Skulduggery and collusion

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

There is growing concern in Nepal over the tendency of criminal and terrorist forces making Kathmandu their major base on the one hand, and it turning into the centre of espionage activity in the region on the other.

ABDUCTIONS, counterfeit currency capers, RDX smuggling, gun running and hijacking - the criminalisation of Shangrila seems complete. Over the last five years, the Nepalese media have been reporting sporadic discoveries of caches of research department explosive and arrests of suspected agents of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) smuggling the explosives, counterfeit Indian currency or even walkie-talkie sets. Why is Nepal becoming a haven for criminal and indeed terrorist activities? Is it that Nepal's policing system is weak? Is it that its legal system, which evolved, as former Speaker Daman Dungana says, "to meet the limited challenges of a small insulated state", is unable to cope with the political criminalisation and terrorism that have spilled out from its neighbours?

What happens to the arrested persons? Two officials of the Pakistani embassy, who were caught red-handed in ISI-sponsored scams - Asim Saboor in January 2000 and Mohammad Arshad Cheema in April 2001, have been sent back amidst much media glare (Frontline, May 11, 2001). But what of the others - Nepali, Indian and Pakistani nationals reportedly implicated in ISI-linked subversive activities in Nepal? Evidently they are not in jail in Nepal. Also there is considerable confusion about what they could be charged with under Nepal's legal system. According to Sushil Pyakurel, a member of Nepal's National Human Rights Commission, the police have not responded to the Commission's repeated inquiries about the whereabouts of 'missing' persons who are believed to have been arrested, or what they were charged with. Apparently no one implicated in such activities has been brought to trial in Nepal. Neither has anyone been extradited, that is, not since Sucha Singh, an accused in the Pratap Singh Kairon murder case in the 1960s. So where are they?

Many of the missing people suggest that they could have slipped through the porous border with India, but there are also reports of cloak-and-dagger collusion between the Nepalese and Indian police and the abduction of 'suspects'. For instance, Prem Bahadur Chettri, a Nepali national, at present in jail in Lucknow, claims he was abducted from Kathmandu with the connivance of Indian embassy officials and taken across the border to Gorakhpur (The Kathmandu Post, April 24). In a letter from jail, Chettri who had served for 22 years in the Indian Army, said he had gone to the pension camp in Thamel, Kathmandu, to collect his pension and had been referred to the Indian Embassy for some clarification. Once there, he claims, he was tied up and rendered unconscious. The next thing he knew was that he woke up in Gorakhpur, he says. According to Chettri, several Nepali ex soldiers have been picked up under suspicion of being ISI agents.

Indian embassy sources have declined to comment. However, they have alluded to a March 23 report in The Hindustan Times, about the arrest of seven serving Nepali (Gorkha) soldiers in the Indian Army who were charged with working for the ISI. Chettri's arrest was linked to that. The issue here is not his arrest but his alleged abduction, a criminal act.

The Indian embassy's ubiquitous presence in Nepal is further clear from the case of Cheema. Madhav Thapa, the police officer who caught the Pakistani diplomat, had referred to a "special source" which by all indications was the Indian Home Ministry's agencies.

The alleged underhand dealings between India and Nepal involve not just fraternal links but a network of quid pro quos and bribes, and have questionable legality, considering the enforced disappearances, denials and abusive practices. A case in point, according to human rights organisations in Nepal, is that of two missing Kashmiris, Mohammad Shafi Rah and Mushtaq Ahmad Rah, who were allegedly taken away from their residence in the Samakhusi area of Kathmandu on the night of August 27-28, 2000 by plainclothes Nepal police. Reports of a police operation against Kashmiri suspects had appeared in several newspapers of the valley. Saptahik Vimarsh, in its September 1 issue, reported the arrest of the Rah brothers and claimed that the Nepal police had handed them over to the Indian authorities. The Himalayan Times, another Nepali daily, carried a similar report on September 6, 2000. Three days later, The Kathmandu Post reported that 27 Kashmiris, mostly businessmen, had been arrested during the first week of September and that their whereabouts were not known. Quoting "reliable sources", the report claimed that they were kept in "secret detention centres" in the Kathmandu valley. Some of the Kashmiris who were arrested and later released said that the police had taken them to unknown destinations, while others said they were taken to police stations. All except the two brothers were released.

To date the Nepal police have not acknowledged the arrests. Ratan Lal, the landlord of Mohammad Shafi Rah, had approached the Thamel police station but was advised to keep out of the matter, as it was a 'militancy'-related matter. Since then the family of the two 'arrested' Kashmiris has approached the Nepal police, the Interpol office in Kathmandu and the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. The eldest brother, Mohammad Yasin, tried in vain to contact two officers in the Indian embassy. The family's appeal to India's National Human Rights Commission, Home Ministry as well as the External Affairs Ministry, did not help. However, a fortnight before the two were picked up, their elderly father was interrogated in Srinagar to ascertain their whereabouts. The National Human Rights Commission of Nepal has written to the Director-General of Police for information about their whereabouts but has received no response.

Mohammad Shafi Rah is one of hundreds of Kashmiris who, during the decade of militancy in Kashmir, migrated to Nepal and set up shops in the tourist market of Thamel. According to the Srinagar-based lawyer Pervez Imroz, who is inquiring into "enforced disappearences", he had come to Kathmandu in 1995 and was working as a dealer in leather goods in Thamel. Early in the 1990s, he had joined the militancy and gone across the border for training. Soon after his return to Kashmir he was captured but was released. To escape continuing harassment by the police as also the suspicion of militants that he was a police informer, he moved to Nepal. His younger brother, who was picked up with him, had come visiting. Reportedly, the arrest of a person in India caused the finger of suspicion to point to Rah. The police continue to deny that the brothers were picked up, let alone handed over to the Indian authorities.

It begs the question as to what Nepal's laws are with regard to persons whose activities are deemed dangerous to or are of a terrorist nature vis-a-vis a friendly neighbour. Why should a clandestine and illegal network be used, and why not the due process of law? Worse still, the public resentment in Nepal against India feeds on the feeling that it bullies Nepal. Human rights activist Tapan Bose, who is the secretary-general of the South Asia Forum for Human Rights in Kathmandu, says that the impression gaining ground in Nepal is that India is pressuring the Nepal police to hand over suspects wanted in India and this will ultimately weaken Nepal's capacity to develop efficient policing practices to control crime and terrorism. Secondly, the underhand means adopted cannot give legitimacy to the cooperation between India and Nepal. And finally, it gives rise to the feeling that there is no popular support for Nepal cooperating with the Indian police and that India is corrupting the Nepal police, according to Bose.

INDIA and Nepal have an extradition treaty that dates back to 1953, but its provisions have been used only once. Indeed, discussions are going on to review the treaty. The Indian side has submitted a draft, which includes two controversial clauses. One relates to the extradition of nationals of third countries wanted for criminal/terrorist activities and the other is a kind of enabling framework for the Indian police to operate de facto across the border. Nepal is unwilling to accept these changes.

"Extradition treaty or no extradition treaty - that is not what is crucial. What is crucial is political will. Basically Nepal has to establish why a third country is permitted to go on the rampage in this country," said an Indian embassy source. Assurances are given at the political level, with Foreign Minister Chakra Prasad Banstola reiterating that "our position is that we will not allow Nepali soil to be used against any of our neighbours". But in India there is mounting suspicion, fanned by intelligence-agency-inspired reports in the Indian media, that Nepal is becoming a hotbed for criminal and terrorist subversive activities by multiple intelligence agencies - the ISI and India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) topping the list and the agencies of North Korea, China and the United States not far behind. They have converted Nepal, which is geo-strategically located, has a liberal visa regime and has an open border with India, into a "playground of spies".

In Nepal there is a crisis of credibility about the Indian media's description of the country. Anger at media reports that have been quick to blame Nepal has resulted in scepticism about the ISI's use of Nepal as a base for anti-India activities. Nepal bashing by the Indian electronic media in its coverage of the Indian Airlines hijacking in December 1999 and in particular, the accusation levelled by a passenger that a Nepali Pashmina trader was one of the hijackers, has produced lasting resentment about media irresponsibility. To make matters worse, a Delhi-based weekly published a game plan for subversion, which was virtually a who's who of Nepal. It provokedKunda Dixit, Editor of Nepali Times, to lash out at 'India scapegoating Nepal' to cover up its own weaknesses.

How much is fact and how much is manipulation in the murky spy games may never be known, but there is a growing sense of concern in Nepal about the tendency of criminal and terrorist forces making Kathmandu a base. Moreover, with a five-year-old Maoist insurgency active in two-thirds of Nepal, even the most sanguine in Kathmandu are taking notice.

WHAT then is Nepal planning to do to gear up its policing and legal systems? Legal experts like former Speaker Daman Dungana acknowledge that Nepal's laws - the anti-explosives law, the Act with respect to the possession of illegal arms, the State Offences Act, and so on - were designed to meet the specific and limited challenges of a small self-contained state, and not to cope with the fallout from the criminalisation of politics across the border. Although the Nepal police on occasion have cooperated to stomp out anti-Indian terrorist activities (for which former Indian Ambassador K.V. Rajan praised the Nepal police), police sources candidly admit that it has not been an issue of priority.

Sudheer Sharma, a reporter with Himal Khabar Patrika who has followed the espionage networks, suggests that as these activities are seen not as being against Nepal but as being against India, the police tend not to give it great priority. Nepal's recently established anti-terrorist cell is to deal with all subversive activity. Not surprisingly it focusses more on the Maoist People's War. Also, as yet the police have not been able to get their hands on evidence to establish where the RDX comes from and where it goes. Those arrested have been more like 'runners'. In the Cheema case, Indian intelligence agencies revealed (The Hindu, April 24) that the 16 kg of RDX he was caught with was meant for the Maoist rebels in Nepal. Significantly, no Nepali newspaper has focussed on the Pakistan-Maoist nexus.

Allegations about Nepal being the centre of espionage in the region have grown in strength over the last five years, especially after one of the Memon brothers, implicated in the Mumbai bomb blasts, was picked up in 1994 from Kathmandu and not from New Delhi railway station, as given out officially. The murder of the Nepali Member of Parliament, Mirza Dilshad Beg, as being a fallout of the Dawood-Chotta Rajan gang war exposed the regional spread of communalised criminal gangs. In 1995-96, a series of raids on the basis of 'tip-offs' resulted in several arrests of suspected Pakistani agents and discoveries of RDX caches. One raid blew the cover off an ISI-North Korean operation involving the smuggling of 40 walkie-talkie sets that were to be shipped to militants in northeast India. Indian intelligence agencies have been watching activities in Nepal, especially those relating to the militant groups of the northeastern States.

Much of the intelligence about the ISI link has been gathered through the interrogation of captured militants in India, say intelligence sources in Nepal. For example, Kashmiri militants arrested in connection with the 1996 blast in New Delhi's Lajpat Nagar market confessed to having links with an ISI operative in Nepal, who had supplied the explosives. Close on its heels came the high-profile seizure of 20 kg of RDX on December 25, 1996 from Manzoor Ahmed Dainposh alias "John", a Kashmiri shopkeeper in Thamel. Again, the Nepali police were tipped off by Indian intelligence agents, after the seizure of 4.5 kg of RDX just days earlier in Delhi. According to Indian police sources, the ISI had made available to Kashmiri militants in Kathmandu an improvised explosive device in order to create disturbances on Republic Day. During a raid by the Nepali police, three Kashmiri militants reportedly escaped to India. At the time, a large section of the Nepali media expressed scepticism about the "frequent and convenient" seizures of RDX packets, which were played up in the India media.

It was in 1998 that the needle of suspicion began to point to the Pakistan embassy. In November 1998, a Sikh militant, Lakhbir Singh, was picked up, and his terrorist connection again went back to Nepal where 18 kg of RDX was found and the packaging indicated its Pakistani origin. According to intelligence sources, sketches of three persons were produced on the basis of an "identity kit". They approximated to the identity of two diplomats and a staff member in the Pakistan embassy in Nepal. No action was taken. The evidence was not found to be "clinching", the Nepali authorities explained. Since then Cheema (reportedly the ISI unit chief in Kathmandu) and Asim Saboor, an official in the embassy, were kept under surveillance. In the media reportage of the Indian Airlines hijacking, Cheema was said to have handed over weapons to the hijackers. But there was no clinching proof.

The Cheema story also has its curiosities, not least because the timing of the discovery - on the eve of the diplomat's departure after a three-year stint in Nepal. Apparently his successor had moved into his residence and Cheema was staying in the guest house of a Pakistan road construction company, Satchel Engineering. Pakistan embassy sources vouchsafe his innocence and protest against the Nepal government keeping the embassy in the dark over Cheema's surveillance or the exclusion of the embassy representative during the raid. "Why was the RDX not recovered in Cheema's presence," they ask. The heat is now on Satchel Engineering, which is named as an ISI front company.

According to Nepali police sources, a tip-off from Indian intelligence sources had galvanised them into action. Cheema was released amidst protestations of innocence by the Pakistan embassy while the Indian embassy insisted that Cheema's diplomatic immunity be waived and he be tried for committing a criminal offence in Nepal.

Where do facts end and manipulation begin? In Nepal, credibility is a casualty when it comes to the spy vs spy games. This is especially so "as Kathmandu is crawling with locals, both government officials and private citizens who are only too eager to assist or provide information to anyone for a price," says Suman Pradhan, a special correspondent with The Kathmandu Post. "Foreign intelligence agencies thrive in a 'cash first' environment," he added. The report of a couple of Indian nationals being caught by the police for carrying counterfeit Indian currency is now doing the rounds. The police allegedly encouraged them to say that they were ISI agents. The story may be apocryphal, but it has disturbing implications for not only the corruption of the Nepali police and the corrosion of the police system but, worse, for popular approval for India-Nepal cooperation in tackling the criminalisation of Nepal.

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