A week after the surprise visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to his Pakistani counterpart’s home in Lahore, heavily armed group of militants invaded the Pathankot Air Force Station. Six attackers and seven Indian security forces personnel were killed in the almost four-day long combat and thorough search operation of the base by Indian forces to fully secure the compound.
With Modi’s quickly scheduled brief visit on December 25 to Lahore, while coming back from Kabul, it was after 11 years that an Indian prime minister had stepped on the Pakistani soil. Following his visit, the talks between foreign secretaries of the two countries were also announced to be held on January 15 in Islamabad.
However, as per latest news reports, the January 15 meeting has been postponed for the time being.
Apparently, there is some evidence given by Indian government that the attackers possibly belonged to the Islamist militant group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, (JeM) and also managed to call from mobile phones at some location that was later traced in Bahawalpaur, a district in Pakistan’s South Punjab, also known as the area where JeM has its headquarter.
Quickly after such indications, Pakistani PM Sharif, who was visiting Colombo at that time, called his Indian counterpart and assured him of firm and immediate action after examining the evidences, and extended full cooperation to investigate into all possible linkages with the terrorist act on the Indian soil.
Though some Pakistani television channels initially denied any Pakistani link with this attack until PM House issued a presser, saying several members of JeM have been apprehended and were being interrogated for their alleged links to Pathankot attack. “The members of JeM have been arrested from parts of Punjab including Bahawalpur, Sialkot and Lahore,” an official tells TNS. There has been unconfirmed news about the ‘protective custody’ of JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar, who founded this brigade of jihadis almost 15 years ago.
“As far as Pathankot attack is concerned, there is definitely a link with Pakistan. And more transparency will be better for Pakistan rather than opting for ways to cover it up,” says retired army general, Talat Masood. “If they are lodged from Pakistan, we should not be in a state of denial. Or we will not come out of the same sixty eight years old routine.” However, no one should conclude anything till the completion of any investigation, he says.
“I personally think Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is not involved in it but there are certainly some people who are helping. And I believe that ISI is competent enough to expose and curb such links and networks,” says Masood.
According to Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar, the Pathankot airbase attackers were armed with AK-47s, pistols, commando knives, mortars, hand grenades and high-quality explosives which he claims came from Pakistan. The huge Pathankot airbase is spread over 1,900 acres and keeps India’s fighter jets. The base is situated nearly 50 kilometres from the Pakistani border in India and is on the route that connects the Pak-India disputed area of Jammu and Kashmir State with New Delhi.
JeM, that was proscribed during the Musharraf regime, is an extremist group of Deoband Muslim hardliners. Masood Azhar founded this group after his release from Indian prison after 2000. Formerly associated with al-Qaeda and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen that fought ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and Kashmir, Azhar came in the limelight after he was imprisoned in India because of militant activities in Jammu and Kashmir. Later, his aides took an Indian passenger plane hostage to secure his release from prison.
Following the release, he formed JeM and started living a low profile life. JeM’s key objective is to wage jihad against infidels, particularly fighting against the Indian army in Indian held Kashmir and to help expel foreign troops from Afghanistan. It wants freedom for Kashmir from Indian occupation. JeM is the group that is blamed for the first suicide attack on Indian army after its formation. Omar Saeed Sheikh, involved in the murder of American journalist Danial Pearl, was also associated with JeM. The JeM is also diehard anti-Shia and currently promoting ‘jihad’ in Syria to topple Bashar al Assad regime. Its members, as part of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan umbrella, have also been involved in many attacks on security forces in Pakistan.
The Prime Minister’s office announced on Wednesday that Pakistan will also send a high level team of special investigators to the Pathankot air base in India.
The history of bad blood between the two countries goes back to November 26, 2008 when militants, allegedly linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, another Pakistan-based militant group fighting in Kashmir, attacked Mumbai, killing at least 164 and wounding more than 300. The attack was said to have been lodged from Pakistan and a Pakistani national Ajmal Kasab was caught alive and sentenced to death by the Indian courts. The suspected mastermind of these attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, belonging to LeT after facing criminal charges in Pakistan has been released on bail and lives close to the Pakistani capital since April 2015. India is not happy with his release and has called it “unfortunate and disappointing”.
The attacks happened some days after when the then elected President of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari showed his intentions to be friendly with archrival neighbouring India.
“If the Pathankot attack was meant to derail the ongoing peace efforts, the initial response of Pakistani and Indian governments is encouraging and conducive to frustrate the designs of terrorists,” says Imtiaz Alam, political analyst and columnist. Referring to ‘certain elements’ that are playing the same old tricks, he suggests that Pakistan and India should avoid the post Mumbai-attack habit of sending dossiers and extend maximum cooperation instead.
“Pakistan should understand that the whole world is watching what steps we take.” Alam thinks the information provided by India is also quite patchy at the moment and they should show patience. “Pakistan should not hesitate to take action against such elements and groups. I cannot say whether this attack had the state support but it is exceptional this time that we are not covering it up. Pakistan should take this incident as an opportunity to make mechanisms to stop such attempts. Besides, peace talks should not be made conditional with conclusion of investigations.”
Masood’s view is that it is difficult for Pakistan to stand with the international community by lodging or supporting such notorious militant groups and tolerating their activities. “If Pakistan does not respond to these links and evidences properly, it will create further doubts. We have to realise what good these groups have done for the country except defaming it.”
After the attack, Indian Kashmir based separatist group United Jihad Council, an alliance of militant and Jihadi organisations fighting against the Indian army in Kashmir, claimed responsibility of the attack. JeM is also a member of this alliance. The group’s weekly publication Alqalam (The Pen), in its editorial following Modi’s visit to Lahore, criticised his reception. “This reception of killers of Muslims in Kashmir and Gujarat has hurt true Muslims,” the editorial reads, asking how could the Muslim victims of Indian violence absorb this red carpet of Modi in Lahore.
The latest edition of the newspaper, that mostly highlights news about ‘jihad’ in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Syria, shows a side angle of Ka’aba alongside a river in which Indian flag is being pushed into water through a sword (meant for jihad). And the latest editorial of the weekly supports fight against Shia regime in Syria.
In a new message circulated on social media, Masood Azhar has denied his detention. Criticising the raids on the Jaish offices, Azhar said, “The ruling friends of Modi, Vajpayee and Advani should also look towards the families of soldiers those were awarded Nishan-e-Haider (the highest medal of bravery) while fighting war against enemy India.”
Though political analysts believe the state is competent enough to take action against such groups, it is yet to be seen how much resolve is shown. If Pakistan wants to avoid external war, it is also hard for the state to fight an intense internal war for which we don’t seem very confident at the moment. Chances are that the relations of Pakistan with India will remain suspended for another long period. The message of these groups is loud and clear. Now the state has to prove which one of them is relevant for this country.