The playground of the spies

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The seizure of a large quantity of RDX at the house of a Pakistani diplomat stationed in Kathmandu buttresses the impression that the city is being increasingly used by espionage agencies of all sorts.

IF at all any more proof were needed to show that Nepal, and more specifically its dusty capital city of Kathmandu, is being increasingly used as a playground by regional espionage and intelligence agencies, it came on April 12 when the local police discovered a large quantity of high-energy RDX (research department explosive) in a house occupied by the Pakistani Embassy's First Secretary in Nepal, Muhammad Arshad Cheema.

The incident was telling in two ways: one, it was another indicator of the involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operatives in Kathmandu in orchestrating anti-India operations; and two, it pointed to the active presence in the Himalayan kingdom of India's own external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). As sources in the Nepalese Home Ministry averred last fortnight, there was no way the Kathmandu Police could have traced the RDX unless they had been tipped off and even helped all through the operation by 'special sources'. And there are no prizes for guessing who those 'sources' were. The same sources had helped the Nepal Police apprehend another Pakistani diplomat in late 1999 in Kathmandu with bundles of counterfeit Indian currency notes.

Muhammad Arshad Cheema, who was First Secretary in the Pakistan Embassy in Nepal.-DIPENDRA BAJRACHARYA/REUTERS

And though the expulsion of Cheema by Nepal a day after the RDX seizure - despite fierce Pakistani protestations - for conduct unbecoming of a diplomat (the terminology used when a diplomat is caught spying), put a temporary end to the unsavoury turn of events, it has highlighted Nepal's inability to keep itself free of third-country spies. As Foreign Minister Chakra Prasad Bastola told Frontline, "Friends are turning Nepal into a hotbed of intelligence agencies."

"And it is not just the ISI and RAW that have been active in Nepal. Besides the Chinese, who have always had a keen interest in this neck of the woods, and the Americans - whose interest in the region flagged after the end of the Cold War but is now likely to grow in the wake of the U.S. row with China over the spy plane incident - there is also the presence of a smaller player, Bhutan, in the espionage game. Bhutanese officials are currently discussing with their Nepalese counterparts the future of over 100,000 Lhotsampa refugees stranded in camps in Jhapa and Morang in Nepal's eastern Terai belt. Foreign Ministry officials, while reiterating that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had indeed been very active in Nepal during the years of the Cold War, say that it is now only a matter of time before the agency stepped up its presence.

According to sources in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, if the current trend of intelligence and counter-intelligence operations continues, Kathmandu could soon end up being what Berlin or Vienna were during the Cold War, when spies from the Eastern and Western bloc countries vied with one another in a long-drawn game of spy versus spy. Making Kathmandu attractive in this respect is Nepal's unique geophysical location, friendly relations with both India and Pakistan, a long and highly porous border with India and direct and extensive air links with both protagonists. The availability of a ready stream of local informants and recruiters from among both government officials and private citizens, who have been lured by the prospect of good money, has added to the ease of operation.

With the arrest and expulsion of Cheema, Indian officials in Kathmandu exude an air of I-told-you-so. They had for years seen Cheema as the ISI's man in Nepal in charge of covert activities - which Pakistan consistently denied.

Cheema was in the news first when he was accused by none other than Nepal's Inspector-General of Police of handing over 30 kg of RDX to a Punjab militant in 1998. His indirect role in the hijacking to Kandahar of an Indian Airlines aircraft, IC-814, during a flight from Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport to Delhi in December 1999 has also been talked about. According to informed sources, Cheema along with two of his associates, Zia Ansari and Abdul Rais Khan - a Nepali Muslim - had been spotted around Tribhuvan airport on the day of the hijacking. According to some reports, Cheema was a regular in the Pakistan Army before being drafted into the "diplomatic service".

In the present instance, Cheema, who had completed his official tenure in Kathmandu and was to have left Nepal on April 13-14, could find no escape hatch when a police party led by Kathmandu District Superintendent of Police Madhav Thapa raided the rented house in Baneshwar and found the RDX in a cupboard on the first floor. Cheema and his wife had been staying there for around a week. Cheema, who claimed that he had left his diplomatic quarters hardly a week earlier to stay in the house of a friend, denied any knowledge about the RDX and alleged that someone else had planted it there. The building also housed the offices of Sachel Engineering Works, a construction company run by Pakistani national Hussein Cheema, that maintains a stretch of the Mugling-Pokhara highway around 100 km from Kathmandu.

It is stated that the RDX was brought through the diplomatic channel from Pakistan for use against soft targets in India. It could also have been smuggled across the Chinese border. Explosives originating in Nepal have in recent months increasingly found their way into India's troubled northeastern States and also Bhutan.

The discovery of such a large quantity of the deadly explosive substance left the Nepalese security agencies red in the face, once again proving the lapses in Nepal's monitoring mechanisms in Kathmandu. Said a member of the police force: "The fact that so much of RDX was sitting around in an apartment goes to show the lapses in our own system and also the involvement of a number of local people in the operation."

COINCIDENTALLY, Cheema's arrest came close on the heels of the Nepal government's decision, on 'technical grounds', not to grant permission to Space-Time, a television network allegedly funded by Pakistani intelligence. The Space-Time network has in the recent past been seen as the hub for launching anti-India propaganda, as happened when it mischievously and wrongly publicised remarks purported to have been made by Hindi film actor Hrithik Roshan. A source close to Foreign Minister Bastola said: "As things stand, the Space-Time television network has been short-circuited by the government. But the daily newspaper (brought out by the group) continues to come out from Kathmandu."

The lifting of an earlier ban on the controversial network, which is currently run by Jamim Shah, a Nepali of Kashmiri descent, had resulted in the resignation of Nepal's Information Minister.

For Nepal, the growing activities of regional intelligence agencies on its soil do not augur well. Nepal would like to maintain good relations with all its neighbours, and it certainly would not like its territory to be used as a playground for intelligence agencies of all sorts. A senior official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: "We are being used as a football ground by the ISI and RAW."

Informed sources said that the Ministry has been in touch with Indian friends regarding the possibility of launching joint action to curb ISI activity in Nepal. Minister Bastola said, "Nepal is committed to stopping this sort of activity." But does it have the wherewithal to do so and, more important, the will?

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