Modi’s Masood Azhar ‘Coup’ With China’s Help: A Political Bargain?

Questions are being raised as to the rather strategic timing of China removing its hold on Masood Azhar’s listing.

4 min read

The most important question that comes to mind after China has lifted its hold on Masood Azhar’s designation as a terrorist under UN rules is: Why now? Why plumb in the middle of the general elections? The simple answer would be: to oblige Narendra Modi, whose government has assiduously campaigned to have this done.

But that would be too simplistic. We have already had four phases of our seven phase elections. So, it can’t really be about helping Modi. Can it?

Maybe, the Chinese are playing it both ways. If Modi wins, they can always say that they came through. If he loses, they will deny that their decision had anything to do with elections.

Too caught up to read? Listen to it instead.

The second question that follows is: what has India conceded to the Chinese in exchange? If you believe that the Chinese did it because they were convinced of our case, you probably also believe that pigs can fly.


How India Managed to Get China On Board

The actual story is that the Modi government did put in a great deal of effort to have this done as part of its electoral strategy. Given their full-spectrum approach where they have punched every conceivable button to win the elections — from the orthodox approach of getting the right caste combination and outspending adversaries, the Enforcement Directorate to hound rivals, biopics, TV shows and endorsements from film stars — the hard-sell diplomacy should not be a surprise.

According to knowledgeable sources, the push to have Masood Azhar designated as a terrorist by the UN was a major part of Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s two-day visit to Beijing  on 21-22 April. 

Officially he was there for “routine consultations” but circles in Beijing said that he wanted China to make a commitment on the issue immediately.

Busy with the 2nd Belt and Road Forum – a massive jamboree that saw some 37 foreign heads of state and government, including President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, the UN Secretary General António Guterres and the IMF chief Christine Lagarde in Beijing last week – the Chinese had deferred the decision till now.

Our Trysts With Jaish

Let’s not get too carried away by the claim that Beijing was convinced by the new evidence that Gokhale took with him. This is a political bargain, plain and simple. The UN notice adding Azhar to the list simply speaks of his being the founder of the Jaish-e-Mohammed and former leader of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, both organisations already proscribed by the same committee for some time now. There is no reference to Pulwama, Pathankot or any other action of the Jaish in recent years.

The Jaish has a long history with India. Masood Azhar, an ideologue for the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, reincarnated as the head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed shortly after the BJP-led government released him in 2000 in exchange for a plane load of passengers who had been hijacked to Kandahar.

The very next year, his new outfit carried out an attack on Parliament House,, bringing India and Pakistan to the brink of war. In recent years, it has overtaken the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba in its ability to mount attacks in India which it has done in Pathankot, Uri and Nagrota in 2016, Sunjuwan in 2018 and Pulwama in 2019.


Will Masood Azhar’s Listing Impact Indian Elections?

China has been blocking the designation of Azhar under what is called the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee. India had first moved to have him designated on the list in 2009. Then again after the Pathankot attack it sought to do so with the help of the US, UK and France. But it was foiled by China. In 2017, again, an effort was made to put Masood Azhar on the list, and again it failed.

Following the Pulwama attack that led to the killing of 40 CRPF personnel, UK and France had moved a proposal yet again, to designate Azhar in the Committee list. Despite the fact that the Jaish-e-Mohammed had acknowledged its role in the attack, China again stalled it, saying that there was need for consensus, before the issue could be taken up

Will it make a difference in the elections?  That’s not easy to say. Modi is skilled in seizing the narrative, and he and his supporters are presenting this as a great victory for his government.

But is it that great a victory ?


How We Should Have Really Dealt With Masood Azhar

Actually, to use the English phrase, it is the equivalent of bashing  a straw man. Masood Azhar is a terrorist, and has been responsible for some terrible acts of terrorism against India. But getting him onto a UN list is not going to make much of a difference. Ask Lashkar-e-Tayyeba chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was put on the same list in 2009, but continues to flourish in Pakistan. Being listed will merely result in his assets being frozen and a travel ban. Something of a slap on the wrist.

For three years, as the Jaish stepped up its attacks on India, killing scores of Army and paramilitary personnel, all that the Modi government did was to push files in the UN to have him on a paper list at the UN Headquarters in New York.

The reality is that the only good way of dealing with a terrorist like Azhar is to arrest him and put him on trial and lock him away, or, better, put him on death row. But those were not the options that the Modi government pursued, even as the Jaish rampaged across India. For it to claim any kind of victory, then, does sound a bit hollow.

That reminds us that during the last general election, Modi promised to bring back that other person—Dawood Ibrahim. Whatever happened to him?

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation and a member of Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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