The story of Kashmir Singh cannot fail to stir the heart of every Indian. Here is a man, convicted for spying, who spent 35 long years entombed on the death row in Pakistan. Singh says he was not a spy; that does not matter. Even if he was one, he was a pawn in a larger game that routinely has dozens of agents crossing the border, or the Line of Control in Kashmir, to gather low level military intelligence. Their task is to update what is called the enemy’s “order of battle”— the location of armoured or infantry units, artillery batteries, air force squadrons and cantonments — the pieces of a real life chessboard.
In the world of blacks and whites, espionage occupies a grey area. Those who spy for our country are considered heroes, while the ones who spy on us are reviled as the lowest of the low. In the old days, and that means till World War I and II, spies were routinely executed after a trial of sorts by military tribunals. With India and Pakistan stumbling towards peace and the perceptible decline of hostility towards each other, it’s perhaps time that some humane principles were introduced into this primeval gladiator pit as well.
Spying was considered a distasteful, if necessary, part of the contest between nations. However, an interesting twist was brought on by the enormous threat of global destruction that came with the emergence of arsenals of nuclear weapon-tipped missiles. Early arms control treaties between the US and USSR worked with the assumption that both sides would keep track of compliance by the other through, what were called national technical means — spy satellites, electronic and other kinds of surveillance. The idea was to provide assurance that no one side was sneaking ahead with a technology that could undermine the peace brought on by the capabilities of mutually assured destruction. In our era, for the big powers at least, the spy was recast as a regulator.
The problem is that both India and Pakistan treat spies like Kashmir Singh as expendable pawns. Most of them are recruited from villages of Punjab — Pakistani and Indian — and belong to the lower strata. Being pawns, they are simply ignored when arrested. So casual is the approach towards them that neither country ever acknowledges their existence and therefore shows no interest in assisting those arrested, or rehabilitating those who have served their time after conviction.
In September 2005, in the wake of the Sarabjit Singh case, several former field agents organised a gathering under the leadership of Vasdev Sharma, a former spy, who had spent eight long years in Pakistani jails. They complained that despite their suffering, no one bothered about their families or recognised their services after their release. Spies of an even earlier generation like Kishori Lal and Gulzar Masih, too, complained of indifference of officials after their release from Pakistani jails in 1974 in the wake of the 1971 Simla Agreement. They also revealed that in 1968 three Indians — Kapur Chand, Gurcharan Singh and Sham Sunder had been hanged in Sialkot jail.
Surinder Kumar, an Indian spy who returned home in 2006 after serving 15 years in Pakistani jails, told The Tribune that Balbir Singh, who was arrested in 1989 on spying charges was hanged in Sahiwal Jail in 1997, perhaps the last Indian spy to be so punished. Kumar said that the Punjab High Court in Pakistan had upheld the death sentence for Kirpal Singh, of Gurdaspur, on the charges of spying. Kirpal Singh is in Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore and apparently has an appeal pending with the Pakistan Supreme Court.
Kumar’s story is perhaps typical. He was in the Indian Army from 1970 to 1978 and was persuaded by the intelligence agencies to serve as a spy with the promise that his family would be looked after if he was caught. This brave man went to Pakistan five times and stayed there for a total of about five years. But in 1992 he was caught in Khiara village in the Narowal district of Pakistan and went through the familiar routine of torture and incarceration.
The treatment to these pawns contrasts sharply with upper class suspects. Each country has hinted at having high level informants in the other, but no one has offered any conclusive proof. In her book My Feudal Lord, Tehmina Durrani, accused her ex-husband Ghulam Mustafa Khar of being in the pay of the R&AW. Last year, Gauhar Ayub, the son of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, claimed that a high level Indian military officer (he virtually hinted it was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw) had provided Pakistan Indian battle plans in the 1950s.
An Indian R&AW officer has claimed that a high-level mole had tipped off New Delhi of Pakistan Air Force’s plan for a surprise attack on December 3, 1971, an action that led to the outbreak of the third India-Pakistan war. Jaswant Singh has claimed that a high-level mole in the Prime Minister’s Office had tipped off the US in 1995 and blocked India’s plans to test nuclear weapons. Till now, at least, no high-level person has been tried for espionage by either side. It is entirely possible that such people have been detected and forcibly retired or side-tracked because neither side wanted to be embarrassed by a revelation of betrayal at a high level.
While there does appear to be a clear record of Indian nationals hanged for espionage in Pakistan, no one accused of spying for Pakistan has been executed in India, at least in recent decades. This is in keeping with India’s generally relaxed attitude towards spying and betrayal. Spying has not been a hanging offence in India for quite some time now. Leave alone spies, India is uncommonly lenient with traitors as well. This is best evidenced by the way the government handled the case of R&AW official Rabinder Singh who was allowed to get away, or of the Larkins brothers — one a Major General and the other an Air Vice Marshal — who got ridiculously light sentence for selling military secrets to the US. There have been other important traitors, too, who have been allowed to live their normal lives.
It would be difficult to persuade countries not to punish spies, leave alone treat them leniently. But there is no reason why they should be denied due process and humane treatment. By definition war is a barbaric thing, but that has not detracted from the efforts of the world community to make it, howsoever much of an oxymoron it may sound, humane. The Geneva Conventions ban the use of certain kind of munitions and other conventions prohibit the use of chemical weapons. The campaign against land mines is an effort to expand the prohibition to a new and significant area.
India and Pakistan can also perhaps explore another option —exchanging spies. During the Cold War, some top level operatives were exchanged. Colonel Rudolf Abel, a Soviet sleeper agent arrested in 1957, was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers who was shot down in a U-2 in 1960. Gordon Lonsdale aka Konon Molody, a Soviet sleeper in UK, was exchanged for Greville Wynne, a British spy caught in Moscow. The fate reserved for traitors, however, has been different. In the Soviet Union they were, like Oleg Penkovsky, almost always executed, while in the US, people like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment that will ensure that they are never free.
The quality of an intelligence service is best brought out by the effort it makes to retrieve its agents. The Russians have excelled in this — getting spies back through exchange, or, in the case of George Blake, springing them from jail. The Americans and British, too, managed to get back some of their own, and also made enormous efforts to get Soviet traitors out of the erstwhile USSR. The Israelis have not given up on lobbying the US to release Jonathan Pollard, one of their agents. Abandoning spies and leaving their families to fend for themselves does not speak too highly of the professionalism of the Indian intelligence services.
This article was first published in Mail Today March 5