G Parthasarathy examines the political aftermath of the Pulwama attack and the influence exerted by Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Maulana Masood Azhar
China has shown a remarkable ability to get its way in Multilateral International Forums. It skilfully uses its position as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council to ensure that it is not seen to be isolated or obstructive on issues of global concern.
Yet on February 14, Beijing found that it had to use its veto to prevent approval of a Resolution sponsored by the US, UK, France and Germany to declare Maulana Masood Azhar – leader of the jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which was named a global terrorist organisation in 2001 by the Security Council – an international terrorist. While it did not sponsor the Resolution, Russia nevertheless backed it, so with 14 members of the UN Security Council against it, China found itself in splendid isolation. The Chinese argued they needed further discussion on the subject, after they exercised their fourth veto since 2016 to protect Azhar.
So, what is one to make of China’s disinclination to act against a terrorist accused of such crimes? And what value does Masood Azhar bring to his country that he remains untouched for his past actions? These are queries constantly raised in India. Many aver that it is India’s growing ties with the US that irk China. While this may be a reason that motivates current Chinese policies, it ignores the reality that for over four decades now, China has been a major partner in the supply of nuclear weapons, missile designs and equipment for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme. This has been reinforced by China’s supply of JF 17 fighter aircraft, submarines, frigates and other defence equipment to Pakistan. In New Delhi’s perspective, China regards Pakistan as an instrument for low-cost containment of India. China and India, however, appear committed to promoting bilateral trade and economic ties, while not allowing differences over their land border to escalate tensions.
Both JeM and Azhar himself have interesting backgrounds. The outfit is based in Bahawalpur in Southern Punjab in Pakistan and observes the Deobandi school of Islam that emerged in India in the 19th century. Deobandi religious practices are prevalent in parts of north India, Pakistan’s southern Punjab and amongst Pashtuns across the Durand Line in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Taliban have a close relationship with JeM but Indian Deobandis, while conservative, have integrated into the Indian political mainstream.
Masood Azhar, who is personally committed to Islamic ‘jihad’, was arrested after he illegally crossed into Jammu and Kashmir in 1997. Then, in December 1999, his followers hijacked an Indian Airlines passenger aircraft in Nepal. It was flown to Kandahar, where Mullah Omar, then leader of the Afghan Taliban, resided.
On December 31, the last day of the 20th century, India made the serious blunder of surrendering to the demands of the hijackers, following threats that the aircraft would be blown up. India released not only Azhar but also a British national, Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had participated in the ‘Bosnian jihad’, and Mushtaq Zargar, a Kashmiri terrorist. Sheikh, arrested for attempting to kidnap western tourists in India, remains in Pakistani custody for his role in transferring $100,000 to hijackers involved in the 9/11 hijacking and in the killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Mushtaq Zargar lives comfortably across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
New Delhi is aware of the clout that Azhar wields in Pakistan, particularly with the country’s military. A former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Lt. General Javed Ashraf Qazi, then Pakistan’s Railway Minister, told the country’s Parliament in 2004 that Pakistan had to acknowledge that Maulana Azhar was not only involved in the December 2001 JEM attack on India’s Parliament but had also attempted to assassinate Pakistan’s then President, Pervez Musharraf. General Musharraf repeated this charge recently.
Just after Prime Minister Modi returned to India following a personal visit to Lahore for the marriage of former PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked an Indian air base in Pathankot, close to the India-Pakistan border. Wireless intercepts clearly established that the attackers were from Bahawalpur, JeM’s headquarters. A close aide of Nawaz Sharif had to be sacked because the army alleged he was responsible for a leak about differences between the military and government over the Pathankot attack. The assessment now is that, as the Americans prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Jaish will remain an important asset, for use across Pakistan’s borders with India and Afghanistan.
Tensions with Pakistan escalated when a JeM spokesman accepted responsibility for triggering the February 14 suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, in which over 40 paramilitary personnel were killed. India retaliated with a precision air attack by Mirage 2000 aircraft on a large JeM training and indoctrination centre in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. New Delhi made it clear that the attack was directed exclusively at the base of an internationally banned terrorist organisation. (Interestingly, the base remained shut off to all visitors, even three weeks after the attack.)
Islamabad mounted a counter air attack the next day, in which it claimed two Indian Mig 21 fighters were downed. Apprehensive of American sanctions, Pakistan also maintained that no American F 16s were used – a claim refuted by the fact that the remnants of an American AM-Ram missile, used exclusively by F 16s, were found in Indian territory.
India has now made it clear that it reserves the right to cross the international border to strike at terrorist bases in Pakistan and in territories controlled by Pakistan. It had earlier indicated that its forces would respect the ‘sanctity’ of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. That position changed in September 2016 when Indian forces crossed the LoC to attack Pakistan outposts – something which Pakistan refutes. Sceptical Indians recall that till the formal surrender of over 75,000 troops in Bangladesh, the Pakistan army had made out that it was advancing on all fronts.
But, narratives aside, India has now indicated that borders can be stable and peaceful only if both parties respect their sanctity and inviolability. Many in New Delhi are, however, none too optimistic about better relations with India’s western neighbour as long as the army, and not the elected government, dominates the conduct of national policies.
With India heading for Parliamentary elections in April-May, it will be unrealistic to expect any new initiative in India-Pakistan relations any time soon, as a new government will assume office only in June. But contacts between the militaries and foreign offices of the two countries will continue, seeking to ensure that new tensions and flashpoints do not suddenly emerge. Meanwhile, India has been very satisfied with the international support and understanding it has received in recent months.