On Friday, December 8, Pakistan announced that it would allow the wife and mother of the arrested Indian spy, Kulbhushan Jadhav, to meet him on humanitarian grounds on December 25. It has also allowed an Indian embassy official to accompany them, as requested by New Delhi. The two countries are contesting the Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. This is clearly an “olive branch” gesture on the part of Islamabad. Why has this happened?
Some say it is going to be a case of exchange of spies, or a “spy-for-spy” game instead of spy-versus-spy. In April, India caught Muhammad Habib Zahir, the retired Lt Colonel of the Pakistan Army who disappeared from Lumbini near Nepal’s border with India and is now suspected to be in Indian custody because “he was in the team that nabbed Kulbhushan Jadhav in March 2016”, according to The Indian Express. On the Pakistani side, it was revealed that Zahir was lured into going to Nepal on the phone with offers of big money.
It is quite clear that this time around Pakistan will not be able to hang Jadhav for doubtful emotional satisfaction because a further deterioration of the Indo-Pak equation is not desired by anyone in the world, including the ICJ judges.
Pakistan and India have gained little by killing each other’s spies: Sarabjit Singh was arrested by Pakistan in August 1990 for carrying out four bombings in Faisalabad, Multan and Lahore, killing 14 citizens. He was later sentenced to death and hanged in 2013. Kashmir Singh spent 35 years on death row while avowing he was not a spy but was allowed to return home. Ravindra Kaushik succeeded in joining the Pakistan Army and was promoted to major while passing sensitive information back home. He was caught and died in jail after 16 years.
Given a more sophisticated current Pak army leadership, it is hoped that the two countries will agree on an exchange of prisoners and not resort to committing bilateral homicide of dubious strategic value.
But not long ago, in April 2017, the “spy wars” were on. India and Pakistan were supposed to stop thinking and act on reflex: Pakistan is a terrorist state causing violence in India; India never accepted Pakistan and is determined to undo it. Jadhav was not only planning the Baloch insurgency, he was also in with the Taliban killing innocent Pakistanis; Zahir was an ISI operative who kidnapped an innocent Jadhav. Nationalism drove both sides.
Yet, instead of alerting troops at the border, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, addressing an Air Force passing-out parade, said: “Cooperation rather than conflict and shared prosperity instead of suspicion are the hallmarks of our policy.” National Security Adviser Nasser Khan Janjua, too, said India and Pakistan “cannot be enemies forever and must engage in dialogue to resolve disputes”.
If Prime Minister Modi was listening on the other side, this could be seen as Pakistan’s smoke-signalling for peace-talks in times of tension even as the media on both sides spread alarm about deep conspiracies.
Talking is not easy if you look at the different ground rules the two states have set for talks. Pakistan will talk nicely but will ultimately bring up Kashmir, which neither India nor the world is willing to endorse. Any talk of free trade which the world and the World Trade Organisation strongly recommend will be embargoed by the Pakistan Army which would make pro-trade Nawaz Sharif’s life difficult though the opposition parties are willing to act as spoilers. Unfortunately, Nawaz Sharif has been ousted from power because of his changed thinking about how to deal with India. Not only did he win the 2013 election on the pledge of free trade with India, he kept visiting the Hindu minority in Karachi and participating in their Holi festivals saying he was one of them as a Pakistani.
The last time Sharif did that in December 2016, leaders of some religious parties criticised him for calling Pakistan a “liberal country”. Nawaz Sharif is out of office because he was not “sadiq (truthful)” and “ameen (honest)” like the Holy Prophet PBUH in the eyes of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, but his party’s government is still in power. Hence the decision taken by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and a non-hawkish and intellectually more discerning army chief General Bajwa about allowing Jadhav’s wife and mother to visit him in prison. It can be a harbinger of a better Indo-Pak bilateral equation in the coming days.