The difficulty of being Kulbhushan Jadhav

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The truth is, if we are not spying on Pakistan we are not doing our duty, so it is best to assume we are.

Should we be surprised if Kulbhushan Jadhav indeed turned out to have been dabbling in espionage?

Daniel Masih was what they call a ‘resident agent’, a Pakistani spy who lived in India and spied for Pakistan. Before he began spying for his country, he had wanted to join the Pakistani army. It hadn’t worked out; he was rejected. Subsequently, he had been approached by a recruiter. For air intelligence. Masih was provided for, and went through a process of learning about military airports, planes, radars and basic spycraft. When his recruiters felt he was ready, he was given a passport and money. He applied for an Indian visa, got it, and landed in Delhi by train. Once there, he tore his Pakistani passport and began life anew in another name, blending in and around Chandni Chowk and elsewhere. This was in the mid-‘90s; Daniel was in his early twenties. Masih was a friendly sort of fellow, well-liked by those he came in contact with. He did odd jobs, got a ration card and a driving licence for his new identity, all of which he was able to pay for. He got an Indian passport as well and began travelling to Pakistan. Visa was never a problem.

Two years later, he moved to the Jalandhar cantonment area where he started a petty business of selling clothes. He was not looking for profit. Then he sold fruits for a while, very cheap, to military personnel who thought they had a good bargain. Sometimes their womenfolk bought the fruits. Not far from the cantonment was the Adampur Air Force base. That was Masih’s eventual target. He moved near there, hired two helpers and opened a barbershop outside the airbase. People working in the base came for haircuts to his shop. Masih was friendly, talkative, helpful. Among the people who regularly gave him their custom was a Bihari Non-Commissioned Officer. Over many conversations they became friends. The NCO was in the process of getting his sister married, but didn’t have sufficient money. He began confiding in Masih, and said ₹25,000 (a big amount in those days) would help him achieve it. Masih was providentially able to come up with the amount in due course and was invited to Bihar to participate in the wedding of the NCO’s sister, sort of like a guest of honour. When they returned, the NCO was indebted to his new friend. That is how Masih was able to gain access into Adampur airbase.

 

What, after all, is Kulbhushan Jadhav to Pakistan? He is only a pawn in the game. Trump can tweet till his thumbs turn blue, but that is not going to change the reality that confronts us. That reality tells us Jadhav’s life gingerly hangs by a whimsical thread.

 

Masih began collecting what is known as radar film. Adampur was base to MIG-29s. These planes regularly took off to perform manoeuvres, target practice, things that the air force normally does to maintain its fighting edge. There were powerful radars on the base that tracked the planes as they did the manoeuvres, the rates of climbs, the descents, the angles. These were recorded on film so the pilot’s performance could be analysed and the effectiveness of the mission parameters debated. Usually it was a 16-mm strip of film which would record it all from the radar screen. It was a record of performance. The pilot gave his version and this was compared to the film readout and corrective action for subsequent manoeuvres were taken as a result of these analyses. Once the discussion was over, the film was usually destroyed. The Bihari NCO began giving Masih the film rolls. These Masih took to New Delhi to his handler. Let’s call him Raja, who worked as a third secretary in the Pakistani High commission. The Intelligence Bureau had him under surveillance. That’s how they stumbled on Masih.

Raja lived alone. He didn’t have a family in Delhi. Yet every so often he would go to a ladies’ tailoring shop in the Lal Qila area with fabric to stitch blouses and petticoats with, for which he had measurements as well. Some of the finished products he would collect himself after they were ready. Some he instructed the woman who ran the tailoring shop to hand over to people he specified. Through this stratagem Raja and Masih were able to communicate. This is what the IB called a “live letter box”. Sometimes Masih would request a particular packet to be handed over to Raja and the tailor would duly do so. The Intelligence Officer assigned to keep watch on Raja wondered why a man living alone wanted to have so many women’s dresses stitched all the time. He came to the tailor as a customer and struck up an acquaintance. The tailor — let’s call her Fatima — had two children, both daughters, one in school. One was a sickly child for whom the IO was able to arrange a doctor who hardly charged Fatima for diagnosis and treatment. Through that gambit, the IB was able to gain Fatima’s confidence quickly enough. A better school was promised for the other child as well.

 

Soon enough, Fatima was persuaded to share the drops that Raja left for Masih and vice versa. The first time they got the packet they found a film roll. They quickly took it to a photo studio in Khan Market and got a duplicate made for the roll, developed one and put the original roll back in the envelope, resealed it, and returned it to Fatima to hand over to Raja when he came for it. This went on till they were able to determine from Air Intelligence which airbase the film came from. This took a few months. By the time the fourth or fifth drop was made, the IB knew enough about the entire operation to shut it down. Daniel Masih was arrested. He had been philosophical about it, saying he had done his country a patriotic turn. He had no regrets. Raja’s cover having been blown, he was declared a persona non grata and left India for other assignments for his parent organisation, the ISI. The Bihari NCO was charged under OSA, court-martialled, dismissed from service, and the law took its course. Somewhere in some prison, Masih may perhaps still be languishing, his name in the list of hundreds of prisoners that India routinely exchanges with Pakistan, as happened last week.

At any point of time, there are many spies who are imprisoned. Masih was small fish. Some fish are even smaller, and sometimes not even as fishy. Once, there was a boy barely in his teens, maybe thirteen, found wandering around some fortified Punjab town. The police had picked him up. It turned out he had crossed over from Pakistan through the shifting sands in the border areas along Rajasthan’s periphery. In his bag they found a cheap camera with which he had been taking pictures. They developed the film and among the photos the young boy had taken were those of planes flying, some of them military. They called in the IB, and for many, many, months they kept him in prison: didn’t Pakistan train their spies early? Finally they handed him over to the Rangers at Wagah border. They determined he was just a small boy out to see the world.

Could Kulbhushan Jadhav be a spy? Just as Islamabad has left us deeply unimpressed on its case on Jadhav, New Delhi has not bothered to mount a convincing counter-narrative that firmly holds our logical imagination. Pakistan has not allowed consular access to Kulbhushan, which, when translated to English, means we have not been allowed to let Jadhav tell us, away from the cameras, in a way that can be verified, how he came to be in Pakistan’s hands. We have not heard an authoritative version from either his cloistered family or New Delhi that Jadhav was demonstrably engaged in another kind of life, innocent of espionage, prior to his falling into Pakistani hands, as opposed to the kind of life story Islamabad is assiduously peddling. Maybe they are saving that up for later use. There are many versions of the truth lurking out there somewhere.

 

Should we be surprised if he indeed turned out to have been dabbling in espionage? The truth is, if we are not spying on Pakistan we are not doing our duty, so it is best to assume we are. As are they. Finally, it is not about Jadhav. It is about the message that Pakistan is conveying. Do you think that after Pakistan has taken the trouble to come this far with the narrative they have presented, cleared at the highest military levels by the theocracy in fatigues, their uniformed Khomeinis, they are going to throw up their hands and say, “Hey, our entire trial was wrong! Our intelligence messed up. We have made an honest mistake! Jadhav is not a spy after all.” Is such an outcome possible?

We are dealing a country that remorselessly hanged a prime minister who gave them the atom bomb. We are dealing with a country where just the other day, General (Retd.) Musharraf sort of conceded that the ISI may have been mixed up with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. A country where a dictator like Zia-ul-Haq and assorted high-ranking Americans — many of them uniformed, including an Ambassador — are blown to smithereens on a plane? The non-NATO ally of the United States takes American dollars to fight terror and does mostly the opposite? What, after all, is Kulbhushan Jadhav to Pakistan? He is only a pawn in the game. Trump can tweet till his thumbs turn blue, but that is not going to change the reality that confronts us. That reality tells us Jadhav’s life gingerly hangs by a whimsical thread.

Irrespective of what the International Court of Justice may conclude, Jadhav could well end up falling fatal victim to the managed ire against a patriotic death-row prisoner with pronounced anti-Indian views; Jadhav could be driven to irrevocably take matters into his own hands; he could contract a life-threatening illness, like Ravindra Kasuhik who died a lonely tubercular death in a Multan prison; we could get Jadhav back lifeless, gift-wrapped in diplomacy; or he may find a final resting place within a Pakistani prison compound innocuously pushing up grass, unmarked by a distinguishing stone; all this has been known to happen before. And yes, he could even receive a presidential pardon whilst he is still amongst us. That cannot be discounted either. So long as we have optimists amongst us. But as long as there are spies among us, the script has only so many endings.

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