Times report said: “The IAF used Mirage-2000 jets with laser-guided 1,000 pound bombs causing an estimated casualty of 200-300, the sources said.”
The Press Trust of India (PTI) put out the highest casualty count: “India pounded Jaish-e-Mohammed’s biggest training camp in Pakistan early Tuesday, killing up to 350 terrorists and trainers who were moved there for their protection after the Pulwama attack, officials said.” The same report proceeded to give a break-up, adding that “at least 325 terrorists and 25 to 27 trainers were at the camp, sources told PTI”.
Meanwhile, The Indian Express’s February 26 report stated that “no number has been released”.
In this commotion, Air Vice Marshall RGK Kapoor held a press briefing on March 1 where he reiterated that it was “premature” to estimate the number of casualties. A reporter specifically questioned Kapoor about the “approximate number of terrorists who were killed in the terrorist camps as there has been talk that around 300 terrorists were killed there”. The Air Vice Marshall said: “…it will be premature to say what is the number of casualties we have been able to inflict on those camps and the number of deaths. Whatever we intended to destroy, we have got the result.”
At a press conference on March 4, Indian Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa also commented that the IAF “can’t count how many people died” in the Balakot air strike. “It depends on how many people were there. Air Force is not in a position to clarify how many people were inside. We don’t count human casualties. We count what targets we have hit or not hit … and if we planned to hit the target, we hit the target.”
Then where did this figure come from? Note that at the time of publishing, several media houses are still running with the figure. Republic’s primetime show last week even produced “exclusive” satellite images of Balakot which they called proof of a “burial ground so large and so recent that the bodies of hundreds of terrorists lie beneath”.
Journalist Aditya Raj Kaul told Newslaundry: “It’s strange how this number—250 or 300—has come up. Either the Pakistan Army is hiding the dead bodies, since the Jaish-e-Mohammad is also silent, or the human intelligence of Indian agencies have not been able to find out the number and they have no independent confirmation on what happened.
“I have also accessed intelligence—and this before the attack—that at this particular location [Balakot terror camp], at any given time, there are at least 250 cadres and terror commanders. So this 300 figure might be coming from such intelligence, otherwise I don’t think there’s any kind of an independent verification,” Kaul added.
Newslaundry has learnt that the nameless source which provided the “over 300 casualties” to a group of journalists had warned them that they must not even make a mental note of where the 300 figure came from. Perhaps this was to avoid embarrassment when “highly placed officials” in the IAF would brush aside these figures, as Air Vice Marshall RGK Kapoor eventually did on March 1. But Kapoor did this in a press conference where journalists were allowed to ask questions, something the government has avoided.
Newslaundry decided to trace the sequence of events.
At 9.30 am on February 26, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) met at the Prime Minister’s residence to discuss the Balakot airstrikes that had been executed six hours before. According to India Today, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval told the committee that “as many as 25 top commanders have been killed in the airstrike carried out by India on Jaish-e-Mohammed’s (JeM) biggest training camp in Balakot, Pakistan.”
According to a picture of the meeting tweeted by ANI, NSA Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi were accompanied by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and other senior officials.
The CCS meeting lasted for an hour. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who was part of this meeting, headed to his office in the Ministry of Finance located in the North Block. Here, at 11 am, he held a meeting with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s media team and spokespersons. With him was Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The two ministers briefed the party’s spokespersons about the airstrikes.
Journalists confirmed on Twitter that this briefing took place.
About 10-15 reporters from various TV channels, a well-known newspaper, and a news agency had gathered outside the venue. Sitharaman promised to brief them off the record before she went into the spokespersons’ meeting.
She kept her promise. Once the spokespersons were briefed, the Defence Minister discussed the airstrikes with the reporters at 11.30 am.
At least three reporters confirmed to Newslaundry that it’s at this point that Sitharaman provided the “over 300” casualty figure to the reporters. She didn’t reveal this spontaneously: the reporters were told off the record that the strikes had resulted in a large number of casualties. When cross-questioned about the exact figure, Sitharaman said they were over 300, the reporters said.
Two other reporters who were present at the scene declined to confirm this information to Newslaundry. While one could not recall whether it was actually Sitharaman who provided this number, the other reporter said the number came from “multiple government sources”, and couldn’t confirm whether Sitharaman was one of them.
A reporter told Newslaundry that the Defence Minister was the only member of the CCS who spoke to the press that morning.
It’s worth remembering that CNN-News18 “broke” the news at 9 am—a couple of hours before the off-the-record interaction with Sitharaman. It’s possible that other “top government sources” were also leaking the number to the press. It doesn’t explain why media organisations chose to run with information that was provided to them off the record.
Going with the majority assertion, this raises important questions regarding why the Defence Minister released “premature” figures of the Balakot casualties to the press—figures that the government still hasn’t officially confirmed. A defence journalist told Newslaundry there are two possible reasons for the government to put out this figure: pre-facto intelligence assessment (which the IAF hasn’t confirmed) and electoral calculations and political pressure. On March 4, BJP President Amit Shah stated in an Ahmedabad public meeting that the IAF operation in Balakot eliminated “more than 250 terrorists”. Shah, however, is a member of the governing party but not the government.
On March 5, the Defence Minister had refused to put a number on the airstrike casualties. “The Foreign Secretary didn’t give a figure. He gave a statement. That is the Government of India’s position,” Sitharaman had said, according to The Hindu.
Newslaundry has sent a questionnaire to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This story will be updated as and when her office responds.
“Top government sources” and “Indian officials” injected further confusion into the post-Balakot discourse. Initial reports of the Balakot airstrikes on February 26 claimed that the IAF crossed Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and entered the Pakistani airspace. An Asia Times report cited “Indian officials” for this information, whereas Economic Times mentioned “official sources”. A Times of India report didn’t state any reference at all.
However, on March 2, an Indian Express report cited sources that denied the IAF’s Pakistan crossover: “The Indian Express has learnt that contrary to Pak claims, no IAF aircraft crossed the LoC and as per radar data reviewed by the IAF, the closest Pakistani aircraft was at a distance of about 120 km.” It added that “a second official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the IAF was keen on crossing the LoC to bomb the target but it was decided that it should only fire the PGM ‘from Indian side of LoC’”.
On February 27, The Indian Express report maintained ambiguity about IAF jets entering Pakistani airspace: “The Indian Air Force was deployed during the 1999 Kargil conflict, Tuesday was the first time after the 1971 war that it fired on targets inside Pakistan.”
Similarly, another report in the newspaper on the same day said: “A more important reason making it a watershed is the extent of incursion. Indian operations after the 1971 War have always been limited to the Line of Control and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, never venturing into mainland Pakistan … [the] airstrike also sets a precedent for future action by India: use of airpower in mainland Pakistan against terror camps.”
The post-Balakot reportage was questionable for other reasons too. Newslaundry had reported on how several television media channels claimed that Maulana Yousuf Azhar had been killed in the airstrikes, despite no such official claim by the government or the IAF.
Meanwhile, media houses continue with their “exclusives”. On March 11, Times Now claimed that “the presence of 263 terrorists was confirmed at the Balakot JeM camp five days before the IAF carried out the pre-dawn air strikes on February 26.” Editor-in-chief Rahul Shivshankar furnished some “exact estimates”: “So viewers, very very clearly, we can tell you now that the exact number [of terrorists] that the agencies estimate were present there [Balakot terror camp] is 263.”