Kulbhushan Jadhav saga is a nefarious game played between Indian, Pakistani intelligence agencies
As New Delhi hopes for dialogue with Islamabad, foreign policy cognoscenti know that the Kulbhushan Jadhav saga involves the two intelligence agencies more.
Ravinder Kaushik doesn’t occupy a place in the pantheon of Indian iconoclasts. His name would draw blank stares even among non-government officials with expertise in Indian diplomacy. His birthplace, of Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan, isn’t exactly the epicentre of India’s geopolitical discourse. But this border town with Pakistan unknowingly played a key part in India’s covert spy game against its arch nemesis. There is no public record of Kaushik’s service to India, no public acknowledgement by a government ministry, in fact it would be strange if that were the case – because Kaushik was indeed one of India’s most successful spies.
The recent death penalty handed to "alleged Indian RAW agent" Kulbhushan Jadhav has regurgitated massive discussions of the nefarious covert warfare many nations indulge in. For the subcontinental nations of India and Pakistan, that continuously view each other through a forbidding lens, the idea is far from far-fetched that such practices are routine.
But before diagnosing the facts or rather the lack of facts against Jadhav’s arrest, let’s revisit and understand Kaushik's case.
Kaushik’s earliest moorings were in Sri Ganganagar, which is a Punjabi speaking part of Rajasthan. His fluency in the language and the natural Punjabi accent made it easy for him to blend in among the more dominant sect of Pakistanis. But the deal clincher came when he was spotted by Indian intelligence officials, performing at a theatre festival. His performances impressed them so much so that he was immediately recruited, at the age of 23. His training was exhaustive and included understanding the topography of the country, polishing his Urdu language skills and acquainting him with religious texts.
He was then launched into Pakistan via UAE, where he took on the alias of Nabi Ahmed Shakir. He even completed a Law (LLB) degree from Karachi before enlisting in the Pakistan Army. He rose to the rank of major, married a local girl and even had a daughter. Such was Kaushik’s prowess and penetration that he earned the sobriquet of ‘Black Tiger’ (Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger allegedly picked up veiled references from the Kaushik episode).
But when you play with fire, one gets burnt. Kaushik’s identity was compromised by another Indian agent, who was captured by Pakistani forces and succumbed under duress. Though Kaushik's death sentence was suspended, he languished in various Pakistani jails until his untimely death. His letters of pleas went unanswered, and he was never rescued or acknowledged.
A closer post-mortem of the Jadhav saga shows how the Pakistani allegations of him being a spy don’t hold much water. The Pakistani version is parroted along the lines of an Indian naval officer who set up shop in Chabahar, Iran, from where he routinely snuck into Balochistan, Pakistan’s most fissiparous state, in order to cause "mischief" (as some Pakistani generals on news channels have described it). The ludicrous allegation of painting all of Balochistan’s decade-long instability on one individual is only the tip of the iceberg.
Pakistani authorities released an alleged confessional video last year, showing Kulbhushan admitting to being a RAW agent and committing espionage against the Pakistani state. Furthermore, a widely circulated photograph showed Jadhav’s Indian passport, which has the alias of Hussain Mubarak Patel. This has set the noxious conspiracy theorists in Pakistan screaming "Aha! Gotcha!"
Now, this is where any modicum of evidence Pakistan has gets completely unravelled and any Janus-faced duplicity gets inflated.
Firstly, India has acknowledged that Jadhav is indeed an Indian citizen. This here is elementary spy craft. Countries seldom openly claim or acknowledge the identity of captured spies. Secondly, Jadhav is a retired Indian naval officer. While Pakistan feels they have hit the jackpot apprehending an Indian national with links to the defence establishment, other geopolitical analysts have pointed out the unlikelihood of RAW recruiting naval officers.
Not to speculate on surreptitious agency recruiting, but the ministry of external affairs (MEA) has even gone on to acknowledge that he was once a serving naval officer, before he took a premature retirement. Had there been an iota of truth in Pakistan’s allegations, the Indian government wouldn’t have acknowledged a once upon a time naval officer accused of espionage.
But the coup-de-grace in Pakistan’s loosely concocted story is juxtaposed with what Pakistan claims to be the silver bullet – an Indian passport with an alias showing a Muslim name. In a line, spies do have aliases but they wouldn’t doctor their passport to be of the very country that they are trying to conceal. There would have been more gravitas had his alias appeared in the green crescent of a Pakistani passport.
India’s strong counter is that Jadhav, a businessman based out of Iran, was kidnapped by Taliban operatives in cahoots with the ISI, an agency known for such nefarious dealings. It is perhaps for this reason why Pakistani authorities have repeatedly denied Jadhav consular access (14 times).
Pakistani establishment handling this case have not only acted like dastardly cowboys but their brazenness came through earlier this month after Jadhav was given the death sentence on account of being found guilty in a farcical military court proceeding.
What exacerbates the scenario is that Pakistan is said to be guilty of violating various norms of both the Geneva and the Vienna conventions, of which Pakistan is a signatory. Juxtapose this to the much-protracted court trial of known Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab. While Kasab was caught firing away and creating havoc all over South Mumbai; on his apprehension, he was provided fair legal representation, allowed consular access and his appeals reached even the highest authority in the land.
If the Pakistani military is so convinced that it has caught a unicorn, then why withhold that evidence, or any evidence at all? The irony here that further sinks Pakistan into its own quagmire is that if this "alleged video confession" was so brazenly made public, then why are the details of his trail so hush-hush? The ISPR’s (ISI’s Public Relations wing) press releases and Pakistani media can’t even decide on the right name. Frequent alternations between Yadav and Jadhav? Kolbhoshan and Kulbhshan have been witnessed. If they can’t accurately decide on his name, the facts surely aren’t their forte.
Pakistan’s High-Commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, in his first media interview since the verdict, even went so far as to defend the farcical legal proceedings of known terrorists and lead architects of the heinous Mumbai terror attacks. Basit defended both Hafeez Saeed (who walks around Lahore freely even after the US placed a bounty on him) and Zaki-Ur-Rehman Lakhvi, stating in Pakistan, legal proceedings take their own course.
Former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, G Parthasarathy, accosted the Pakistan high commissioner in a public forum, when he revealed that Lakhvi’ s detention was so benevolent, that he was even allowed conjugal visits and was able to father a child, while in captivity.
Pakistan says they have used this military court proceeding to try even Pakistanis accused of "terrorism". This may be true, but a closer inspection shows that the military’s definition of terrorism is what clearly impacts Pakistan and the Pakistani Army first. A similar military tribunal was introduced to try and convict those responsible for orchestrating the December 2014 Peshawar massacre. While the military courts rightly cracked down on those who abetted such heinous attacks, clearly the military authorities don’t hold the same standard for the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack.
And surprisingly, Jadhav, a man against whom no concrete evidence has been presented, has been handed the death knell. There are further unconfirmed reports that Jadhav’s trial was done hurriedly so that he could be a pawn in a swap exchange with a Pakistani colonel gone missing and allegedly captured by Indian agencies.
Even during the height of the cold war, the US and the USSR showed civility to spies caught on either side and even saw peaceful swap exchanges.
To say Pakistan’s handling of the Jadhav case is negligent would be an understatement. India hasn’t minced any words when the MEA has said this would be treated as premeditated murder, if Pakistan chooses to uphold Jadhav’s sentence. Former RAW chief AS Dulat is optimistic that sanity will prevail, but he forewarns that Pakistan has shown contempt for the law in the past when hanging an elected prime minister.
As much as New Delhi hopes for rational dialogue with Islamabad, foreign policy cognoscenti know only too well that the real headquarters operates out of Rawalpindi (army headquarters).
As Shashi Tharoor once eloquently stated that, with most countries, the state has an army, but in Pakistan, the army has a state. So if the military has decided to hang Jadhav, can the civilian government or even the Supreme Court overrule the military?
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif knows only too well, of what it means to be on the receiving end of a general’s wrath.
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