For one Sarabjit Singh, whose death brought politicians to his funeral and financial assistance for his family, the Punjab countryside is dotted with scores of men knocking on the doors of courts seeking compensation for the years many of them spent in Pakistani jails, and recognition of their services as spies for India.

Neither the government nor his family has ever acknowledged that Sarabjit — who died this week after being attacked by fellow prisoners in a Lahore jail — was a spy. Indeed, in the years before the campaign for commutation of the death sentence he received in 1991 gained momentum, none of the men who now say they were spies dared to approach the courts. Most melted back into the poverty-stricken lives they left before joining the dangerous world of espionage whose golden rule — if you are caught you are on your own — was, they claim, never disclosed to them. But Sarabjit’s saga slowly emboldened many former spies in Punjab and Jammu to file petitions, none of which have been viewed positively by the courts so far.

According to Ranjan Lakhanpal, a Chandigarh-based lawyer who has singlehandedly filed some 40 petitions of former spies in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, “The maximum relief that we have managed to get so far is a vague direction to the government to look into the matter. It has never resulted in any concrete benefit for the petitioners, most of who are penniless after spending years in Pakistani prisons. Whenever their cases are taken up in the courts, the government just refuses to acknowledge them,” he says. But they keep coming to Mr. Lakhanpal, who has in recent years become a beacon of sorts for former spies. Sooner or later, they land up at his office because he takes up their cases free of charge.

Poor families, from the border belt of Amritsar, Gurdaspur and Ferozepur in particular, are the recruiting grounds for intelligence agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), military intelligence (MI) and BSF Intelligence. And Dhariwal, Daduwan, Khaira Kalan and Kang, among others, can almost be called spy villages for the number of men that are recruited from here.

Some are even recruited from across the border, as the curious case of Karamat Rahi illustrates. Originally a Pakistani national, his story is illustrative of the murky work of espionage in which penury and desperation are attractive attributes in potential recruits and borders mere lines on the ground. Karamat’s father was a Mazhabi Sikh trader in Sheikhupura who converted to Christianity after Partition. After his death, Karamat came to India in 1980 on a Pakistani passport because, as he told The Hindu, he “like other Christians there, was being forced to convert to Islam.”

“Once in India, I was contacted by RAW and began running covert operations and helped recruit other agents for them.” His home base in Pakistan was invaluable for the agency, till he was arrested from Lahore in 1988 and sentenced to 14 years for spying. His salary at that time was Rs.1,500 a month, and he had been assisted to settle in Gurdaspur as an Indian national. “For a year after my arrest the government paid Rs. 300 a month to my family as pension, but stopped, presuming I had died when they got no other news of me.”

Karamat stayed in prison for 18 years. It was only in March 2005, when the former Punjab Chief Minister, Amarinder Singh, went to Pakistan on a goodwill visit, that he, along with some other prisoners, were freed and sent home with the delegation.

Karamat moved the High Court seeking pension and a job for his son, but got a rude shock when instead of relief, the court fined him for wasting its time. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which asked him to provide proof that he was engaged in covert activities in Pakistan. “When the agencies recruit us, we are shown steps of gold. They promise us money and security for our families, all of which are forgotten when we are arrested,” he says. Karamat’s former employers offered him a small compensation amount of Rs. 2 lakhs to keep quiet, but he is bitter and refused. “I have spent the best years of my life in jail or working for this country. Now they shun me!”

There are many others. Kashmir Singh was working for MI when he was sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for spying in 1976. His sentence was stayed, but he remained in jail. In 2007, Pakistan human rights activist Ansar Burney discovered him in a Lahore prison and used his good offices to secure a presidential pardon for the Indian spy. When Kashmir Singh returned home after 34 years in 2008, he had converted to Islam and called himself Mohammed Ibrahim. Though the Punjab government gave him a plot of land and some money, his deepest hurt is over the abandonment by his former employer.

The petition of Balbir Singh of Amritsar in the High Court states that he worked for RAW between 1971 and 1974 and, after serving a lengthy sentence in Pakistan, he was freed in 1986. All that he wanted was that the period spent in jail should be treated as duty and he or his son be absorbed into service. Just before he died last year, he received a reply to an RTI application that he had moved, asking the government about the service benefits due to him. He was informed that since he was employed by RAW, his application has been moved to the cabinet secretariat for necessary action. His son is following the case in the court now.

Following Sarabjit’s death, former spies from Punjab and Jammu are now joining hands to renew their struggle for recognition and dues. “It is unfortunate how the government uses poor, gullible men like us, who are made to believe that we are actually serving the nation. As you can see, it is an illusion that gets shattered as soon as we are apprehended”, says Karamat. He admits though, that this has not deterred many more from joining the ranks that he has left.