The late Phillip Knightley opened his book, The Second Oldest Profession, with a quote from a former Assistant General Counsel of the CIA, Michael J. Barrett: “Espionage is the world’s second oldest profession and just as honourable as the first.”
It appears to me that Barrett was thinking of the story of Rahab in the Book of Joshua. Much before Mata Hari, in Rahab’s person, so the Hebrew bible tells us, the world’s oldest and second oldest professions merge, a lethal combination. Her information helped the Israelites capture Jericho.
Information is power. Texts on war and statecraft, ancient and modern, tell us how important it is to stay ahead of the enemy, even friends. There are fascinating tales of espionage from the Cold War, including the one about how the KGB had bugged Ambassador George F. Kennan’s office, the famous Mr X, whose “long telegram” became the basis for United States’ policy of containment.
Then, of course, there’s Bond, James Bond and his gadgets and women. The current Indian NSA, Ajit Doval, doesn’t look like either Rahab or Bond but I am certain he wasn’t just lurking around Data Durbar in Lahore during his seven years in Pakistan, by his own admission, if I might add.
If Angela Merkel can find the National Security Agency infiltrating her BlackBerry, it would need a special kind of schmuck to think that India and Pakistan do not spy on each other or that while Pakistan is a villainous state, India is a member of The Religious Sisters of Mercy. That doesn’t take the conversation anywhere.
So, how should the conversation go? Perhaps one can begin with Doval’s own hard-nosed offensive realism. Personally, I like that because it eschews the sweet-mouthed nothingnesses of Track 2 and throws us into the deep end in Balochistan where, incidentally, we found Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, or is it Hussain Mubarak Patel.
He is not the only one in Pakistan’s custody. There are others, too, being tried or sentenced on charges of spying. But Jadhav is the only one for whom India has invoked the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Clearly, he means a lot to India.
The thing about real conversation is that one doesn’t need to hem and haw. Jadhav was doing his job at great risk to himself. His state has done well to stand with, and by, him. I’d expect the same from my state.
But there’s more to the real conversation than just this. Is there a need to kill spies? This is an interesting question with an interesting history. If State X captures and kills spies from State Y and if both are spying on each other, State Y will reciprocate and kill State X’s spies. That’s what happened for a long time in Europe too. Military laws stipulated the death sentence for spies of most categories. Equally, during the Cold War, we saw exchanges of spies, which makes eminent sense to me because once a spy has been wrung dry of information, (s)he is not of much use. It seems sensible to get one or two of one’s own in exchange.
Equally true is the fact that it depended on what the spy was doing and what was his value to the state that sent him, as also the state of relations between the two states at the time.
In the ’90s, India and Pakistan would, with some regularity, charge some staff in the respective missions as spies (undercover postings) and declare them persona non grata. As with all things India and Pakistan, there was reciprocity. The irony is that once both sides managed to PNG all the “eyes” from their respective missions, they were left largely blind. Such is the nature of the game that you need yours over there so you have to tolerate theirs over here. At that point, the entire situation looks like the abusive marriage between Martha and George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
The Jadhav episode has to be seen at two levels. One, his activities were in line with India’s Modi-Doval policy of waging covert, sub-conventional war against Pakistan, using and exploiting the latter’s faultlines to get a force-multiplier effect. Two, there’s reason for Pakistan to give a high-profile treatment to the Jadhav case: India is no babe in the woods when it comes to “terrorism”.
That Jadhav is important for India is a no-brainer and can be evidenced by New Delhi approaching the ICJ. According to Pakistan’s foreign minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, there was also a proposal for a swap: “The terrorist who killed children in APS [Army Public School] in Peshawar is in Afghan custody. The National Security Adviser [NSA] told me that we can exchange that terrorist with the terrorist you have, which is Kulbhushan Jadhav.” He was speaking at the Asia Society in New York in September this year.
The denouement of the Jadhav play will depend on how the two sides interact, overtly or through the back channel. It will be naive to think that they don’t meet off the books. There’s no such thing as total disengagement. There’s always some cooperation even when the overall tenor of relations sucks.
By Jadhav’s own account, after he revealed his identity and rank, he was treated with the protocol given an officer. Of course, India has alleged that his confession has been coerced. There’s nothing surprising about that statement. It was a good gesture to get him to meet his wife and mother. The media spectacle should have been avoided, given the unprofessional enthusiasm of TV channels in the Subcontinent. The MEA statement, however, was disingenuous about change of clothes and withdrawal of certain other items because that is standard operating procedure to ensure the visitors are not carrying, wittingly or unwittingly, any relaying devices.
Predictably, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the MEA statement. Swaraj’s somewhat melodramatic statement to the Indian Parliament hasn’t helped either and a gesture that could have improved the situation has ended up generating another spat.
But specifics aside, here’s the corollary: How this will unfold hereon will depend on how matters are worked out away from the media’s gaze. If there’s enough give, there will be a take. If not, well, pass me on that toast.
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