Sarabjit Singh, and the spies we left out in the cold

(Editor's note: This piece was originally published on 29 April following the attack on Sarabjit Singh in the Kot Lakhpat jail)

Last summer, an ageing Sikh man with the full grey beard of the pious came across the Wagah border, at the end of thirty years and six months in a maximum-security Pakistani prison. In December 1981, Surjeet Singh had left his home in the village of Fidda, telling his wife he’d soon be back. In photographs taken not long before then, Singh had a neatly-trimmed moustache, a smart tie,  a well-fitted jacket - and the intense look of young men with energy and ambition. He came home to a country that chooses, even today, not to recognise him.

“I had gone to spy,” Singh told journalists gathered to document his return—shocking many. They shouldn’t have been.

Now, as Indians watch Kot Lakhpat prisoner Sarabjit Singh’s battle for survival following a lethal jail-house attack, it is more important than ever for us to understand how dozens of men like him ended up in jail in the first place.

It is hard to be certain whether Sarabjit Singh is, as Pakistani courts have found, an Indian secret agent responsible for terrorist bombings which claimed 14 lives—or, as his family and advocates insist, a victim of mistaken identity. We do, however, know this: Sarabjit Singh’s story is linked to the untold, and mostly unknown, story of India’s secret war with Pakistan.

Men like Sarabjit Singh, who fought India's covert wars of the 1980s, have become unwelcome reminders of an embarrassing past. AFP

Men like Sarabjit Singh, who fought India's covert wars of the 1980s, have become unwelcome reminders of an embarrassing past. AFP

“The water,” Pakistan’s military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq told his spymaster, General Akhtar Malik, in December 1979, “must boil at the right temperature.” Even as General Malik’s proxy armies of jihadists battled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan feared pushing the superpower to the point where it might retaliate. Key to Pakistan’s fears was India. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, General Zia believed, might be pushed by the Soviet Union into unleashing a war on its behalf. His chosen counter-strategy was to try to tie down India in a bruising internal conflict in Punjab.

From the early 1980s, Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, sparking off a war that would claim over 20,000 lives before it was done.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered retaliation. The Research and Analysis Wing set up two covert groups, known only as Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J, the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed in particular at Khalistani groups. Each Khalistan terror attack targeting India’s cities was met with retaliatory attacks in Lahore, Multan and Karachi through CIT-X. “The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab,” the former RAW officer B Raman wrote in 2002, “by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known”.

Men like Surjeet Singh were the soldiers in this secret war. For decades, both India and Pakistan had relied on trans-border operators to spy on each other’s militaries. There were some who agreed to do so in return for the right to smuggle alcohol, gold, electronics and heroin. There were others, too, who volunteered, driven by patriotism. Some of the men received training in the tradecraft of the secret agent—avoiding detection; building cover-identities; secret writing using aspirin tablets dissolved in alcohol, to be mailed to RAW outposts in Iran; more lethal skills, like building bombs.

“I did 85 trips to Pakistan,” Surjeet Singh told the BBC’s Geeta Pandey. “I would visit Pakistan and bring back documents for the army. I always returned the next day. I had never had any trouble.” His last trip ended as a spies’ career often does—with betrayal. Singh was sentenced to death, but in 1985 his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

For reasons that are still unclear, CIT-X and CIT-J were shut down by Prime Minister IK Gujral in 1997. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao is believed to have earlier terminated RAW's eastern operations as part of his efforts to build bridges with China and Myanmar.

The secret soldiers were, mostly, forgotten. “I felt like a used napkin,” said Karamat Rohi, who says he served RAW until his arrest inside Pakistan in 1988, where he remained imprisoned, disowned by India, until 2005. “I felt I was doing a great service to the nation. I did not expect some great reward, but being abandoned is humiliating.”

Stories like these are common. Gurdaspur resident Gopal Dass was sent home after spending 27 years in a Pakistani jail. In 2011, the Supreme Court shot down Dass’ claim for compensation from the government. The court said Dass had no evidence he ever worked for RAW—though a field court martial at Sialkot Cantonment in Pakistan awarded him a life sentence on 27 December 1986.

India’s less-than-enthusiastic covert warfare efforts were, perhaps, shaped by circumstance. In 1947, as imperial Britain left India, its covert services were stripped bare. The senior-most British Indian Police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan, chose Pakistani citizenship—and left for his new homeland with what few sensitive files departing British officials neglected to destroy. The Intelligence Bureau, Lieutenant-General LP Singh has recorded, was reduced to a “tragi-comic state of helplessness,” possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards”.

The Military Intelligence Directorate in New Delhi didn’t even have a map of Jammu and Kashmir to make sense of the first radio intercepts signalling the beginning of the war of 1947-1948.

For Pakistan, covert warfare was a tool of survival: faced with a larger and infinitely better-resourced neighbour, it knew it could not compete in conventional military terms. Khan is credited with early doctrinal efforts on Pakistan’s behalf, positing that covert warfare could open up crippling ethnic-religious faultlines in India.

Thus, Pakistan initiated covert warfare in Jammu and Kashmir soon after its failed military effort in 1947-48, backing groups that bombed government buildings and bridges. From the 1960s, it backed a succession of proto-jihadist networks. Major-General Akbar Khan, who commanded the Pakistani forces during that first India-Pakistan war, has also recorded in his memoirs that his country's covert forces supplied weapons to Islamist irregulars in Hyderabad. Pakistan’s covert services operated similarly in the east, training Naga groups in the Chittagong Hill tracts.

India's covert capabilities also began to develop significantly in the wake of the 1962 war with China. Aided by the United States, the newly-founded RAW developed sophisticated signals intelligence and photo-reconnaissance capabilities. Central Intelligence Agency instructors also trained Establishment 22, a covert organisation raised from among Tibetan refugees in India, to execute deep-penetration terror operations in China. Establishment 22, operating under the command of Major-General Surjit Singh Uban, carried out deep-penetration strikes against Pakistani forces under the RAW umbrella prior to the onset of the war.

Following the war, RAW’s attentions now turned elsewhere. Establishment 22 personnel played a key role in Sikkim’s accession to the Union of India; helped train Tamil terrorists operating against Sri Lanka; provided military assistance to groups hostile to the pro-China regime in Myanmar, such as the Kachin Independence Army. Pakistan, it seemed to some, had been taught a lesson in 1971—and was no longer a threat to India.

Time hasn’t proved that assumption well-founded—reopening debate on whether Prime Minister Gujral’s decision to shut down the covert war needs to be reviewed. Secure behind its nuclear umbrella, Pakistan has pursued covert war whenever it has deemed it in its best interests. Fearful of the potentially awful consequences of all-out war, Delhi has chosen to weather out the crisis rather than retaliate. India’s political leadership believes aggressive covert means of the kind unleashed in the 1980s would only escalate the spiral of violence.

In the wake of the Kargil war, key intelligence officers including a former Intelligence Bureau director, attempted to persuade Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to issue the necessary authorisations for renewed offensive covert operations against Pakistan. “Vajpayee didn't say a word,” recalls one official present at the meeting. “He didn't say no; he didn’t say yes.”

Following the carnage of 26/11, some in India’s intelligence establishment again pushed to develop the resources needed to target jihadist leaders in Pakistan. The project, intelligence sources say, was also denied clearance.

Ever since 1987, governments have used secret channels to try to temper the intensity of the covert war. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi despatched RAW chief AK Verma to meet with his counterpart, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul, through then-Jordanian Crown Prince Hasan bin-Talal. Little came of this effort. Later, RAW chief CD Sahay and ISI chief Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq discussed cross-border infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir, as part of a ceasefire deal on the Line of Control.

Each time, little tangible has emerged: there’s no evidence Pakistan wishes to give up the covert tools in its arsenal, any more than it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons.

Likelier than not, then, the covert war will continue. In the meanwhile, the men who fought in the 1980s have become unwelcome reminders of an embarrassing past that India no longer wishes to acknowledges.

George Orwell never said, frequent attribution notwithstanding, that “we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

The fact that he didn’t say it, though, doesn’t mean the statement is wrong.

India owes its secret soldiers a debt—and Sarabjit Singh’s battle for his life is as good a time as any for us to begin to acknowledge it.