Kulbhushan Jadhav and the Mystery of India’s Covert Actions Apparatus

Chabahar in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province. Kulbhushan Jadhav is believed to have set up a small company here in the early 2000s. Image Credit: Beluchistan via Flickr CC 2.0

A new story by veteran national security reporter Praveen Swami indicates that Kulbhushan Jadhav, the alleged Indian spy in Pakistani custody, was in fact, involved in espionage. The story appeared in the magazine Frontline, published by The Hindu Group.

Last month, a story in The Quint also appeared to identify Jadhav as a spy. It was quickly withdrawn, though an archived version of that story is still available.

Kulbhushan Jadhav is generally thought to have been captured by Pakistani authorities around March 2016. Depending on whom you believe, he was either caught in Iranian territory in Sistan and Baluchestan Province or after he crossed the border into Pakistan.

Pakistan later released a video in which Jadhav made a ‘confession’ that appeared to be thoroughly tutored. He admitted to having links with Baloch separatists using his cover as a Chabahar-based businessman. Jadhav also claimed he was still a serving officer of the Indian Navy.

In April 2017, a military court sentenced Jadhav to death. But India appealed to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which in November, stayed Jadhav’s sentence.

In December, Jadhav’s family was allowed to visit him in Pakistani custody, an event that local authorities milked for maximum publicity.

The Frontline story

Praveen Swami’s story in Frontline first tackles Indian denials about Jadhav being a serving officer. He notes that Jadhav’s military status is impossible to verify since digital records of the Gazette of India, which records commissions, promotions, and retirements, are missing for several months in the year 2000.

However, the ‘governments of both India and Pakistan almost certainly know the definitive truth,’ Swami writes.

According to Swami, Jadhav seems to have joined Naval Intelligence sometime after the December 2001 attack on India’s Parliament. From around 2006, the Intelligence Bureau appears to have used him for anti-terrorism work. Officials from RAW appear to have been sceptical about Jadhav’s value (this is borne out in Nandy’s reporting as well), though they kept sending him modest payments ‘to maintain a working relationship’.

Overall, Swami’s reporting leaves readers with the impression that no single outfit took full responsibility for Jadhav, contributing to failures in tradecraft.

The lures of pitfalls of covert action

For national elites, the attractions of covert operations are many. ‘Such operations,’ Swami notes, ‘allow for the discreet exercise of power, minimising the risks of war, and allow governments room to manoeuvre free of public pressure.’

Yet the problems are equally evident: There’s always the risk of blowback or other unpredictable outcomes. And the lack of public scrutiny increases the chances of bad decision-making.

On the specific case of Balochistan, there’s little serious evidence India is supporting separatists, though statements from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, and national security advisor Ajit Doval (made shortly before he took office), haven’t helped.

It would, of course, be unwise of India to materially support Baloch nationalists. India has no contiguous border with Balochistan and would have to supply arms by sea or overland via Iranian or Afghan soil. Furthermore, even advocates of Baloch independence admit the movement is too deeply fractured to be effective. And since there are Baloch separatists on both sides of the Pakistan-Iran border, India risks antagonizing a friendly country by supporting them.

Finally, any support to violent separatists within Pakistan risks frittering away years of diplomatic efforts for few gains. As Praveen Swami notes, ‘Global reaction to a future 26/11, after all, might be different were it ever to be demonstrated that India had links to similar acts of terror.’

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