Ban on Azhar and beyond

The UN Security Council’s decision to brand Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist after China finally fell in line with the international community and dropped its “technical” hold to the move is quite naturally being viewed in India as a huge diplomatic triumph. For, it is Azhar who is the mastermind of a series of deadly terror attacks on democratic institutions and innocent citizens in Indian cities over the years including the assault on Parliament in 2001. The decision brings to fruition India’s decade-long efforts that began during the Congress party rule in 2009 to have the tag of global terrorist to Azhar.

The fact that it took ten years to blacklist Azhar when JeM itself was put on the list of proscribed groups in October 2001 for its links with the Al Qaeda and the Taliban defied all cannons of logic. The wait was due to China’s steadfast refusal in the past to endorse the move to designate Azhar as a global terrorist because of its “all-weather” ally Pakistan. Beijing was apprehensive of a backlash from JeM to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through parts of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir that can jeopardize the safety of Chinese personnel engaged in that ambitions project which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The fact that China lifted its “technical” hold on the action against Azhar soon after the very recent visit by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to that country may have resulted in some kind of assurance by Islamabad to ensure the protection of Chinese personnel engaged in the CPEC project.    

China had thwarted the UN ban on Azhar, who was freed by India in 1999 in exchange for safe release of 155 passengers of an Indian Airlines hijacked from Kathmandu to Kandahar in Taliban-ruled Kabul at that time, for the last three years. It was after the Pulwama attack, for which JeM claimed responsibility, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary men in February this year, India worked with countries like the US, the UK and France to pressure China to back off from its opposition to blacklisting Azhar. Even as India shared clinching evidence of JeM hand and Azhar’s involvement in the Pulwama incident and launched a fresh effort to have the JeM chief blacklisted, China kept insisting on more proof. It was at this stage that the US, the UK and France mounted diplomatic pressure on China to drop its objection. Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay K Gokhale himself travelled to Beijing in April to argue New Delhi’s case and met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Xi. However, It is to the immense credit to India’s diplomacy that instead of getting put off by China’s obduracy, it worked with “patience and persistence” to quote the words of Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar.

 There may be some disappointment in the final formulation of the listing by the UN Security Council as it does not contain any direct reference to Azhar’s role in the Pulwama attack or terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. A specific reference to the Pulwama attack was in the original proposal put forward by France in March this year. There are suggestions that the absence of any mention of the Pulwama incident in the UN listing on the JeM chief might have been a trade-off to make China change of mind and bring on board on the issue. But Pakistan’s claim of a face-saver by pointing to the non-mention of reference to the Pulwama incident in the final UN listing rings hollow as the efforts to have Azhar UN designated  global terrorist began much before Pulwama. Secondly, the UNSC’s unanimous resolution on February 21 clearly named JeM as being responsible for the Pulwama attack and demanded that perpetrators be brought to justice.

The UNSC designation of Azhar as a global terrorist at its 1267 ISIL and Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee now paves the stage for another challenging chapter in the international community’s attempt to pressurise Pakistan to act further against him. The focus must now move to ensuring its full implementation in Pakistan of the UN listing. The objective is challenging because one finds that Islamabad has taken no action against terror outfits Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, also a Pakistani, even he and his parent organization Jamaat-ud-Dawah are all under the UN sanctions and the US has announced a ten million dollar bounty for him in April, 2012. With the tacit backing of Pakistan’s military establishment, JuD’s frontal groups had even taken part in the last parliamentary polls in Pakistan in a bid to join the political mainstream.  The seminaries and so-called charity organizations and terror training infrastructure linked to Saeed and Azhar continue to function in Pakistan without any hindrance. This is because Pakistan sees the terror groups as its strategic tools to target India.

One has to wait and see if Pakistan continues with its old mindset of business-as-usual after the UNSC blacklisting of Azhar. The UNSC action mandates Pakistan to clamp down on his travel, freeze on assets and flow of funds and arms. Pakistan has promised to do that but its past record of doing this is questionable and does not inspire trust. That is why the blacklisting of Azhar by the UNSC does not automatically lead to switching off terror fountain in Pakistan.  Now that China has chosen to take side on the issue of tagging Azhar with the UN global terrorist description, it remains to be seen if it leans on Pakistan for follow-up action.

The UNSC action against Azhar is already showing ramifications for the Indian political scenario in the midst of parliamentary elections. The UNSC decision has come at a time when the first four phases of the elections covering 303 of the total of 543 seats are over and three more phases are to be held between May 6 and 19 with the BJP needing to retain a large number of seats it had won in the previous national elections five years ago in order to retain power. The last three phases will cover constituencies in six states Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Haryana.     

The BJP has made national security and Modi’s strong and decisive leader as its key poll plank. The party sharpened that plank using the Indian air strikes on JeM terror camp in Balakot, Pakistan, in February and was quick to make political and electoral capital out of the blacklisting of Azhar. Addressing a poll rally in Jaipur hours after the UNSC action, Modi himself took the lead in terming it as a “big win” for India. Senior BJP leaders like party chief Amit Shah and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman followed suit one after another to claim victory for Modi’s diplomacy. The ruling party is hoping that the subject of national security remains on the top of voters’ mind space and trumps the opposition parties’ efforts to flag livelihood issues on which there is widespread resentment against the BJP’s report card of the last five years.  

A political sparring has already begun with the main opposition Congress also trying to take the credit for having initiated the process of UNSC blacklisting of Azhar way back in 2009 when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister. The party also recalled how it was during its rule that Hafiz Saeed was brought under the same blacklist.

Pallab Bhattacharya is a journalist based in India