India’s secret war

The implications of the questions raised by the Kulbhushan Jadhav case go far beyond Jadhav’s fate. It is time India reflects seriously on its expanding programme of covert action and its long-term consequences.

Published : Jan 31, 2018 12:30 IST

Kulbhushan Jadhav, a file photograph.

Kulbhushan Jadhav, a file photograph.

FOR six hours, the hired car had driven through a forest of shadows, cast by the mountains of Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province—for generations, a refuge for smugglers, insurgents and spies. Heading towards Saravan, a town of 50,000 some 20 kilometres from the border with Pakistan, the car was carrying a businessman from Mumbai to a meeting. The men he wanted to meet were waiting, but there were others, too: like every spy story, this one ended in betrayal.

India knows something of what happened next: Kulbhushan Jadhav is now on death row, awaiting execution, after a hurried trial by a military court in Pakistan which found him guilty of espionage.

Early in January, Jadhav appeared on Pakistani television, insisting he was still “a commissioned officer of the Indian Navy”—a statement that contradicts the government of India’s statements and directly implicates it in his activities.

Precisely who Jadhav was and why he ended up where he did remain profoundly opaque. Basic questions remain unanswered; official documents are sealed. But interviews with over 10 diplomats and intelligence and naval officials from three countries make it clear that the governments of both India and Pakistan have been economical with the truth.

The implications of these questions go far beyond Jadhav’s fate, for behind the case lies a secret war that may claim hundreds, even thousands, of lives.

Ever since 2013, India has secretly built up a covert action programme against Pakistan, seeking to retaliate against jehadists and deter their sponsors in the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and now by Research and Analysis Wing’s (RAW) Anil Dhasmana, the programme has registered unprecedented success, hitting hard against organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad. But the story of the man on death row illustrates that this secret war is not risk-free. Lapses in tradecraft and judgment, inevitable parts of any human enterprise, can inflict harm far greater than the good they seek to secure.

Service in the Navy In principle, there should be no difficulty in settling the truth of the claims that Jadhav still serves with the Indian Navy. The Gazette of India records, among other things, the commissioning, promotions and retirements of military and civilian officials in granular detail. Inducted into the Navy in 1987, with the service number 41558Z, Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav would likely have been promoted to the rank of commander after 13 years of service, in 2000.

But the digital archive of the Gazette of India, a public document, has removed all files relating to the Defence Ministry for several months in 2000. Files in subsequent years bear no record of Jadhav’s retirement—though the Gazette is far from being immune to errors and omissions.

The government of India has told the International Court of Justice that Jadhav was a retired naval officer—a question that is, in any case, irrelevant to proceedings there— but it has declined to state exactly when he retired.

In response to a written question from this writer, the Naval Headquarters declined to confirm or deny whether Jadhav was a serving naval officer. Instead, it referred this writer to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry, in turn, said it had “nothing to add to whatever is already in the public domain”.

In general, nation states simply deny any ties to individuals arrested for espionage. Thirteen Indians are being held in Pakistan on espionage charges, and 30 Pakistanis are in Indian jails, but in not a single case has either country officially concerned itself with its agent’s fate.

Into a grey area The possibility that Jadhav is still a serving naval officer is precisely what makes this case different. The governments of both India and Pakistan almost certainly know the definitive truth—but only glimpses of it are so far visible outside their vaults.

From the accounts of two separate naval officers who served with Jadhav, it appears the commander’s journey into the grey world of the spy began soon after the near-war between India and Pakistan that followed the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s attack on Parliament House in 2001—a claim that the officer also made in the first of a series of hastily produced videos of his custodial confessional, possibly given under duress.

Late in 2001, the Navy set up nine naval detachments to monitor the Gujarat and Maharashtra coasts, anticipating the nascent threat to coastal cities from jehadist groups. Intelligence had begun to arrive around that time that the Lashkar was training operatives in marine skills at the Mangla Dam’s reservoir in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The implications were obvious and the Navy was deeply concerned.

Early on, though, the Navy realised it had one key problem: the absence of an independent intelligence capacity to monitor the organised criminal cartels most likely to serve any terrorist operation across the seas. Jadhav, his colleagues said, volunteered for covert service.

“Few sign up for these kinds of dangers,” recalls a senior intelligence official who met Jadhav on one occasion. “His was a choice of exceptional courage.”

But there was a catch, a senior naval official recalls. “The commander was insistent that he be allowed to remain on the Navy’s rolls to secure his promotion and pay,” he said. “The Navy didn’t have a system for off-the-books operatives overseas, so this was how it had to be.”

To Iran In December 2003, Jadhav travelled to Iran from Pune on a passport (E6934766) that identified him as Hussein Mubarak Patel. The passport identified “Patel” as a resident of the Martand Cooperative Housing Society in Pune but gave no apartment number. There has been no official investigation into how the passport was issued.

The Pune passport office records show the passport was earlier held by another individual, but the files contain no address. The Indian government has offered no explanation of how this passport was obtained by Jadhav.

Funding for Jadhav’s fiction—the term used by spies for their cover identities—was provided by the Naval Intelligence, sources said. Iranian investigations, diplomatic sources said, supported that conclusion, showing Jadhav paid cash to set up the Kaminda Trading Company, which engaged in marine engine repairs.

Later, it operated a dhow called the Kaminda out of the port in Chabahar. Records show that Jadhav’s company invited contracts for the supply of gypsum, which India imports for the manufacture of cement. In March 2015, for example, Jadhav looked for partners to enter into an annual contract for gypsum running to March 2016.

In a confessional testimony released by Pakistan’s military, Jadhav says he “established a small business in Chabahar in Iran [and] I was able to achieve undetected existence and visits to Karachi in 2003 and 2004”.

Tehran’s own investigation into the affair, a senior diplomat said, has shown that the Kaminda did little business, leaving a question mark over just why Jadhav stayed on in Iran for so many years. There are no records in Iran, the diplomat continued, to suggest that the Kaminda sought or received bank finance, a normal part of business.

In India, the Jadhav family did not receive regular remittance payments either, a police officer close to Jadhav’s father said. The family has repeatedly declined to meet the press.

Expansion of role In the build-up to 26/11, growing numbers of Indian jehadists were being routed to training camps in Pakistan through Iran’s Zahedan: figures like Fahim Arshad Ansari, allegedly among the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s top surveillance agents in India, and the fugitive bomb-maker Fayyaz Kagzi. The Baluch insurgency also exploded in 2006. Though Indian intelligence was kept well-informed of events there by its stations in Afghanistan, there was pressure inside the intelligence community to develop better contacts in the region.

To the dismay of Naval Intelligence, two officers said, their new asset in Chabahar soon began to be drawn into counterterrorism work for the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.)—raising fears that the fact that he was still on the organisation’s payroll could lead to embarrassment.

Even though Admiral Arun Prakash, Navy chief from 2004 to 2006, resisted the efforts, the sources said, his concerns were overruled by intelligence chiefs desperate for reliable assets in the region.

“The Navy was extremely worried about the possible consequences of the tasks being assigned to Jadhav by the Intelligence Bureau,” said one officer. “However, we were basically told that since he was there, that was how it needed to be.” Former RAW officials claimed that the push to draw Jadhav into front-line intelligence work was driven by the I.B.’s ambitions to have an independent overseas role. RAW’s own intelligence capacities in the region, they argued, were more than adequate to address emerging threats.

I.B. officials who served at the time disputed the claim and pointed to successes that their initiative had registered. In March 2007, for example, eight Pakistani nationals led by the Lashkar operatives Jamil Ahmad Awan and Abdul Majid Araiyan landed near Mumbai. They were presumed to have been tasked with attacking targets in Maharashtra and Gujarat. But the planned attack was penetrated by the I.B. and the terrorists were interdicted.

Either way, the sources said, Jadhav sought to expand his role after 26/11, even drawing up plans to use the Kaminda to stage a reprisal attack on Karachi, should a similar terrorist strike take place again. The idea received no traction but drew the attention of top intelligence officials who were convinced that more covert action was needed to deter Pakistan.

The former naval commander was greeted with consternation at RAW, where he first appeared in 2010, introduced as a former naval officer. Anand Arni, the head of RAW’s Pakistan desk, shot down proposals for Jadhav to work with the organisation, sources said, arguing that the naval officer had little intelligence that RAW did not already possess.

“There were, shall we say, some small tests put to him in the course of the four meetings we had,” a former RAW officer recalled. “He failed to give us anything particularly interesting.”

But small cash payments, the source added, were made to Jadhav by successive RAW chiefs, beginning with K.C. Verma—“a standard practice to maintain a working relationship with potential sources”, said an official familiar with the payments.

Interestingly, the payments appear to have continued through the tenures of several spymasters, running from Verma’s successor, Sanjiv Tripathi, chief from 2010 to 2012, and Alok Joshi, who led RAW from 2012 to 2014.

Through this entire period, no one appears to have reviewed Jadhav’s employment structure—which means he may have remained on the books as a naval officer because of bureaucratic oversight.

RAW routinely employs military officers, but on secondment, and never for front-line operational tasks, thus ensuring that there is a wall between the activities of agents and the government in the event of disclosure.

In a purported confessional testimony, Jadhav says he began working for RAW in 2013, reporting to an officer named Anil Kumar Gupta. There is, however, no officer in the organisation of that name, past or present. In later videos, though, he names RAW chiefs Anil Dhasmana and Joshi.

Perhaps significantly, both Verma and Joshi were former I.B. officers—as is the present National Security Adviser Doval—and may have come across Jadhav’s work in the pre-26/11 period.

In 2014, Jadhav obtained the passport (L9630722) he was eventually arrested with in Pakistan, which was issued in Thane. This time, he identified himself as a resident of the Jasdanwala Complex on the old Mumbai-Pune road cutting through Navi Mumbai. The flat, municipal records show, was owned by his mother, Avanti Jadhav. Giving the accurate address on the passport was an extraordinary lapse of professional judgment if Jadhav was, at the time, still in service with an espionage organisation.

“Basically, it makes it impossible for India to deny he is who he says he is, which is a basic element of tradecraft,” a RAW official pointed out. “It’s criminally irresponsible for a spy’s cover identity to be so closely linked to his real life.”

Towards betrayal From 2014 onwards, sources say, Jadhav grew increasingly close to the Karachi-based ganglord Uzair Baluch, once a valued ally for Pakistan’s military but forced to flee the country in 2013. Having held an Iranian passport since 1987, Uzair Baluch moved in and out of Chabahar. Living next door to Baluch’s nephew, Jaleel Baluch, Jadhav paid cash for information. Pakistani military sources insist that he made at least five deliveries of weapons to Baloch insurgents for RAW after 2014—but, like so much to do with the story, the facts are murky.

An official Pakistani investigation document shows that Baluch, who was provided safe haven by Iran after a falling-out with the ISI, returned the favour by becoming “involved in espionage activities, by providing secret information/sketches regarding Army installations and officials to foreign agents”. The material he handed over appears to have been low-grade.

Last year, Uzair Baluch was finally detained in Abu Dhabi, on the basis of an Interpol warrant, and deported to Pakistan. Baluch’s interrogation, Pakistani official sources say, eventually led the ISI to the Indian whose operations in Chahbahar had gone undetected for over a decade. In April 2017, Uzair Baluch gave testimony in a Karachi magistrate’s court, admitting to having been in touch both with Jadhav and Iranian intelligence. His account provides some insight into how the Jadhav story came to an end.

Though Jadhav was accused in the Pakistani media of engaging in acts of terrorism, the secret military court in Pakistan that sentenced Jadhav to death tried him only under the Official Secrets Act. The Act allows the imposition of the death sentence on individuals who pass any “information which is calculated to be or might be or is intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy”.

Following Jadhav’s kidnapping from Saravan, Pakistani sources said, a decision was taken at the ISI Directorate to link him to acts of terrorism. Notably, however, the first of Jadhav’s confessional videos, released by Pakistan’s military, referred in general terms to acts of terrorism by India but none involving himself. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s foreign policy adviser, Sartaj Aziz, told the Pakistani Senate in April 2017 that a dossier prepared by the intelligence services for the government “did not have any conclusive evidence”. “What the dossier contained was not enough,” he said.

But in a sealed submission to the International Court of Justice, Islamabad named 13 senior Indian officials who it says facilitated Jadhav’s operations. In an earlier letter to the Indian government, Pakistan sought “assistance in the investigation process and early dispensation of justice”—invoking India’s language in requests on the 26/11 and Pathankot cases.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and former RAW chief Alok Joshi, senior government sources said, are among the officials named in both sets of documents—an effort to draw a parallel between the Jadhav case and the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence services in jehadist strikes on India.

“This is an effort to equate acts like 26/11 with Indian covert action,” said a former intelligence officer. “The only reason it has traction, though, is because of the opacity around Jadhav’s employment status. If he is indeed a serving naval officer, that means there are some serious problems with the infrastructure for our covert action programme, which need addressing.”

Perils ahead In 1948, the United States government created a new Office of Special Projects within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to conduct covert action across the world. The Office’s tasks, according to a National Security Council directive, were activities “conducted or sponsored by this government against hostile foreign states or groups or in support of friendly foreign states or groups”. In practice, this meant funding anti-communist forces, including former Fascists, in countries like Italy, and even assassinating leaders whom the U.S. found hostile.

There was one key caveat in the directive: covert action had to be “so planned and executed that any U.S. government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorised persons and that if uncovered the U.S. government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them”.

Evidence on whether Jadhav is still a naval officer or not remains ambiguous. But the questions that have already surfaced give reason to suppose that his interrogators in Pakistan’s ISI have enough material to embarrass India. The foundation of any covert action programme is, after all, plausible deniability.

For Indians, this ought to be an occasion for serious reflection on the country’s expanding programme of covert action and the long-term consequences it might have. There has, sadly, been next to no informed political debate on the issue in India, a situation that ought to be of concern to both advocates and critics of covert action. Political consensus, after all, is the bedrock on which countries as diverse as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Israel and Russia have built their covert action programmes. There are precedents for the covert action programme India is now unleashing. Establishment 22, operating under the command of Major General Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh. Establishment 22 personnel aided Sikkim’s accession to the Union of India; trained Tamil terrorists; and armed rebels operating against the pro-China regime in Myanmar.

In the early 1980s, RAW set up two covert groups, Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J, targeted at Khalistan groups backed by the ISI. Each Khalistan terror attack targeting India’s cities was met with retaliatory attacks in Lahore or Karachi.

“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.”

Prime Minister I.K. Gujral ended RAW’s offensive operations against Pakistan, and his predecessor, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, wound up its eastern operations.

Ever since 26/11, a welter of senior intelligence figures, including former National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan, are known to have argued for an expansion of RAW’s covert offensive capacity to retaliate against the ISI.

Inside the intelligence community, RAW’s new offensive operations are reputed to have registered unprecedented success against jehadist groups in Pakistan. The assassination of Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s security boss, Khalid Bashar, in 2013; the penetration of the Jaish-e-Muhammad’s cross-border attack plans; the tit-for-tat arming of Baluch nationalists to retaliate against the ISI’s sponsorship of the Kashmir jehad—these have all been attributed, in Pakistan, to RAW’s new leadership.

Nation states, almost without exception, use similar covert means to secure ends they cannot legally or ethically defend in public. Such operations allow for the discreet exercise of power, minimising the risks of war, and allow governments room to manoeuvre free of public pressure. Yet, the scholar Alexandra Perina has noted, “the very attributes of these tools that are so appealing present corresponding costs; by taking their conduct out of the public realm, states cede their influence in shaping international public opinion about their conduct, with consequences not only for the legitimacy of their actions but for the law itself”.

Moreover, covert action can have unintended consequences. The U.S.’ backing of Contra insurgents in Nicaragua aided drug traffickers in its own cities, while its arming of anti-Soviet jehadists in Afghanistan led, inexorably, to 9/11. Its use of proxies to destabilise regimes around the world undermined the norms of the global state system, with dangerous consequences.

Unanswered question Hence, the Kulbhushan Jadhav case ought to raise questions about whether India’s intelligence bosses are devoting the kind of granular attention that the issue requires to insulate the country from the potential risks. The questions over Jadhav’s passports, the opacity of his business operations and, most important, the lack of transparency about his connection to the Indian Navy, have all made it difficult for the government of India to dissociate itself from his cause—the usual, necessary fate of the spy. It is also not clear why, if he is indeed a spy, he was not withdrawn after Uzair Baluch’s arrest, an elementary precaution.

Perhaps more importantly, there ought to be a serious political debate cutting across party lines on the possible consequences of covert action.

In this case, Pakistani prosecutors may have little to tie Jadhav to actual acts of violence. But lapses, if left unaddressed, could cause significant damage. Global reaction to a future 26/11, after all, might be different were it ever to be demonstrated that India had links to similar acts of terror.

Knowledge of the truth about the Jadhav case, as it emerges, will do little to alter his fate. In a May 18 judgment asking Pakistan not to proceed with Jadhav’s execution, the International Court of Justice recorded that “the Vienna Convention does not contain express provisions excluding from its scope persons suspected of espionage or terrorism”.

Put simply, Jadhav is entitled under Indian law to the assistance of the Indian government—including legal assistance—irrespective of the nature of his activities in Iran or Pakistan.

The International Court of Justice does not, however, conduct criminal trials; nor can it strike down domestic laws. It will, at most, ask Pakistan to try Jadhav again, this time ensuring that he is allowed to access support from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. A local court will assess the evidence Pakistan prosecutors bring before it—and that evidence will include the claim, supported by Jadhav’s confession, that he was a serving naval officer working as a spy.

Precedents do exist to resolve situations like this. Gary Powers, the pilot of a CIA espionage flight shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960—and reviled by his colleagues for not committing suicide—was eventually exchanged for the legendary KGB spy Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher.

In both New Delhi and Islamabad, there are rumours the two capitals are working on just such a deal—possibly involving former ISI officer Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Zahir Habib, alleged to have been kidnapped by India—or a wider deal, which could see the release of multiple espionage convicts.

Both countries have much to gain from a dispassionate conversation on the case—on the norms that ought to govern covert activity of the one against the other, and on the inexorable consequences of the secret war Pakistan has long run.

For that, the Kulbhushan Jadhav case needs to be elevated above prime-time ranting and opened up for rational discussion.

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