January 26, 2020
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Flies On The Wall

They live on the edge—in more ways than one. These villages on the Punjab border grow spies. Pushed into Pakistan, many of them simply fall off the map, abandoned by all. Updates

Flies On The Wall
Jitender Gupta
Flies On The Wall

Indian Prisoners In Pakistan Jails

  • Number of civilian prisoners 925
  • Number of prisoners confirmed by Pak government 182
  • Number of prisoners granted consular access in 2005. 134
  • Number of civilian prisoners freed by Pakistan this year: 58
  • Number of Indian civilian prisoners released since 2001 172

Source: Indian Government

Punjab Spying Routes

Ashok Kumar still remembers the dark night of August 2002 when he crossed over into India, at Channi post in Punjab's Ramdas sector. Ashok was jubilant: he was returning home after a gap of seven years, all of these spent in the dank confines of a Pakistani jail. A resident of Kang village in Gurdaspur district, Ashok had been recruited to spy in Pakistan. The first of his 21 visits across the border was in 1989; he was nabbed in 1995. In the seven years he was in jail his parents back home had died and his sons had discontinued their studies. As Ashok crossed the border that August night, he thought there would be recompense for his ordeal, a display of warmth and gratitude for performing his duty for the nation.

Ashok is wiser now; because of police harassment, because the security agency which had recruited him refused to accept him as its own. He wasn't aware of the rules of the espionage world: you are worthy as long as you haven't been caught, as long as you haven't served a stint in Pakistani prisons. Otherwise you are summarily condemned to the cold. Ashok recalls bitterly, "The local police registered false cases of illegal border-crossing against me. Just 10 days back, they came to tell me to not make noise about my plight. As for the military intelligence which had sent me into Pakistan, far from giving some money to my family in my absence, it refuses to recognise me." And all this despite the fact that he, and four others, were handed over officially by Pakistani Rangers.

Ashok Kumar isn't a Sarabjit Singh, the Indian spy who has hogged media headlines because he's on death row for engineering bomb blasts in Pakistan. Nor is his an isolated case of a spy wallowing in misery. On our tour of villages in the border districts of Punjab, we were astounded at the widespread nature of the phenomenon. Like shadows, these spies, or 'sources' as they are called in local parlance, are just about everywhere. Some villages, like Dadwan and Kang in Gurdaspur district, have earned the sobriquet of Spy Villages, for providing a regular supply of recruits to inhabit the shadowy world of intelligence agencies—RAW, the military intelligence, the Border Security Force et al. These are the men who cross over into Pakistan, aware that a slip could cost them several years of their lives. Or sometimes, life itself.

Name Ashok Kumar
Village/District Kang, Gurdaspur
Spying years 1989-95
Nature of work Courier for army intelligence. Was in the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore for seven years. Returned on August 21, 2002.

But their inspiration doesn't arise from any abstract notion of patriotism. Often, their bravado is a compulsion of their poverty. Most spies in Gurdaspur, for instance, belong to the economically weak community of Dalit Christians. Spying has become a way of life for them, an avenue of employment just as agricultural labour is. Every second house in one particular lane of Dadwan village has a 'source'—living, dead or currently imprisoned in Pakistan. Ask the people of Naushera, a qasbah in Gurdaspur, whether there are spies around, and they promptly rattle off half a dozen names.

There's a hierarchy of spies. At the bottom are the poor, 'under-matric' youth acting as couriers of intelligence agencies, carrying documents and money for those Pakistani moles. They earn anywhere between Rs 1,000-Rs 2,500 a trip. Some, though, say they were paid Rs 1,000 a month during their 'service' days. Those higher in the hierarchy at times draw Rs 6,000 a month. There are other spinoffs: spies are allowed to smuggle out liquor which is in great demand in Pakistan; on their return they sometimes bring back narcotics. But their ultimate allurement is the promise of permanent jobs, which is rarely met. Their constant refrain to Outlook was: "Even terrorists are better than us. Once they give up terrorism, many are given police jobs. But there's nothing for us."

Sample the treatment meted out to Satpal of Dadwan village.Caught in Pakistan in 1999 for allegedly being a RAW spy, Satpal died in Pakistani jail the following year. When the Pakistanis wanted to hand over his body to the Indians, no government agency was willing to own him up as their recruit. For a month the body of Satpal lay in a government hospital in Lahore. Somehow the local press stumbled upon the story, prompting politicians to intervene. Satpal was brought home, wrapped, ironically, in the Indian tricolour. His wife Jeeti, who works as a maid in Dhariwal town, remembers, "None of those shadowy people who used to pick him up in their Gypsies for assignments came to our help. His body bore torture marks." Incidentally, the death certificate of Satpal, issued by the Lahore hospital, identifies him as Darshan Singh. Shades of the Sarabjit Singh/Manjit Singh puzzle there?

Name Grefan
Village/District Dadwan, Gurdaspur
Spying years 1994-1997
Nature of work Courier for RAW and military intelligence. Was never caught. Punjab police has registered cases against him.

Aliases are assigned to 'sources' at the time of the training. Those who are to act as couriers are trained at local units of hiring agencies. Those who are to stay for a longer duration in Pakistan have to undergo a year-long training, often in Delhi. Training capsules of four weeks entail learning the basics of intelligence activities—how to identify military vehicles, officers' ranks, and the art of covering their tracks. Every spy is provided a different identity and forged Pakistani papers to prove their aliases should they get caught. The spy is often assigned Muslim names, they grow beards, they are taught to perform namaaz and generally go about like Muslims. Some say they are also circumcised.

Training complete, the 'source' has to be launched into Pakistan. It's now a complex task because of the fence running across the Indo-Pak border. But the fence has scores of gates which are opened every day, to allow villagers to till their fields near the zero line. Each gate has a watch tower; usually, a BSF post is in the vicinity. The 'sources' say they are sent into Pakistan through these gates, with proper permission letters from higher authorities of the agency for which they work. First-time 'sources' are taken by guides to the contact in Pakistan. An elaborate system of code words is in place, both while meeting the contact in Pakistan and also when the source returns. Former spies say their contacts in Pakistan are usually Pakistanis on the payroll of Indian agencies; at times they are undercover Indians who have been in Pakistan for long durations. Spies also often cross into Pakistan through patches of riverine country along the border, a route particularly favoured by smugglers.

Name David
Village/District Dadwan, Gurdaspur
Spying years Arrested in 2000
Nature of work He was a courier. He is still in jail, wrote letters for 3 years to his wife Veena, above. She hasn’t heard from him thereafter.

But their exciting life becomes harshly real as soon as they are nabbed. Roban Masih is 41 years old but looks as old as his father. He was caught in 1990 on his 12th round while allegedly working for the BSF intelligence. Lodged in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat jail for 14 years, Roban returned last year. He recounts, "For four years I was tortured and kept in chains. I had gone there to get information about the layout of landmines and was arrested from the house of a Pakistani accomplice." Roban remembers having met Sarabjit in jail, where he claims 100-130 Indians have been incarcerated on espionage charges. On his return, he was debriefed by several intelligence agencies, "but no one has offered me any help. My life has been ruined. I worked for about a year. Now, I am unable to take up any physical work due to the effects of torture."

Intelligence officials admit that they have no option but to abandon their 'source' once he is caught. "As soon as he is caught, he ceases to exist for us. They go into this dirty business with their eyes open and generally an undertaking is taken from them that if they are caught, they are on their own," an officer told Outlook.

Name Ashok Kumar 
Village/District Naushera, Gurdaspur
Spying years Gave up in 1996
Nature of work More than a courier. Was never arrested in Pakistan. District police has registered several cases against him on various counts.

Partly, this is because those who have served a stint in Pakistani jail are suspected of having become double agents. The officer explains, "This is why cases of illegal border-crossing are registered against them because they are known to cross the border for reasons other than those for which we had sent them." For instance, an FIR was registered at the instance of the army against Ashok and four others who returned in August 2002. The FIR states, "It's recommended that the individuals be thoroughly checked and presented before the joint interrogation cell as they may be Pakistan agents inducted into Indian territory for sabotage or collection of information."

But Ashok is livid at the allegation. Not only has he petitioned the Punjab Human Rights Commission (PHRC) to quash the cases against him, he's also seeking compensation for the years wasted in Pakistan. Says Darshan Singh, a lawyer in Dhariwal who has taken some of these cases before the PHRC, "The intelligence agencies treat them worse than dogs. They register false cases against those who have returned to coerce them into keeping quiet. Some are paid money to keep their mouths closed. But the fact that not a single case against sources has led to conviction shows that they are all bogus."

Among those who have approached the commission for redressal is Seema, wife of Sunil of Dadwan village who was arrested in Pakistan for espionage. From jail, he managed to smuggle out a letter to Seema. She subsequently approached the commission for compensation from the agency which recruited her husband. But paucity of money prevented her from travelling to Chandigarh for commission hearings. The case was consequently closed. "I often told him not to go. But whenever he refused the police would harass us," says Seema, who now shoulders the responsibility of four children.

Name Karamat Rahi
Village/District Khaira Kalan, Gurdaspur
Spying years 1986-88
Nature of work Middle-level spy. He was caught in 1988 and released in March 2005. He returned to India along with the CM’s delegation this year. 

Now for many, the clamour for justice has truly begun. Take Karamat Rahi of Khaira Kalan village in Gurdaspur district, who says he worked for RAW. Caught with sensitive documents in Pakistan in 1988, he returned with chief minister Amarinder Singh who had gone to Pakistan on an official visit in March this year. Says Karamat, "I have fought with the intelligence officers after returning, for the way they ignored my family. For some months they sent Rs 300 a month from unknown destinations. But then this too stopped."

Karamat says an officer from Delhi visited him, and offered Rs 3 lakh as the price to keep mum. But he feels it is too meagre an amount for all that he has endured. He claims that 36 Indian prisoners in Kot Lakhpat jail have become insane due to the inhuman conditions prevailing there. "Ten of them have died in front of me," he says.

Intelligence officers caution Outlook against getting swayed by these 'sob stories'. They say their primary objective is to counter Pakistan. A BSF source says that between January and August this year, they shot dead eight and apprehended 35 Pakistani intruders. In the world of rivalries, it doesn't pay to adhere to "decency." But, surely, they could take better care of those who mess up their lives for the cause.

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