The already strained ties between India and Pakistan dipped further Thursday when New Delhi and Islamabad expelled a staffer each at their High Commissions, declaring them ‘persona non-grata’ in tit-for-tat action after Delhi Police said it had uncovered a spy ring involving an employee of the Pakistani mission. Both staffers were given identical deadlines to leave — by October 29.
In Delhi, police arrested two Indians — a third was arrested later — and accused a Pakistan High Commission staffer, Mehmood Akhtar, of receiving “sensitive” defence documents, including details of BSF deployment on the border, from them. While Maulana Ramzan and Subhash Jangir were sent to police custody, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar called Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit and declared Akhtar a ‘persona non grata’ for spying.
Hours later, in a retaliatory move, Pakistan declared Surjeet Singh, an Indian official at the High Commission in Islamabad, as ‘persona non grata’ but did not spell out any charge. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry said Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry expressed deep concern to Indian envoy Gautam Bambawale over the activities of the Indian official that were “in violation of the Vienna Convention and established diplomatic norms”. Pakistan diplomatic sources said Singh was being expelled for “spying”.
This is the third time in the last 13 years when officials from both sides have been declared ‘persona non grata’ in tit-for-tat responses. In February 2003, during the rule of the Vajpayee government, India and Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioners were expelled, along with four diplomats from each side, after the Pakistani diplomat was allegedly found to be funding separatists. In August 2006, Islamabad claimed an Indian official had received “sensitive” documents in Pakistan. New Delhi had responded in equal measure.
Thursday saw India declaring Akhtar a “ring leader” of an espionage module. The staffer was said to have admitted to Delhi Police that he worked for Pakistan’s spy agency, ISI. At the Pakistan High Commission, he was working in the visa section and was an aide to Farrukh Habib, Counsellor (Trade).
Ministry of External Affairs’ official spokesperson Vikas Swarup said: “Today morning, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar summoned Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit and informed him that India had intercepted an official of the Pakistan High Commission in pursuit of espionage and that he was being declared persona non-grata.”
“The Pakistan High Commission has been informed that Mehmood Akhtar and his family must return to Pakistan by October 29. The Foreign Secretary also strongly conveyed to the Pakistan High Commissioner that the Pak High Commission must ensure that none of its members indulge in activities inimical to India, or behave in a manner that is incompatible with their diplomatic status,” Swarup said.
He rejected Pakistani allegations of manhandling Akhtar, saying he was treated with “utmost courtesy”. “When he was handed over to the Pakistan High Commission in the presence of a Ministry official, Akhtar himself said he was treated well,” he said.
Swarup said Akhtar told police that he had joined the Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan Army in 1997, came on deputation to the ISI in 2013 and, in September that year, was posted to the Pakistan High Commission.