Most news channels in India reported 300-350 militants were killed in Balakot airstrikes. Where did this number come from?
As soon as Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale confirmed that Indian Air Force carried out strikes at a hilltop camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on February 26, most news channels in India started running ‘300-350 militants were killed in Jaish camp by the Indian strike’. The next day, regional media took this up. For example, most Malayalam newspapers, from Malayala Manorama to Deshabhimani, the CPIM mouthpiece, carried in certainty that 300 terrorists were killed in the Balakot strike. Where did this number come from?
In the February 26 press conference, Foreign Secretary Gokhale did not give any numbers. He said, “In an intelligence-led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of Jaish in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of Jaish terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis, who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.” This is the only information about the casualties that the Indian government gave. A few hours after the press conference, the PTI news agency reported from New Delhi, “In a pinpointed and swift air strike that lasted less than 2 minutes, India pounded the Jaish’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 two major claims in the PTI copy—350 terrorists were killed and they were moved to Balakot after Pulwama, were attributed to government sources, without naming any official. Intelligence officials had briefed journalists on the same day on condition of anonymity (this is the Modi government’s communication style. In the official communication, the government withholds information and then sources leaks it in bits and pieces). But those officials did not say in certainty that 300 terrorists were killed. What they said was that the camp houses up to 350 terrorists. Look how the major English dailies reported it. The Times of India said Jaish chief Masood Azhar’s brother and “300 others believed killed”. The Hindu reported, “Jaish facility was particularly crowded with 300-325 militants”. Both were source-based claims, but neither of them stated in certainty that 300 militants were killed in Indian strike.
In the following days, India’s claims that it struck the Jaish camp were questioned in the international media. Reuters and BBC Urdu ran stories quoting locals as saying that only one person got injured in the strike and Indian bombs fell on the forest land on Jabba Top in Balakot. One Reuters story even quoted the senior medical officer in Tehsil Headquarters Hospital in Balakot as saying that no casualties were reported on Tuesday. An Al Jazeera reporter who reported from Jabba said there’s a madrasa on the hilltop which is believed to be run by Jaish. But the madrassa remained intact, while Indian bombs hit the forest area. The New York Times, quoting military analysts and western security officials, reported that “any militant training areas at the site had long since packed up or dispersed”. London-based Jane’s Information Group, which tracks the defence industry, said, ‘a lot of those camps in Pakistan had been cleaned out.”
On March 1, India had also backed off from its earlier claim that “a large number of Jaish terrorists… were eliminated.” In tri-services press meet, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor said India has credible information and evidence that it hit the intended target and “it is premature to assess the casualties and damage”. On March 2, The Indian Express ran a story, again quoting Indian officials, that said India has Synthetic Aperture Radar images to prove that four buildings in the Jaish madrasa complex has been hit. The officials cited in the report ask why Pakistan has cordoned off the madrasa if it were not hit by Indian strikes. None of the international reporters who visited Jabba Top were allowed to visit the madrasa.
But these officials also said it was difficult to give an accurate picture of total damage and the number of terrorists killed in the strike as there’s lack of human intelligence from the ground and the Pakistani army tightly controls the madrasa complex.
In other words, India hasn’t offered any evidence to substantiate its claim that the Jaish camp was actually hit and has taken a step back from its earlier claim that a large number of terrorists were eliminated. The number of 300-350, however, was pure imagination of some government official, which was swallowed by the English and regional media.