[Deccan Herald] India is worried over reappearance of Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad.
When a new administration takes over after national elections in India in May, one of the first challenges it is likely to face will come from the Kashmir valley. Adding to the Indian government’s worries about the return of violence in the region, particularly among the youth, is the reappearance of Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad.
Azhar was arrested and detained in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, in 1994 on terrorism charges but was freed by India in 1999 in exchange for passengers of an Indian aircraft that was hijacked by Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen, which has fought India in Kashmir. Two years later, Azhar was suspected by the Indian government to have been the mastermind behind a suicide attack on the Indian Parliament, which killed nine people. That attack brought India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, to the brink of war. Up to a million troops were mobilised on both sides of the volatile Line of Control, the disputed border between the two countries.
For the past few years, Azhar appeared to be lying low in his home city of Bhawalpur, in Pakistan’s Punjab province. But on January 26, India’s Republic Day, he spoke by telephone to a huge rally of supporters in Muzaffarabad, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and declared that the time had come to resume jihad, or holy war, against India, according to two Indian intelligence officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media. A Reuters report said that Azhar spoke from an undisclosed location and that the Muzaffarabad gathering displayed flags of Jaish-e-Muhammad, the group he formed in Pakistan after his release in 1999, that were inscribed with the word “jihad.” Jaish-e-Muhammad was banned in Pakistan in 2002 by then-President Pervez Musharraf, who came under heavy criticism for doing so.
The two Indian intelligence officials said the Indian government responded to Azhar’s speech by increasing security at private airstrips and at airports, although no area was on high alert yet. They also said the rally in Muzaffarabad and Azhar’s address would not have been possible without Pakistani state clearance, a charge that Pakistan strongly denies. “Azhar being back in circulation is predictable,” said C Uday Bhaskar, a retired navy commodore who is a strategic affairs analyst in India.
Ashok Behuria, coordinator at the South Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan “does flaunt his Kashmiri origin and wants to go down in Pakistan’s history as a politician wedded to the cause of Kashmir and Kashmiris.” However, Behuria said Sharif also understands the value of engaging India economically in spite of the Kashmir issue and recognises the importance of a normalisation of ties with India to reduce the importance of the army in Pakistan’s internal politics.
Since 2003, the number of deaths of militants and Indian security officials had been falling every year until 2013. “Kashmir has been simmering for the past year, starting with the clandestine hanging of Afzal Guru,” said Bhaskar, referring to Muhammad Afzal, who was executed on February 9, 2013, for participating in the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. “The state’s sense of alienation has increased all through last year.” Yet Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, disagreed that Azhar’s recent activities meant that militancy would increase in Kashmir, saying that Azhar had been actively participating in militant activities even when in seclusion. “There is no chance of resurgence of Kashmir militancy in the near future, as it will take long to rebuilt jihadist infrastructure,” he said. “The Kashmir-focussed groups are trying to be alive through mobilising public opinion.”