As India prepares to evacuate eight of its diplomats and staffers from Pakistan after the government there put out their names and alleged they were Indian spies, New Delhi and Islamabad are looking at one of the most serious curtailing of their missions in recent times.
In an unprecedented move, names, designations of Indian mission officials and their photographs were leaked to the Pakistani media Wednesday and the Pakistan Foreign Ministry held a press conference Thursday to officially announce their identities.
Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nafees Zakaria told the press in Islamabad: “As you are aware, a number of Indian diplomats and staff belonging to Indian intelligence agencies RAW and IB have been found involved in coordinating terrorist and subversive activities in Pakistan under the garb of diplomatic assignments.”
“The names and designations of the suspected operatives provided by the FO are as follows: suspected Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) operatives: Rajesh Kumar Agnihotri (commercial counsellor and R&AW station chief), Anurag Singh (first commercial secretary), Amerdeep Singh Bhatti (visa attache), Dharmendra Sodhi, Vijay Kumar Verma and Madhavan Nanda Kumar (staff members). Suspected IB operatives are Balbir Singh (first secretary press and information & Intelligence Bureau (IB) station chief; Jayabalan Senthil (assistant personnel welfare officer),” Zakaria said.
Zakaria alleged that these Indian officials handled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) factions, fuelled sectarianism in Pakistan and created unrest in Balochistan, Sindh, and Gilgit-Baltistan.
New Delhi completely rejected the “baseless and unsubstantiated” allegations made by Pakistan against its officials in the Islamabad mission. “The government categorically denies those allegations,” MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.
A top Indian official told The Indian Express: “Between India and Pakistan, everybody knows who’s who… there are no secrets really on the identities of intelligence agency officials serving at the missions. But to name them publicly through official channels has been a complete no-no, all these years. That rule has been broken.”
While there is no official word on further curtailment of the diplomatic missions in each other’s country, officials from both sides hope that the matter does not slide further.
According to an agreement between the two countries, India and Pakistan can have upto 110 diplomats and staffers in each other’s missions.
In recent years, the only time when the missions were curtailed significantly was after the December 2001 Parliament attack. “In 2002, after the Parliament attack, the numbers went down from 110 to 50… and then again, they were brought down to 20, and then one or two more were sent back. Finally, there were about 18 or 19 diplomats and staffers present in each other’s mission — that was the most significant curtailment in recent years. But even then, mass naming of intelligence sleuths in the mission was not the norm,” a government source said.
There have been instances of expulsions in 2003 and 2006. But the current round of declaring diplomats as persona non grata has begun once again. The current round of recalling officials started with Pakistan High Commission staffer Mehmood Akhtar’s video being made public in Delhi, in which he named four Pakistan diplomats and staffers as belonging to the ISI.
On Thursday, MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup said, “It is especially regrettable that Pakistani authorities have chosen to level these allegations after deciding to recall, on their own, six officials of the Pakistan High Commission, some of whom may have been named to Indian authorities by Mehmood Akhtar — the PHC official caught red handed last week while indulging in anti-India activities. The allegations against the Indian officials represent an after-thought and a crude attempt to target these officials for no fault of theirs.”
“We also regret the fact that Pakistan’s step adds to the risks to peace and security in the region emanating from Pakistan’s support to cross-border terrorism against its neighbours, its complete denial of the problem and deflection of its responsibility by resorting to fanciful accusations,” he said.
“We also note that the Indian officials falsely implicated were working in the fields of promoting people-to-people and trade and economic contacts between the two countries. Pakistan’s false allegations against them have the potential to adversely affect the corresponding activities of the High Commission… The government also protests strongly the manner in which names and photos of the eight Indian officials — four of them holders of diplomatic passport — have been published. This is against basic norms of diplomatic practice and courtesy,” Swarup said.
Stressing that the allegations against the Indian officials are prejudicial to their safety and security, he said that Delhi now expects Pakistan to take all necessary steps to ensure the security and safety of not only these eight diplomats and officials but all other members of the High Commission and their families while they are in Pakistan.
“As to the question of their return to India, this is a procedural matter. Government will take all necessary further steps keeping all aspects of the situation in view,” he said.