Masood Azhar's 'detention': Talks with Pakistan can continue, but India has to prepare for more proxy war

The detention of organizers of the Pathankot attacks in Pakistan is welcome. However, it would be premature (that's the polite word) to view this as opening the path to either peace or reconciliation. India ought to continue to engage with Pakistan but, equally, must prepare for more and worse nightmare attacks.

The detentions are no more than a fig leaf for India to convince itself that its righteous anger, fulminations and threats have borne fruit - and the foreign secretaries' talks to go ahead. All that one can really count on is that future attacks will be more easily deniable, at least for a while.

The Pakistan government publicized a meeting of a number of ministers, other security and foreign affairs honchos and even the chief minister of the Punjab province (Nawaz Sharif's brother, Shahbaz) on Wednesday. The decision to arrest the organizers of the Pathankot attack was taken at the meeting. The fact is that, however impressive the attendance, the meeting had no formal status. It was not a cabinet meeting, or an official security-related or juridical body.

The meeting must be seen as an effort to project the chimera of action having been taken at the high level. The intention is to take the edge off the severe pressure to show good faith. India's only real lever was the cancellation of talks by the two countries' foreign secretaries, slated for Friday. But there was tremendous pressure from global powers for Pakistan to show that it was taking action, so that India did not call off those talks.

Azhar's detention is old hat

This is not the first time Maulana Masood Azhar has been detained in Pakistan. He was detained when India massed troops on the border after the Parliament attack in December 2001. He was treated with great respect, and never charged with any crime. He was released after a year. He went underground after the Mumbai attacks, but resurfaced in 2014 to call for renewed 'jihad' against India. He has been functioning openly since then. No doubt he is a VIP prisoner today.

JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar. AFP

JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar. AFP

One should never forget that he was taken straight to Pakistan from the Kandahar airport when he was released there in exchange for the passengers of an Indian Airlines flight just as 1999 turned to 2000. He was given a hero's welcome in Pakistan, addressed jubilant throngs, called publicly for the destruction of India and the US, set up Jaish-e-Mohammed, engaged in a massive international recruiting spree, and motivated vast numbers of youth for jihad over the next couple of years - all under the benign eye of Pakistani authorities.

The reason why Pakistan is under severe international pressure now is that the Pathankot attack followed close on the heels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's path-breaking visit to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's private palace on the latter's birthday three weeks ago.

That meeting was advertised to the world as a surprise that came about as a result of a telephone call by Modi to wish Sharif. The fact is that it was crafted over several weeks by several international players. Those global players are eager for the India-Pakistan détente to move forward.

Pakistan was under far more pressure, particularly from the US, right after the 9/11 attacks and the attack on the Indian Parliament. It was that pressure that made President Musharraf make a televised announcement on 12 January 2002 that Pakistan would crush all terror.

It has become clear in the years since then, to even the most naïve, that the Pakistani establishment has adroitly played both sides, participating in the Nato campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, while covertly supporting them. Whether this covert support emanated from a section of the country's establishment or the entire set-up is of largely academic interest - a matter of nuanced understanding which does not change the resultant reality on the ground.


The fact is that Pakistan has turned deniability into an instrument of state policy since at least Zia-ul Haq's reign from the end of the 1970s. Deniability was deployed to support the Khalistan movement in India. It was deployed, however flimsily, in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Since that campaign was at the behest and the cost of the US, the policy of deniability was smugly accepted by the global powers that be - until it came home to roost, just like the Rambo projection of jihad did.

Deniability has consistently been used with regard to Kashmir since 1987, the year the Pakistani state began its campaign to support, arm and train rebellion there. The double-faced policy was suspended after two huge jihadi attacks targeted Pakistan President Musharraf in late 2003, but it is back in place. The detention of any number of alleged `masterminds' is little more than window dressing. It is unlikely to lead to conviction (in either sense of that word), or to end proxy war.

Beyond a point, the Pakistani state cannot entirely stop popular jihad rhetoricians such as Masood Azhar. Musharraf sent his troops to close the madrasa at the Lal Masjid Islamabad. But, despite that dramatic military operation and a prolonged siege in 2007, the madrasa is back at work. Its chief cleric, who had escaped the siege in a burqa, is back to his task of motivating boys to undertake death and destruction.

The heroic reception the assassin of Salmaan Taseer when he was the governor of Pakistan's biggest province got in court was a startling indicator of public sentiment in the country. Taseer had spoken up for the country's minorities. A statement from 500 clerics threatened anyone who mourned him with the same fate.

These trends across the border should act as a warning to those who back religious bigotry in India.

Meanwhile, India's security infrastructure should presume that Pakistan will keep the proxy war and its policy of deniability in place, notwithstanding the bonhomie at Raiwind (Sharif's home) and the official talks. This was clearly signaled by the statement claiming responsibility for the Pathankot attack, which was issued by the United Jihad Council (UJC) led by Hizb-ul Mujahideen's Kashmiri chief Syed Salahuddin soon after the attack. The UJC functions under the tight control of the ISI, which must have dictated this statement.

The Pakistani establishment will work even harder than before to cover its tracks, for at least a while. More Kashmiris will be presented as the face and the promoters of the proxy war. Several signs over the past couple of years indicate that backers of the Khalistan movement too will be used.

The Indian state would be well advised to get its act together at home even while trying to engage Pakistan. The horrifying levels of misgovernment, cynicism, corruption and general public repression which the common people of Punjab and Kashmir have suffered under the Akali-led and the previous Omar Abdullah governments respectively affect stability and national security. One wishes that those who sit behind bullet proof glass would understand that contentment among the people at large is a much better guarantor of peace and stability than a thousand anchors screaming invectives at Pakistan.

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2016 18:57:22 IST

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