Pakistan: Emotions run high in favour of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Bahawalpur

File photo of Masood Azhar. Photograph:( AFP )

AP Bahawalpur, Pakistan Mar 08, 2019, 01.59 PM (IST)

Outside the giant steel gates that conceal a sprawling compound within, a handful of bearded men and two Pakistani police officers armed with automatic rifles warn off visitors to the Bahawalpur headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammed.

Earlier this month, the UN-declared terror group brought nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Emotions run high in favour of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Bahawalpur, a city in southern Pakistan's jihadist heartland.

Such support complicates Prime Minister Imran Khan's latest crackdown on militant groups.

In recent days, Khan has ordered the takeover of assets and property of dozens of banned militant organisations that operate in Pakistan.

Many of the groups are popular among the poor because they operate networks of charities. Some groups have also enjoyed the support of the military and intelligence services.

Bahawalpur resident Tahir Zia believes Jaish-e-Mohammed is not a terrorist group. "They just want to spread Islam," he said.

According to Pakistan's counter-terrorism agency, the government has outlawed 68 militant groups.

This includes Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen - Pakistan-based groups that seek to wrest control of Jammu and Kashmir from India.

Kashmir has been the flashpoint of two wars between the South Asian neighbours as well as several lower-level face-offs.

The latest confrontation began on February 14, when a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killed 40 Indian soldiers. Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility.

Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed. Their students and teachers have been barred from talking to the media. Police and paramilitary rangers armed with AK-47s, now guard the group's buildings.

On Tuesday, in a gesture aimed at mending relations on the subcontinent, Pakistan announced it had arrested 44 suspected members of several militant organisations, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. Among those arrested was Mufti Abdul Rauf, the brother of Masood Azhar, the founder of the organisation. Azhar's whereabouts are unknown.

On Wednesday, more schools, hospitals and charities run by banned groups were taken over by the government. Padlocks were put on some facilities.

In Bahawalpur, Jaish-e-Mohammed and its leader enjoy considerable support.

For Pakistan, the deadly mix of militant groups on its soil is a decades-old problem with roots in the 1980s war in neighbouring Afghanistan, when the United States and Pakistan were allies against the former Soviet Union. Together they nurtured an army of mujahideen, or holy warriors, to oust the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. When the war ended with a Soviet withdrawal in 1989, young Pakistani recruits to jihad were sent to Jammu and Kashmir to fight and try to wrest the region from India.

It's a history that analysts like Zahid Hussain, author of two books on militancy, say haunts Pakistan.