Pakistan is making a mockery of itself by taking defence attaches and selected journalists to a madrasa which was not even touched by the Indian Air Force on February 26, instead of the terror training centre which was attacked, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Wednesday.
In an exclusive interview to ANI, Sitharaman said the onus to prove whether a terrorist camp was hit or not during the Balakot air strikes was on Pakistan.
"It is for Pakistan to show they have not been hit and that a number of people were not killed. They took 40 days to take a small group of journalists and defence attaches and limited that picnic that they had of these people only to the madrasa. I am telling you the madrasa was at the lower end of the foothill and behind the madrasa, into the dense forest was the training camp. So, Pakistan is making a mockery of itself," she said.
When questioned about the Indian government's silence on the outcome of the Balakot airstrike, the Defence Minister said, "Before the attack took place, many Pakistani websites claimed that the targeted terror camp was recruiting youngsters. The world-renowned notorious terrorist who handled many attacks like the 2008 Mumbai terror attack was calling out to young men to join him. Not only this, recruiters of the terrorist outfit were even hiring retired trainers to train future jihadis. If you look into the websites you would know how many people were being trained in the camp. So from there, one can calculate an approximate number.
Talking about her experience of handling the Balakot air strike she said, "You are not concerned that much about the success or failure of the operation. It is your men and their lives which is the major concern. You just hope that everything goes fine. I got a call at 4 'o' clock in the morning saying that everyone was safe and it was only then that I felt relieved."
In the wee hours of February 26, 12 Indian Air Force Mirage-2000 fighter entered Pakistani airspace and dropped 1,000-kg laser-guided bombs on Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) camps across the Line of Control, due to which a "large number" of terrorists, including top commanders, were eliminated.
Sitharaman also spoke about her meeting with Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandhan Varthaman, who was captured by Pakistani troops a day after the air strikes and later released as a "peace gesture."
"I met him a few days after he reached Delhi. He was agile, firm and clear while talking to me. He was full of positive energy and sitting and talking to him would have motivated you to think that this is the stuff young men and women should be made of and not for a moment, he had a tone of regret. He said I am trained for handling these situations and I am also trained to keep my head high. He told me one thing and one very admirable quality was that he told me that look I am trained to face these kinds of situations and this part of my training. But I am not trained to cope with this instant publicity and popularity and I am not skilled enough to face this public appreciation and that is what I have got to learn now," said Sitharaman.
She went on to say that efforts are being made to bring former Naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav back to India. "Now it is globally being watched, the kind of efforts that MEA and also the legal department are putting at the International Court of Justice is for everybody to see. The efforts are fully out there. It is for everybody to see," she added.
Sitharaman also downplayed Imran Khan's statement 'that there may be a better chance of India-Pakistan peace talks and settling of the Kashmir issue if the BJP is voted back to power' and said that she believes that it is a ploy by Congress to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government from the Centre.
"I wouldn't know why such statements are being made. Every time such statements are made and this is individually my perception and not my party's or the government's take. There have been many eminent leaders of the Congress who went there (Pakistan) to seek help to oust Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They went there saying, Modi hatane ke liye hamen madad karo (help us to oust Modi). I wonder whether this is also a part of the scheme of things which have been put by Congress. I don't know what to make of this honestly," the Defence Minister said.
During an interaction with a small group of foreign journalists in Islamabad, Imran Khan had said he believes there may be a better chance of peace talks with India and settling the Kashmir issue if Modi's party BJP wins the general elections.
Reacting to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Quraishi's claims that India was going to attack Pakistan between April 16-20, Sitharaman said, "I don't know from where he got these dates from. Good luck to him... god knows (who is his source in India) but it sounded very fanciful and amusing to me."
When asked whether the Supreme Court's decision to look into the allegedly stolen documents or acquired documents in the Rafale case weakened government's position, the Union Minister said, "I don't think our position has become weaker. We are firm on our stand. The Attorney General gave an explanation the next day. Documents from Defence Ministry are classified documents. Every time a document of this nature even a page comes out, in my understanding, it is stealing of information. The ministry is looking into the matter as to how it came out."
On being questioned if she thought that the procurement of documents pertaining to the Rafale deal was illegal, the Minister said, "The procurement of the document is illegal. That's what I have been harping on. There are legitimate ways of obtaining it. There are credible tools to obtain it. If it has not come out through a legitimate manner then it is said to be stolen. Now what has come out does not alter the discourse on Rafale. Even if we include the matter on these illegally obtained pages, it does not alter the clear process which has been adopted. We are not worried at all."
"But then has the Supreme Court said that Modi ji gave this much money to Anil Ambani? Has Supreme Court said this? When has Supreme Court said this? Has Supreme court even remotely said that PM Modi is not chowkidar and chori ki hai? Is this not taking liberty with the institutions? That too SC, where every word is well thought out. It is putting words into the mouth of the court and therefore if SC is looking into the matter it is only fair," she said.
Further underlining government's dedication towards equipping the armed forces, the Defence Minister said, "Post Rafale too, the Defence Acquisition Council meets every fortnight. We have been clearing things which are vital for the armed forces. Nothing has stopped us. The speed during Manohar Parrikar's time and Arun Jaitley's time continues even now."
On giving emergency powers of up to Rs 300 crores to the services for meeting their critical requirements, the Defence Minister said, "earlier also we had given emergency powers post-Uri attacks. We had also given them the power to choose what they want to buy. If they want to quickly purchase some ammunition post-Pulwama, they can go ahead. So, this happens at least under Modi and the NDA government. Armed forces have the margin of acquiring quickly."
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also spoke about the letter by some retired personnel to President Ram Nath Kovind expressing concern at the politicisation of the armed forces and asserted that credibility of the appeal made was lost after some of the senior retired personnel named in the letter said that they "neither signed it nor were a party to it".
"All of us will have to be conscious that we do not do anything which could raise questions on our credibility. Even if one individual has a problem and says that I have not signed it (the letter) or I am not a party to it, then the credibility of the whole appeal is lost," she said.
More than 150 veterans of the Indian armed forces reportedly wrote to Kovind urging him to stop the politicisation of the military in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The letter urged Kovind to "take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas".
The letter went viral before it reached the President. And as soon as the letter came out, two former services chiefs including Air Chief Marshal NC Suri and former Army Chief General SF Rodrigues denied having given their consent for the letter.
"We in the services have always done what the government in power ordered us. We are an instrument of the state. We are apolitical. Anyone can say anything and then sell it as fake news. I don't know who this gentleman is who wrote this (the letter)," General (retired) Rodrigues had told ANI.
Sitharaman said that she has not met with any of the veterans who wrote the letter. She underscored that though nobody has stopped the veterans from approaching the President, the timing of the letter was bound to raise questions.
"All this gives rise to questions, what is this? who has written it?. I concede that they have every business to write to the supreme commander but I am entitled to my right of questioning it," she said.
The Defence Minister stated that while she agrees with the sentiment that there should be no politicisation of the armed forces, she also believes that it is not wrong to highlight the tough decisions made by the government.
"Does this mean the government should not speak about what decisions it takes? Without the kind of political will we had and the way we gave a free hand to the armed forces, was it possible to carry out such operations? After the 2008 attack nothing happened," she said.
"It is not like everything happened in 2019. Action was taken in 2016 after Uri attack as well, she added.
Sitharaman said she was "only highlighting the fact that a government must have a clear mindset that it needs to stand up to defend the sovereignty of the country and therefore, talking about the political will, which made the difference is not the politicisation of the armed forces"
The Minister said during the political campaign in various parts of the country including Kerala from where she returned yesterday, the common people wanted her to talk about the Balakot strikes.
"I speak for a while on development or on issues related income being doubled for farmers, sanitation and so on. People from some corner of the crowd would shout Balakot or Pulwama. I don't respond for some time. But then you have leaders on the dais who say that you should speak about it as the defence minister. The moment I utter the word Balakot or Pulwama, you should hear the sound of applause which envelopes the environment," she said.
The defence minister underlined that the "mood in the country at present was similar to what it was post the Uri attack." "People were looking up to us. They wanted the government to take action to curb terrorism," he added.
The Minister also highlighted that unlike the perception that issues pertaining to Pakistan or border don't get much attention down south, youth in huge numbers from the southern states are aspiring to join the armed forces post the Balakot air strike.
"I am getting reports that apart from public meetings and campaigning, for recruitment into the armed forces, there is a hike in demand now. People want to join the forces as they see what is happening. In Tumkur, people asked me in Kannada to speak about Balakot air strikes".
Sitharaman also empathised with BJP candidate and actor Jaya Prada on the issue of objectionable remarks made against her and said that the political leaders should apply their minds before they speak about women-related issues.
"100 per cent. It is always easy to hit at a woman when you talk about other things which don't become part of the conversation or which are not germane to the discussion. You easily pick up on things which are very personal or are gender specific and not called for at all. I find that coming very easily without a thought," she said.
"That is where I think all of us think before the word comes out of the vocal cord to the lips. There should be some kind of momentary application of mind at least," said the Defence Minister on Jaya Prada and other women politicians who have to face sexist remarks from male counterparts.
On Sunday, Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan had stated in a public rally, "I brought her (Jaya Prada) to Rampur. You are a witness that I did not allow anyone to touch her body. It took you 17 years to identify her real face but I got to know in 17 days that she wears khaki underwear".
The Defence Minister asserted that politicians should respect one another.
"We have to draw a line. Irrespective of the party line I think we have all learnt from good public discourse. It should be in the back of our minds what we talk about in politics as that is the legacy we leave behind for the next generation and we have a responsibility towards it," Sitharaman said.
Questioned about her meeting Congress MP Shashi Tharoor in a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram, the Defence Minister said she had gone to meet the ailing leader during election campaign there as he had suffered an injury while performing a ritual at a temple in the city.
"So, I thought that it was right that I go to the hospital and wish him well. I had not informed anybody including people in my party circles. On my way back to the airport, I thought I should visit him in the hospital and that is it," the Defence Minister said.
In the times when political leaders are not known to show such civility to political rivals, the picture of Sitharaman calling on the bed-ridden Tharoor has been appreciated very widely on social media.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)