With Masood Azhar’s listing at stake, Delhi, which has always resisted unilateral sanctions in the past, decided to play along

New Delhi had circulated its dossier on Azhar with all UN members, in Delhi and foreign capitals, to make its case — that he was accused in multiple terror crimes in India, from the Parliament attack in 2001 to the Pulwama terror strike in 2019

The UN Security Council decision to list Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist was sealed about 10 days ago, just before the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, after weeks of hectic and keenly fought closed-door negotiations, The Indian Express has learnt.

Much of the diplomatic negotiations took place in New York, while Washington, Delhi, Beijing, Paris, London and Islamabad were in the loop, officials from at least six countries involved in the discussions told The Indian Express. “It was a multilateral game played at a subterranean level,” a top source said, explaining the complex web of give-and-takes involved.

Underlining India does not negotiate on terrorism, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said Thursday: “Let me make it very clear that we do not negotiate on terrorism and matters related to the security of the country. China has already given its explanation on why the hold has been lifted.”

But on Azhar’s listing, the ball was set rolling early March, when Chinese interlocutor Kong Xuanyou visited Pakistan, and Islamabad put five pre-conditions before Beijing could yield. At the time, the March 13 deadline for raising objections to the listing under the UNSC Resolution 1267 sanctions committee was looming large.

Meanwhile, New Delhi had circulated its dossier on Azhar with all UN members, in Delhi and foreign capitals, to make its case — that he was accused in multiple terror crimes in India, from the Parliament attack in 2001 to the Pulwama terror strike in 2019.

In March, when Beijing remained the lone country to put a technical hold on the listing, Delhi did not issue a strong statement. It now turns out that the measured response was because the negotiations were underway, and China signing off on the February 21 UNSC condemnation statement on the Pulwama attack had given some hope.

Beijing subsequently conveyed Pakistan’s five pre-conditions to Delhi: de-escalate the situation; start bilateral dialogue; don’t link the Pulwama attack to Azhar’s listing; don’t push, along with the US, for more listings of other individuals and groups in Pakistan; and, stop violence in Kashmir.

Sources said there was a lot of “back and forth” on each condition between the two countries, mediated by Beijing and Washington.

While Pakistan’s pre-conditions were not acceptable to India, Beijing added one more: Support its Belt and Road Initiative. India had opposed the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, and has maintained that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is an integral part of BRI, violates India’s territorial sovereignty and integrity as it crosses through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Over the next few weeks, as all sides spoke to each other, New Delhi and Washington stepped up, knowing that Beijing would yield only if there was something on offer.

South Block, especially, knew the “transactional” nature of Chinese diplomacy, as it had witnessed when Beijing had signed off on the “grey listing” of Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). At that time, China wanted the vice-chair of FATF, a prestigious global financial watchdog, and Japan was a challenger. New Delhi had then requested Tokyo, a close strategic partner, to back down.

Sources said the lesson learnt from that episode in February 2018 was instructive. This time, India’s position on the BRI was used as leverage.

In March-end, the US, UK and France decided to push the resolution for Azhar’s listing at the UNSC — instead of the 1267 sanctions committee — with the argument that the committee is unable to arrive at a decision behind closed doors. The idea was to have a discussion in public, followed by voting.

But China was not very enthused by this idea, since it would have to make a public statement on why it was defending Azhar’s listing — a move that would affect its global image. India, with substantial help from the US, was then able to frame the argument that it was only about an “individual” who was heading a terrorist group that had already been proscribed by the UN. That the proposal had the complete support of all 14 members of the UNSC, except China, and some countries outside the council, like Australia, Japan, Canada, helped load the dice in favour of the listing.

By this time in early April, India and Pakistan had also managed to de-escalate the situation after the Balakot air strike on February 26. While the first pre-condition was fulfilled, the fate of the other pre-conditions was not clear.

By mid-April, the conversation around the BRI gathered pace, with the US asking China to be ready to lift its hold by April 23 if it did not wish the matter to be taken up at the UNSC. India, by then, had agreed that it would not issue any statement on the BRI, unlike in May 2017, but made in known that it was not changing its position.

With the Belt and Road Forum approaching on April 25, China decided that it was a good deal, while Pakistan okayed the move to list Azhar since the situation at the border had de-escalated. Beijing and Islamabad also calculated that the listing will place Pakistan at an advantage, when the FATF assesses its future of grey-listing, as it will be seen to have taken some visible action against terrorism.

On April 22, the US announced that it was not going to grant any waivers to India, along with other countries, for importing oil from Iran.

Washington conveyed to India that since it was helping Delhi on terrorism, it expected reciprocity to help it crack down on Iran’s terror network. With Azhar’s listing at stake, Delhi, which has always resisted unilateral sanctions in the past, decided to play along. On Thursday, the MEA spokesperson, in response to questions on India following unilateral sanctions, said that the government will take decisions based on three factors — “commercial consideration, energy security and economic security interests”, signalling that it had alternate plans to source oil.

At that point, the US wanted China to give a written understanding that it will not object to Azhar’s listing. Washington told Beijing that if it did not give a commitment for listing by May 1, it will move the open discussion and voting proposal at the UNSC by April 23. The date, which was earlier being negotiated for May 15, was then agreed for May 1. Beijing agreed to the date and the proposal to list at that time.

By the time Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale went to Beijing on April 22, the deal was done and the listing was set to take place at 9 am New York time (6.30 pm IST) on May 1. And when it happened, the listing did not link Azhar to the Pulwama attack.

The MEA spokesperson played down the absence of any reference to Pulwama attack in the UN notification designating Azhar, asserting that it broadly covered all his terrorist acts.

Kumar said the UN notification was not supposed to be “Azhar’s bio-data”, insisting that the Pulwama strike “played a role in his listing”. He said Pakistan was making claims over the listing to divert attention from the “huge diplomatic” setback it has suffered, adding India’s objective has all along been to list Azhar as a terrorist.