Masood Azhar is a much sought after man. India seeks him in order to punish him for a number of militant attacks in Kashmir. The United States seeks to have him declared a global terrorist. China, too, is seeking to save him from being designated as a terrorist. And Pakistan seeks to defend him for all of the reasons above.
Azhar recently stoked anger in India after his militant outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammad, claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that killed 40 Indian soldiers in Pulwama town of the occupied Kashmir. A video of a young Kashmiri, who was alleged to have carried out the attack, shows him claiming to be a Jaish member. This video cannot be treated as an incriminating evidence but New Delhi already has much against Azhar to take the attacker’s claim on its face value. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in particular, has an uncomfortable history with him.
In the 1990s, Azhar was the general secretary of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HuA), a militant group that, as per a claim by the United States Central Investigation Agency, “Pakistan supports in its proxy war against Indian forces in Kashmir”. He was later arrested from Srinagar while on a trip to pacify two warring HuA factions. A year later, a little known militant group kidnapped a few foreign tourists from Kashmir and demanded Azhar’s release for theirs.
When that was unsuccessful, his brother-in-law masterminded the hijacking of a plane en route to Delhi from Kathmandu. The plane was redirected to Kandahar which was then a part of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. Under pressure, the BJP’s government in India decided to release Azhar in exchange for the plane’s passengers. To add insult to injury, he arrived in Pakistan and, addressing a public gathering in Karachi, said Muslims should not rest until Kashmir was liberated. Pakistan insisted he had not broken any laws of the land and, thus, could not be arrested.
Even though Azhar has still not broken any Pakistani laws, he and his organisation are now facing a crackdown. In a recent interview with the BBC, foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the government has taken control of Jaish’s madrasa in Bahawalpur. State minister for interior Shehryar Afridi claimed that Azhar’s brother and son have been detained. India still does not believe these to be serious moves. Taking matters into its own hands, it sent fighter planes to strike at an alleged Jaish training camp near Balakot town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
That Azhar’s name gets mentioned with reference to almost every major militant attack in Kashmir is not entirely an exaggeration. The insurgency in the India-occupied state is now over 30 years old and militant leaders like him have been at the centre of it throughout this period. But many of this insurgency’s Kashmiri leaders, whom India calls separatists, were once willing to contest elections under the Indian constitution.
Yasin Malik once campaigned for a Muslim United Front candidate, Mohammad Yusuf Shah, in the legislative assembly elections of 1987. Both were later arrested and Shah went on to become the commander-in-chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a collective of militant groups operating in Kashmir, calling himself Syed Salahuddin.
That Malik and Salahuddin became the face of Kashmir’s struggle for freedom proves why the alienation in the Indian-held territory is homegrown. Pakistan, on its part, might have used this alienation to project the struggle as a fight between Muslim Kashmir and Hindu India, encouraging Islamic militant groups and pan-Islamist organisations such as Jaish to stoke the fires of militancy there. Pakistan might have also turned a blind eye to the infiltration of fighters from its side of the border into Kashmir.
But India must realise that the uprising in Kashmir is a reaction to its own blatant violation of human rights there and that it is these human rights violations which are forcing many Kashmiri young men to join groups such as Jaish.
Pakistan, too, has much to prove even though its release of the captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman has won it international plaudits. Every time it has faced international pressure post-2000, it has detained militant leaders and padlocked their offices and madrasas — only to take back these steps later. Many breakaway members of these organisations, meanwhile, have also turned against the Pakistani state and launched attacks on Pakistani land and against its people. For too many times have these chickens come home to roost. A serious and tangible action against
Azhar may reverse this deadly trend.
This article was published in the Herald's April 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.