Masood Azhar’s release 20 years ago changed the India-Pakistan equation significantly

INDIA-PAKISTAN/UN-CHINA Masood Azhar | Reuters

THE CLOSEST INDIA has got to tightening the noose around Masood Azhar is a diplomatic win in New York. On May 1, 2019, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) designated Masood Azhar a global terrorist. It took a decade and four attempts for India to get Azhar’s name on that list; China had repeatedly blocked it.

As a result of the UNSC listing, Pakistan must freeze Azhar’s assets, and impose a travel ban and arms embargo on him. In theory, it ensures a total shutdown of Azhar’s operations. However, in reality, these sanctions seem to be only on paper.

Azhar was arrested in March 2019, along with his son Hammad, his brother Rauf and 40 other militants, to demonstrate Pakistan’s resolve against terror. India had shared a dossier with Pakistan that named Hammad and Rauf. (Rauf is believed to have been the handler of the IC 814 hijack.) But Indian intelligence agencies say that Azhar was secretly released in September. In an interview, Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said that Azhar is in Pakistan, and is “really unwell”.

Indian agencies believe the alleged release of Azhar was a strategic step, in retaliation to India revoking Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir; Indian sleuths said he has been asked to increase terrorist activity in the valley. There have been concerns about an “underwater attack” by Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). India has been stressing on “irreversible action” against Azhar, the man behind many terrorist attacks, including the 2019 Pulwama attack. He was charge-sheeted by India’s National Investgation Agency for the 2016 Pathankot attack.

Reflecting India’s concern, the 2+2 joint statement with America called on Pakistan to take “immediate” action against terror groups. Specifically, JeM, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network, Hizbul Mujahideen, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company. This came on the heels of India and Japan asking Pakistan to take concrete action against terror.

Azhar is believed to be living in a crowded area in Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab province. He has shown a knack for surviving calls for his arrest amid international pressure. He was detained by Pakistani authorities in December 2001, following the attack on the Indian Parliament earlier in the month. In 2008, too, he was reportedly placed under house arrest in connection with the Mumbai attacks. But Azhar was never charged.

Azhar’s release 20 years ago has changed the India-Pakistan equation significantly. The demand for a clamp down on Azhar’s terror activities has been part of every India-Pakistan exchange during that time period, especially after the 2001 Parliament attack. And, even after the UNSC listing, Pakistan has not taken significant and irreversible steps.