The brief, but intense, military face-off between India and Pakistan, with its attendant feverishness, seems to be over. However, to construe it as the end of PM Narendra Modi’s war on terror inside Pakistan could perhaps be a mistake. Except that the theatre has now expanded to also include the diplomatic front.
Not that the other front has entirely cooled. Yes, in an interesting manifestation of a thaw, the two sides agreed to hold a meeting along the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab on March 14 to discuss the Kartarpur Corridor. The proposed passageway will enable Sikh pilgrims from India to visit and pay homage to Guru Nanak at his final resting place at Kartarpur gurudwara in Pakistan. It might seem to be a positive sign of de-escalation, but the unabated exchange of heavy shelling and firing between rival troops along the Line of Control indicate otherwise.
“All options are open,” sources in India say, on the eventuality of another terrorist attack from Pakistan. Indeed, political and diplomatic circles are hotly speculating about a further bout of hostility, and what form and intensity it might take. In plainspeak, if there was another terror attack on India from across the border, New Delhi’s response could well be as dramatic as the February 26 airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist facility at Balakot deep inside Pakistan.
How Pakistan reacts to such an event and if this could spark a full-fledged armed confrontation between the nuclear-armed neighbours continue to be tetchy questions among regional nations and those beyond volatile South Asia.
India had dubbed the Balakot operation as a ‘non-military, pre-emptive’ strike to deter the JeM from launching attacks, a reasoning that Pakistan had refused to accept. Within 24 hours of the airstrike, it had flown its fighter jets across the LoC into India, targeting Indian military facilities. The timely, effective joining of battle by Indian fighters notwithstanding, the ensuing dogfight ended in IAF fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman bailing out of his aircraft into Pakistani territory and being captured.
His safe return has contributed to a pause in overt hostilities, though India maintains it is in no mood to relent on the pressure on Pakistan until it dismantles the jehadi infrastructure on its soil.
For now, India seems to have concentrated its focus on increased diplomatic pressure—something that reportedly bore down heavily on Pakistan after both the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrike. New Delhi has activated its missions in different world capitals and entrusted ambassadors to apprise host countries of the reason behind India’s actions. Documentary evidence shared with Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack clearly shows the vicious hand of the Jaish hand behind the murderous act. It has been shared with other governments.
Much of the initial drive was led by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who briefed her Chinese and Russian counterparts, Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov, in China’s Zhejiang last week. On March 1, she notably also became the first Indian leader to address the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Her presence at the OIC foreign ministers’ meeting as a ‘guest of honour’ was both historic and also an attempt by OIC leaders to correct a 50-year-old wrong.
In the first Islamic Conference, convened hurriedly at Morrocan capital Rabat in 1969 in the wake of an attack on the Al Aqsa mosque in Palestine by an Australian fanatic, India was invited as a country with a substantial Muslim population (60 million out of a population of 540 million in 1969). But when Pakistan president Yahya Khan objected and refused to attend the proceedings, India was forcedly kept out.
This time around too, Pakistani foreign minister Mehmood Qureshi made a similar demand of withdrawing the invitation given to Sushma Swaraj. But neither the host UAE nor other members of 57-member organisation heeded Islamabad’s plea. A sulking Qureshi had to sit out while Swaraj spoke before the OIC leaders. She not only stressed on India’s pluralism but also argued that “the fight against terrorism cannot be seen as a fight against any particular religion”.
Significantly, the conspicuously warm welcome to Swaraj didn’t stop the OIC from declaring its customary pro-Kashmir resolution—an embarrassment for New Delhi, given the strongly worded call for India to cease its “atrocities”. But, equally significantly, its refusal to withdraw the invitation to India indicates a growing keenness in the Islamic world to balance its old, natural tilt towards Pakistan by actively engaging New Delhi.
Pakistani officials announce the crackdown on terror groups.
Meanwhile, growing international pressure seeking urgent action against terrorist groups based in Pakistan—including by the global money-laundering watchdog FATF’s vigil against terror funding—seems to have had some salutary effect. Last week, it launched a drive against 44 proscribed terror outfits that had hitherto been operating freely. On March 5, it also took both Masood Azhar’s brother, Mufti Abdul Rauf, and son Hamad Azhar into “preventive custody”. But there is nothing yet to suggest that these two JeM leaders, who had been named in the Indian dossier given to Pakistan, were to be tried for any crime. In the ongoing drive, Pakistani officials also took into custody 42 leaders of other proscribed groups. It also put former Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) on the list of banned terror outfits.
But the fact is, neither Masood Azhar, reported to be seriously ill, nor Hafiz Saeed were arrested, raising questions in India about the genuineness of Pakistan’s new, ostensible drive against terrorists. New Delhi actually has enough reason to be disappointed with Pakistan. Several terrorists flourishing in Pakistan had earlier been identified, with supporting documents, of being involved in terror acts in India. Though Pakistan, in order to mollify Indian outrage after a fresh terror act, takes some highly publicised action against them in the initial stages, soon they are released using the old—and vague—excuse of ‘insufficient proof’. They are then free to roam the country, spew venom against India, recruit jehadis and plot their next terrorist operation.
However, despite such a norm being set, a lot of hype seems to be gathering around the resolution initiated by the P-3—France, the US and UK—at the UN Security Council to declare Masood Azhar a ‘global terrorist’. On March 13, it will be known whether the resolution—unsuccessful four times in the last 10 years—could get enough support. The key country: China, whose earlier ‘technical’ objections had stalled the move each time.
Indian officials, along with key countries like Russia and the US, have been trying to convince Beijing to stand with others to see its smooth passage. If it does pass at the UNSC, Azhar would face a travel ban, an arms embargo and a freezing of all his assets. Crucially, it would seek an end to all financial aid to him too. If implemented in earnest, it will hurt him grievously. Will Pakistan do so?
“I don’t see how things will be different this time,” says former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. “At best, it can yet again put China’s resolve to fight terrorists to test,” he adds. That would be interesting to watch, given China’s ambiguous silence till now. Acknowledging that the successful passage of the resolution could be a key diplomatic victory for India, Sibal says, “It may then raise serious question about the durability of Sino-Pakistan relations. It may also tell Islamabad that the Chinese umbrella has begun to leak.”
Will all this strong-arm blitz fundamentally alter India-Pakistan ties, where a wary, responsible Pakistan treads carefully, mindful of India’s muscular strategic shift after Balakot? Optimism notwithstanding, that looks to be a very tall ask.
- Pakistan has arrested two terror accomplices of Masood Azhar, and 42 others from different proscribed groups
- On March 13, the P-3-initiated resolution to declare Masood a ‘global terrorist’ will be put to vote at the UN