People & society

The spy who fell from the sky

Updated May 24, 2017 09:20pm

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Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad
Illustration by Zahra Abdus Samad

These are tense times. Monkeys are on death row and diplomacy is dead.

Self-proclaimed Indian sleuth Kulbhushan Jadhav was captured by the Pakistani military on March 3, 2016 in Balochistan while trying to cross into Pakistan from Iran. On March 29, the authorities in Islamabad showed a video of Jadhav confessing to being a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) agent, having carried out subversive activities in Pakistan since 2003.

There was an unmistakable sense of triumph when Asim Bajwa, the then head of the army’s public relations department, repeated the code phrase that was supposed to intimate the Indian spy agency of Jadhav’s arrest: “Your monkey is with us.”

The predictable course of action for India would have been to deny any link with Jadhav. But it chose to own him as an Indian citizen and, more importantly, as a former member of the Indian navy. While India says he retired from the navy in 2013, Jadhav himself claims to be a serving officer.

He also has two Indian passports, one under the alias of Hussein Mubarak Patel; India has offered no explanation for that as yet. It has, instead, chosen to take a belligerent stance, especially after he was sentenced to death last month by a military tribunal, soon after a Pakistani ex-serviceman went missing from Nepal.

The timing of the sentence, following speculation over Indian spooks having abducted the Pakistani man, has set a dangerous wheel of tit-for-tat in motion. Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj has warned Pakistan “to consider the consequences” before hanging Jadhav. Pakistan has already denied consular access to Jadhav, with the Pakistani high commissioner Abdul Basit claiming India “knows what [Pakistan] is talking about”.

Speaking to the Indian media, Basit said Jadhav could not have been tried by a civil court because he is not a civilian. One wonders why this is so when many spies have been tried by civil courts in the past. Sarabjit Singh, an Indian who claimed to have ventured across the border in a drunken state, was tried by the Lahore High Court and then the Supreme Court. He spent 22 years on death row before he died after being beaten up by fellow inmates in Kot Lakhpat jail in 2013. Another alleged spy, Kashmir Singh, was sentenced to death first by a military court, then by a civil court, but was eventually pardoned and released in 2008, 35 years after his arrest.

Compassion may be an unlikely consideration in Jadhav’s case, but a case can still be made for transparency. This was an opportunity for Pakistan to categorically prove India’s subversive activities on its soil. A fair trial under the media’s watch – as was the case with the Panama Leaks – would not only validate any punitive action against Jadhav, but also validate Pakistan’s accusations against India in the public eye.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz has claimed Jadhav sponsored attacks on Hazaras and Shia pilgrims in Balochistan. If so, the military could use evidence of this to try and absolve itself of accusations of colluding with sectarian and militant groups.

The famous Soviet spy arrested by the United States in 1957, Rudolf Abel, was known as ‘the spy who never broke’, but his trial was still public. Here is Jadhav, confessing eagerly and still being tried and convicted secretly. Even Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani who was involved in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was tried by civil courts. India has used that as a reference to Jadhav’s secret sentencing.

Spies are glorified soldiers. They have been, even before Ian Fleming introduced James Bond, the seminal spy, in 1953. Bond blockbusters aren’t the only silver-screen eulogies for sleuths, all of whom use secrecy as their weapon of choice. To call them out, their captors cannot do the same. It is not enough to tell the people that Jadhav was a spy. It is in Pakistan’s interest to show its people that he was one.


This was originally published in the Herald's May 2017 issue under the headline "Open Secrets". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.