Not politically important in Pakistan, Masood Azhar’s alleged actions have negatively affected Pak-India relations
Maulana Masood Azhar has lived a charmed life -- having sustained injuries and survived fighting in Afghanistan and later secured an impossible release from Indian custody.
The 47-year old militant has now got help from an unlikely source as China, on technical grounds, blocked a recent Indian bid to list him under the United Nations’ al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee. If the Indian move had succeeded, Masood Azhar’s name would have been added to the UN Security Council list of proscribed global terrorists.
As one of the five Security Council members, China had earlier also blocked a similar Indian bid after the 1998 terrorist attacks in Mumbai even though New Delhi had lobbied successfully in 2001 to have his group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), banned by the UN.
China cannot have sympathy for Masood Azhar and it has twice condemned the January 2 attack on the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot for which India blamed the JeM. China opposed the Indian bid on technicalities as it felt there wasn’t sufficient evidence linking Masood Azhar with al-Qaeda. The US, Britain and France, the three western members of the powerful UN Security Council, reportedly backed India while Russia wouldn’t have opposed it considering the historically friendly relations between Moscow and New Delhi.
The Chinese move benefited Masood Azhar and frustrated India. It also inserted a new uncertainty into the uneasy relations between China and India. Indian officials were quoted as saying that India was considering putting China back on its ‘country of concern’ list and revisiting the security clearance already given to Chinese investment in the country. The Indians have pointed out that they agreed to a liberalised regime for Chinese investment, but a review needs to take place if China isn’t willing to cooperate on matters of high security for India.
No concrete measures have yet been put in place by India towards this end and the situation may remain as such as the Indians won’t like to jeopardise the much-needed Chinese investment. Almost every country in the world is hankering after Chinese investment nowadays, and sacrificing the deal on a matter that is complex and ongoing may not serve Indian interests.
Masood Azhar isn’t a very visible or politically important person in Pakistan, but his alleged actions have negatively affected relations between Islamabad and New Delhi for years and could now dilute the growing positivity in the Sino-Indian ties, particularly in the sphere of trade and commerce. He isn’t someone who matters a lot in the country, but his role internationally is widely discussed and taken note of.
At home, he has spent the last several years quietly, often staying away from public limelight and devoting much of his time to writing. His regular column under the pen-name of Saadi in a pro-militants newspaper provides glimpse into his views on current issues and also those of the life Hereafter.
However, the Pathankot attack brought back Masood Azhar into the limelight and renewed calls by India and many other countries on Pakistan to rein-in his activities. He was already one of the most wanted men for India, but now he has been equated or even termed deadlier than Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of the Jama’at-ud-Da’awah.
The Bahawalpur-born Masood Azhar is stated to be one of the 10 siblings belonging to a religious family. His father was headmaster of a government school. Masood Azhar studied at madrassas, including the well-known Jamiat Uloom al-Islamia at the Binori Town, Karachi where he was indoctrinated and drafted into the Harkatul Ansar, one of the forebears of the subsequent militant groups that have now splintered and mostly turned against the state of Pakistan due to a change in Islamabad’s previous policy of harbouring them.
After suffering injuries fighting the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan that put him out of action, he was made Harkatul Ansar’s motivation department and also editor of its Urdu magazine, Sada-i-Mujahideen and the Arabic language, Sawte Kashmir. This was the beginning of his career as a motivational leader of militants aiming to recruit and mobilise young men to fight holy wars in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir and Afghanistan.
There is also record of Masood Azhar undertaking preaching and fund-collection visits to countries in Asia, mostly Middle East, Africa and Europe. He wasn’t then on any radar and was thus able to travel to many places, make acquaintances and build alliances.
In early 1994, Masood Azhar sneaked into Srinagar, apparently to ease the tension between rival factions of Kashmiri militant groups. It was a daring move and not out of character for him. The Indians got information about his presence soon afterwards and he was arrested in February 1994 and lodged in the Kot Bhalwal jail. The militants made efforts to secure his release including one in 1995 when a group, Al-Faran, kidnapped foreign tourists in Jammu & Kashmir to demand a prisoners’ swap. The Indian government refused to free him and eventually one tourist escaped and the others got killed.
However, India acceded to the demand in December 1999 when militants reportedly led by Masood Azhar’s brother Ibrahim Athar hijacked an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and got him released along with a few others held by the Indian government.
This was major victory for the militants and it raised Masood Azhar’s profile and status. Once back to Pakistan, he addressed a crowd of supporters believed to be 10,000 in Karachi and declared that he and fellow Muslims should not rest in peace unless Kashmir is liberated from Indian rule. This had been his mission all these years and his commitment to the cause increased once he won his freedom from Indian custody.
Masood Azhar had now become too big to work under the command of anyone else or stay in the old militant groups. He soon launched JeM and built it into a powerful militant group focusing on Kashmir and occasionally, as alleged by New Delhi, on the whole of India. Pakistan detained him for about a year after Indians blamed him, among others, for the attack on its Parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001, but he wasn’t formally charged while the Lahore High Court ordered an end to his house arrest in December 2002.
This time though, India appears determined to continue applying pressure on Pakistan through various quarters to bring Masood Azhar to justice for his alleged role in the Pathankot attack. Already, India has made it clear that the dialogue with Pakistan won’t be revived until it acts decisively on Pathankot. Pakistan has promised to cooperate and an investigation team has just paid a visit to India, including the Pathankot airbase, to take forward the process.
However, there is still no indication that Masood Azhar was directly involved in the attack because the evidence presented by India needs to be checked by Pakistan.
One doesn’t know if Masood Azhar may again emerge unscathed from this, but the Pathankot incident could keep India and Pakistan from overcoming distrust and engaging in meaningful talks to resolve their many disputes, including the latest one involving the arrest of an Indian spy from Balochistan.