Now that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman is back home, it’s time for India to intensify the diplomatic offensive on Pakistan to hand over Masood Azhar, the head of the United Nations-proscribed terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) who is responsible for many attacks on India, including the latest in Pulwama last month. In an interview to CNN on Thursday, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi confirmed Azhar is in Pakistan, adding that Pakistan would move to prosecute Azhar only if India provides “acceptable evidence". While Qureshi’s comments confirm what India has been saying all along—that Azhar is operating freely out of Pakistan—the reluctance of Pakistan to prosecute him shows it continues to not only shield but also nurture non-state actors carrying out attacks as part of its policy to bleed India with a thousand cuts.
Azhar and JeM, which he founded in 2000, are responsible for some of the deadliest attacks on India over the past two decades, including the ones on Parliament in 2001, the Pathankot air force base in 2016, and the army camp in Uri that same year. Azhar was jailed by India in the 1990s for terrorist activities in Kashmir. However, he and two others were freed by the government in exchange for the safe return of passengers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, which had been hijacked and flown to Kandahar in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 1999. He then formed JeM, which was designated a foreign terrorist group by the US in 2001 and also banned by the UN. Even Pakistan banned it in 2002. However, it continued to operate freely under its watch. India has on multiple occasions given Pakistan proof of terror emanating from its soil. The latest dossier was handed over on Wednesday detailing camps and routes taken by terrorists to launch attacks. The dossier also cites a disclosure by a Pakistani detainee at the US’ Guantanamo Bay facility admitting to have been trained at JeM’s camp at Balakot, which was flattened by the Indian Air Force in a precision strike last week. Despite the overwhelming evidence, successive Pakistani governments have chosen to look the other way. This time, however, the world isn’t ready to give Pakistan as long a rope. Several countries have strongly condemned the Pulwama attacks and told Pakistan to act. The US, UK and France have launched a fresh bid at the United Nations Security Council to designate Azhar as a global terrorist. China, a permanent member with veto power, had blocked previous such attempts, though it too seems to be slowly moving away from Pakistan’s corner in the wake of mounting evidence.
Through the decision to release Varthaman and offering to talk with India, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is trying to show willingness to de-escalate tensions and resolve issues. But India should be wary as Pakistan has a history of indulging in cloak-and-dagger tactics while talking truce. In 1999, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a bus ride to Lahore to foster peace and was received with much bonhomie by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. However, his army soon occupied the peaks of Kargil, leading to a brief war. Varthaman’s release also underscores the success of the government’s diplomatic outreach to global powers that helped in pressuring Pakistan. India is on a higher moral ground having exercised military restraint all these years—until this week’s precision air strikes—despite suffering from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. It needs to continue that diplomatic blitz until Pakistan hands over Azhar and dismantles its terror infrastructure.