Let us dispose of the notion that India does not carry out covert operations against Pakistan. New Delhi has, at least since 1990, refused to use the instrumentality of terrorism to hit back at Pakistan, but you can be sure that – short of terrorist acts – it employs all the weapons available in the covert arsenal for both defence and offence. This is the least you can expect, given Pakistan considers India its primary adversary and is into all kinds of activity ranging from ordinary espionage, to subversion of currency, promoting separatism and supporting terrorism.
India has important strategic interests in Pakistan, including in the Balochistan region. Balochistan is of interest principally because of the stepped up naval activities of the Chinese in Gwadar and the plans for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
For the past two decades, India has made no secret of its activities in Iranian Balochistan. It has sought to develop the port of Chabahar for alternative routes to Afghanistan and Central Asia. It has used its consulate in Zahedan, which is near the Pakistan border, to keep an eye on Pakistani activity there and support Indian interests. All this is done, of course, under the watchful eyes of the Iranian authorities who, no doubt, have their red-lines on what the Indians can do and what they cannot.
Looking at the case of Commander (retired) Kulbhushan Jadhav, the arrested India man that Pakistan says is a ‘RAW officer’, it is worthwhile recalling the legendary CIA counter-intelligence officer James Jesus Angleton’s description of intelligence craft as “a wilderness of mirrors.” Finding out where the truth lies is next to impossible, and reality is what you want to believe.
At first sight, the facts of the case are fairly straightforward.
On Thursday, local media in Pakistan reported that its security forces had arrested “a serving officer in the Indian navy and deputed to the intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW)” in Balochistan. Subsequently, Dawn reported Balochistan home minister Mir Sarfaraz Bugti as saying that “an Indian spy” was arrested in the southern part of the province.
On Friday, the Pakistan foreign office summoned Indian high commissioner Gautam Bambawale to protest what it claimed was the “subversive activities” of a “RAW officer.”
In a statement, the Pakistan foreign office said: “The Indian high commissioner was summoned by the foreign secretary today, and through a démarche (we) conveyed our protest and deep concern on the illegal entry into Pakistan by a RAW officer. And his involvement in subversive activities in Balochistan and Karachi.”
Later on Friday, the official spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vikas Swarup told reporters that the “said individual has no link with the government since his premature retirement from the Indian navy.” Indian diplomats in Pakistan had sought consular access, he said, adding that “India has no interest in interfering in the internal matters of any country and firmly believes that a stable and peaceful Pakistan is in the interest of all in the region.”
Pakistan’s Dunya News channel said that Jadhav had been arrested from the Chaman area of Balochistan, that his address in Mumbai was No 502B Silver Oak, Powai, Hiranandani Gardens and that he had a passport no. L9630722, with a valid Iranian visa made out in the name of Hussein Mubarak Patel. The channel said that Jadhav had joined RAW in 2013 and was initially based in Chabahar, the port in Iran which India is helping to develop.
The Indian Express has confirmed that Jadhav does indeed live where the Pakistani report says he does, is the son of a former police official in Mumbai, and is a businessman who had interests around the world, though it has not figured out what business he does.
This is the point from where the wilderness of mirrors begins.
The first big question is why a commander-level officer would be involved in a cross-border operation. His rank is the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel in the army, and officers of this rank run operations from a distance, they don’t participate in them. Indeed, persons of this rank are not even forward-based on a border where captains and majors run the operations that are in turn executed by low-level agents, and non-commissioned officers, at least in the India-Pakistan context. Over the years, India has caught a raft of ISI agents, but all of them were relatively low-level operatives or non-commissioned officers like SSG commando Mohammed Khalid, who was arrested in Kupwara in 1995, or Naik Zulfikar Ahmed – who died in a Delhi hospital and was listed as a “martyr” on a Pakistan army website.
The second big question is why such an officer would carry an Indian passport with him for what was going to be a clandestine operation. Using third country passports for such missions is standard practice for any major intelligence agency, as it provides an immediate layer of deniability in the event of an agent being caught.
If we work with the assumption that Jadhav is indeed an Indian intelligence officer, there are several possibilities here.
First among these is that he was kidnapped from Iran and delivered to Pakistani officials at Chaman. The second, that he was lured by a Pakistani intelligence operation to enter Afghanistan and abducted from there. There is a third possibility – that Jadhav had to involve himself personally because either he had to deliver a large sum of money to Baloch contacts, or had been promised a meeting with someone so important that his contacts said this would require his personal presence.
The last scenario harkens to the Venlo incident in which British and Dutch intelligence officers were lured to the German border and kidnapped from Dutch soil in 1939. They were tempted by the offer of a meeting with a non-existent general who was supposed to be leading the resistance against Hitler. For Pakistan, getting hold of an Indian officer in Balochistan is a major coup. For years it has been shouting from the roof-tops that Indians were involved in Baloch separatist activity, as well as a whole raft of other bad things in Pakistan.
Now, they have a person in their custody and the government of India has acknowledged that he is, indeed, a former Indian navy official. As for New Delhi’s denial of any action prejudicial to Pakistani interests, we can treat that as proforma; after all, the government is not likely to acknowledge such things.
The fourth, and somewhat improbable, possibility is that having abducted Jadhav, the Pakistanis have manufactured evidence in the form of a forged passport. But this can easily be verified through the passport authorities. If indeed, such a passport has been issued to Jadhav, the MEA will end up with a lot of egg on its face.
While India midwifed the creation of Bangladesh, it has never publicly backed the Baloch separatist cause. This despite the fact that Pakistani “moral and political support” for Kashmiri independence extends to funding, training and arming Kashmiris and Pakistani nationals to fight against Indian forces in the state. Indeed, ISI efforts to promote separatism in India pre-date the Bangladesh war. Simply put, those looking for training camps run by Indians in Afghanistan will not find them. This doesn’t preclude covert moral and monetary support to the Balochis, primarily because of the pain Pakistan has inflicted on India in the last 30 years – and not with some belief that Balochistan ought to be free. There are few in India who would support the breakup of Pakistan because that would be to open a Pandora’s Box. So, the MEA statement backing a “stable and peaceful” Pakistan should be taken at face value.
What the Jadhav arrest has done is to bring to the public domain the covert war that India is fighting against Pakistan. We know a lot about the Pakistani war against India, but not so much about the Indian effort. It also opens up the possibility that this war, bitter though it may be, can also be fought with some rules – principally, that arrested agents are treated with dignity, not just by those who arrest them, but in their own home country after they return.
Spies who have served the country with great fortitude and suffered torture and long terms of imprisonment are left to rot when and if they manage to return home, usually after long spells of imprisonment. This is in stark contrast to the practices of countries like Russia, Israel, the US or Britain, which sticks by its men, and, in the right circumstances quietly arranges exchanges.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation