On Christmas Eve 1999, I was watching a holiday movie in my New Delhi flat when I heard that an Indian Airlines plane — en route from Kathmandu to Delhi — had been hijacked. With about 176 passengers on board, the plane first landed at India’s Amritsar airport, where it stood for around 45 minutes. It then flew on to Lahore, in Pakistan, to re-fuel and to Dubai, where 26 hostages were freed. Finally, it flew to Afghanistan’s Kandahar Airport, under Taliban control.
In the following days, India’s then Bharatiya Janata party government struggled to secure the hostages’ release. The hijackers wanted New Delhi to free three Islamist militant leaders from Indian prisons. The hostages’ distraught relatives were making emotional appeals for whatever was necessary to secure their loved ones’ safe return.
On New Year’s Eve, New Delhi capitulated. India’s urbane foreign minister Jaswant Singh, who had seemingly aged a decade in a week, escorted the militants to Kandahar for the exchange. Among the Islamists freed that day was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-Pakistani, who went on to murder US journalist Daniel Pearl. Another was Masood Azhar, who would set up Pakistan-based group Jaish e-Mohammad, which is thought to have carried out a 2001 attack on the Indian parliament that brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Nearly 20 years on, Mr Azhar is back in the headlines, after JeM has claimed responsibility for the killing of 44 paramilitary police in last week’s suicide bombing in India’s restive Kashmir region. In the wake of the attack, New Delhi denounced Islamabad, its longtime nemesis, for giving “full freedom” to Mr Azhar to plot attacks on its soil, and demanded immediate action against him.
But Indian outrage is not only directed at its western neighbour. As they absorb the shock of the blow, Indians are expressing anger towards another culprit: China, which has repeatedly thwarted Indian efforts to have the UN Security Council officially designate Mr Azhar a terrorist.
New Delhi’s attempt to do this began in early 2016, after an Indian army base was attacked by militants allegedly linked to JeM, which was designated a terror group back in 2002. Most Security Council members supported India’s petition to similarly sanction the group’s leader. But Beijing, which has strong strategic ties with Islamabad, vetoed the proposal and has blocked the measure since, repeatedly overriding India’s efforts.
Now, in the wake of the Kashmir attack, this once-obscure diplomatic skirmish has returned to the public eye. Indian analysts, policymakers and journalists are calling out Beijing for protecting a man they blame for a string of lethal attacks. On social media, sentiment is venomous.
“Let there be no misconceptions about who protects [JeM]. Pakistan is small potatoes . . . True global power shielding Jaish is China. As death toll rises today, let nobody forget how China has consistently blocked action against Jaish,” tweeted Shiv Aroor, a television reporter specialising in military and strategic affairs.
RK Misra, a Bangalore-based analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted: New Delhi should hit China “where it hurts, as the US did”. He suggested New Delhi impose 100 per cent import tariffs on all Chinese products because “India can live without Chinese phones” — a widely echoed sentiment.
The Indian Express, a newspaper not typically known for inflammatory rhetoric, declared in an editorial that “Delhi can no longer remain silent and must signal its willingness to limit bilateral and commercial ties with China if Beijing continues to protect Pakistan on terror-related issues.”
All this is awkward for Beijing. Relations between China and India are always fraught, given an unresolved border dispute and inherent rivalry. But as it confronts hostility from the US, Beijing has tried to improve its relations with India, a fast-growing market with which China now runs a trade surplus of about $60bn.
Few issues resonate with Indians as much as the threat of terrorism. China must think carefully now about how far it is willing to shield Mr Azhar, or Indian public demands for protection against the rising tide of Chinese imports will surely grow louder.
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