A Village of Spies
Surjeet Singh left home in Fidda, Amritsar, on a cold December night in 1981, 42 years old and sporting a jet black beard, promising his wife and children he would be back the next day. He came back on June 27, 2012, sporting a flowing white beard, aged 73 and, for long, thought to be dead.
There are many more in the Pakistani jail that he called home for 31 years. Tanveer Thakur, Namrata Biji Ahujaand Rajnish Sharma report on ‘spies’, mostly from the border districts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur, who have been left out in the cold.
In Dadwan, a dusty village that sits on the India-Pakistan border, known for its spies, every man — husband, son, brother, father — has done his turn for his motherland. Those who have fallen foul of the long arm of the law across the border languish in Pakistan’s jails. Some like Surjeet Singh emerge from 31 years of captivity to taste freedom and reunite with their families.
But for thousands of others who hail from the border districts of Gurdaspur and Amritsar of the state of Punjab, Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) and other intelligence agencies were their primary employer. Surjeet’s admission on national television that he spied for RAW — the claim was immediately denied by the government — may have come as a shock, but many in these ‘spy’ villages will freely admit to their profession.
Except, if anyone had any romantic ideas about espionage, the kind churned out by the legion of Bond movies, the reality of the spies of these backward border areas is a rude shock. There are no flashy gadgets involved, nor big bucks for achieving targets. Here, spies are mere couriers who carry information back and forth, the eyes and ears of their masters.
The most common thing about these spies is that most of them are extremely poor, and a large majority of them are Dalits, Dalit Christians to be more specific and, of course, landless. Even the much-talked-about Sarabjeet, who is lodged in a Pakistani jail, is a Majabi Sikh, a Dalit. Not very educated and unable to find a means of livelihood in this economically and industrial backward area, the youth are lured easily into spying by the intelligence agencies.
Despite being used time and again for espionage under very hostile conditions in Pakistan, these spies are used like “napkins”, thrown and disowned if caught, they say. “They (RAW) make a contract that if a person is caught, he will be disowned by them,” reveals Karamat Sahi, a hardened former spy who was jailed in Pakistan for 17 years. Karamat is a bitter man now, after losing a legal battle in a High Court to prove his services for the country.
“I started spying in 1983 for RAW and made five trips across the border to Pakistan. I was caught on my last trip in 1988. The Pakistani Air Force got hold of a letter for me from India, they laid a trap and caught me. I was subjected to torture of the worst kind, they wrecked my body. Now, I am not able to do any physical labour. I was in a Pakistani jail till March 2005,” narrates Karamat, his face stoic, unemotional.
This former spy now runs a tea stall in his village to make a living. “I feel cheated, with no money I am not able to educate my son beyond school. RAW used to pay Rs 1,500 so long as I worked for them. When I was caught, they stopped paying the money to my family. I had worked for the country, but my services are not recognised.”
In Dadwan village in Gurdaspur district, once the village of spies, where almost every household had a spy, things have changed. The indifference shown by intelligence agencies and the plight of former RAW agents have ensured that Gen Next is not very keen to follow in their footsteps.
Amongst the old-timers, the only former spies alive are David and Daniel. Both worked for Indian intelligence agencies and were jailed in Pakistan. David is now paralytic and bed-ridden, his two sons take care of the family. Daniel, a Dalit Christian, runs a rickshaw for a living. His children are too young to work.
The modus operandi of these spies was simple. They smuggled liquor from India into Pakistan where it is in great demand.
“We carried liquor from India to make some money. In Pakistan, our source would provide us with whatever material we had to bring back. Sometimes it is a photograph, a Pakistani newspaper or a magazine, a Pakistani railway timetable, or rarely, we smuggled in a Pakistani citizen for Indian agencies,” Daniel said.
As he narrates his stint as a spook, Daniel’s ordeal comes through. “I started spying in 1992 and was caught in 1993. I walked straight into a Pakistani barricade and was caught. I was subjected to brutal torture for two months before they transferred me to civil jail, Lahore.”
“There are not many spies in our village now”, Daniel goes on to say, his anger and hurt tellingly obvious as he explains why. “People are not very keen to do that kind of work after seeing our plight. Ashok, another famous spy from the village, died last year. Satpal died in a Pakistani jail. No Indian agencies came to help our families. So people look for other means to make a living.”
Asked what makes a good spy, Daniel says, “A bit of intelligence, lot of gumption and courage. The world of spying is certainly not for lilly-livered people and cowards. It’s not for me anymore.” Or for that matter, anyone. The ranks of the men who lived their life in the shadows, unsung, unheralded, a world away from the fabled glamour and glitz, is fast dwindling.
‘Are they spies or not?’
On July 1, Pakistan handed over a fresh list of Indians — 70 odd prisoners — jailed in their country. In the last two years, the figures have remained more or less the same. The list contains names of suspected Indian spies arrested in Pakistan over the years, many among whom had either crossed the border inadvertently or were put behind bars for overstaying once their visa expired.
The charges against some others are more severe, with Sarabjit Singh, for instance, being awarded the death sentence for spying and carrying out bomb attacks in that country.
So, is the spying story just a sensational claim made by prisoners returning from Pakistan to get compensation? Can agencies like RAW do their job without foot soldiers or ‘’couriers’’? Ask former RAW officials and they admit such stories and claims made by prisoners on both sides of the border are not completely untrue. “There are Pakistani nationals who have been arrested in India on charges of spying. Are they spies or not?” one official asked.
The secret pilgrims
Kashmir Singh returned to India in 2008, after spending 35 years in a Pakistani jail. He then admitted he was sent to Pakistan “on duty” — to spy for Indian intelligence agencies. Notably, he was given monetary compensation by the Punjab government later on. Subsequently, he also took back his claim.
But the fate of many others was not as rewarding. Karamat Rahi, another alleged Indian spy, had accused the agencies of disowning him when he was arrested.
Last year, Indian national Gopal Dass, who was set free by Pakistan after 27 years, accused the government of remaining silent on the plight of such prisoners languishing in Pakistani jails. Dass had crossed over to Pakistan inadvertently in 1984 and was arrested by Pakistani Rangers on charges of spying.
Daniel, aka Bahadur Daniel, is another such Indian who was apprehended by Pakistani Rangers in 1993.
The list goes on. Almost all alleged spies have spoken about many other Indians being incarcerated in Pakistani jails on espionage charges.
A top official, on condition of anonymity, explained,” It is not as if the government is disowning them. If you return to India and claim you are a spy, you are only making the return of others difficult by exposing the game.”
That may well be the truth!