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
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
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
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
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
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 Wire March 26, 2016