In a move that is being hailed as a diplomatic victory for India, the United Nations on Wednesday listed Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. The victory was achieved with China’s support.
Here’s what it means for India’s efforts to combat terrorism, relations between Delhi and Beijing, and the Lok Sabha election now underway.
Who is Masood Azhar?
Masood Azhar, a Pakistani national, was active in the Kashmir insurgency during the 1990s. He was arrested by the Indian security forces in 1994 but released in 1999 after Indian Airlines flight IC 814 from Kathmandu, Nepal, was hijacked. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government transported Azhar to Afghanistan, then ruled by the Taliban, in exchange for the passengers being freed.
Once back in Pakistan, Azhar founded the Jaish. It was widely believed to be working with global terror networks such as Al Qaeda and getting help from the Pakistani spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence.
In the last two decades, the Jaish has conducted several high-profile terror attacks. It was involved in the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001. The following year, Jaish members abducted and murdered the American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi. India has also blamed the group for the 2008 Mumbai attack as well as the 2016 attacks on an Air Force base in Pathankot, Punjab, and an Army camp in Uri, Kashmir.
In February 2019, a Jaish suicide bomber blew up a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama, Kashmir, killing over 40 personnel.
Why did it take the UN so long to declare him a terrorist?
India asked for the UN to designate Azhar a terrorist following the Mumbai attack. But China, acting on behalf of Pakistan, used its veto in the UN Security Council to block the move.
After the Pulwama attack, however, both Pakistan and China came under sustained international pressure to rein in Azhar and his group. The United States, the United Kingdom and France supported India’s bid to designate Azhar a terrorist, leading to China vacating its objections.
In fact, the United States on Wednesday claimed Azhar’s blacklisting was a “victory for American diplomacy”.
Why did China change its position?
A major reason, of course, was the sustained international pressure by India, the US, Britain and France. There was even a threat to put the question of blacklisting Azhar to a public vote – a move that would have been very embarrassing for China.
Commentators have pointed to other reasons as well, chief among them the 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping. Roderick Macfarquhar, professor of history and political science at Harvard University, has argued that the summit potentially enabled China to arrest Delhi’s drift toward the US and helped Modi by ensuring Chinese cooperation ahead of the 2019 general election. He may be referring to a possible repeat of the Doklam crisis.
In 2017, China started laying a road in Doklam sector, near its border trijunction with India and Bhutan, leading to a tense standoff between Indian and Chinese armies that ended after 74 days with both sides withdrawing. Commenting on it, Thomas Kellogg noted in Foreign Policy magazine that “at any time, China can create a security crisis for India, merely by placing more troops in the disputed territory”.
What does this mean for India’s anti-terror operations?
Azhar’s blacklisting is indeed a victory for Indian diplomacy and an indicator of changing global currents. But by itself the designation carries little weight. In the past, the UN has listed Hafiz Saeed, Abdur Rahman and Zaki Ur Rahman Lakhvi of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim as terrorists. That has barely helped India curb their activities.
Reacting to the UN’s move, the strategic affairs commentator Brahma Chellaney argued that terrorism emanating from Pakistan “can be contained only through Indian military pressure and non-military penal actions”.
How will this impact Indian politics?
The move will provide more firepower to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is fighting this election mainly on the plank of national security. The move could not have come at a better time for the BJP, since most of the Hindi heartland will go to polls in the final three phases. This will allow the saffron party to better keep the focus on national security and hamper the Opposition’s efforts to raise economic issues such as unemployment and agrarian distress.
Indeed, within a few hours of the announcement, Modi spoke about the UN’s move at a campaign rally in Jaipur. “I want to tell them [the Congress] that this is just not Modi’s success, it’s the success of the whole country and its 130 crore people,” he declared.