'Spy swap' option, last hope for Jadhav

Indo-Pak 'Glienicke Bridge' can only exist when the two nations accept their national heroes completely.

Kulbhushan Jadhav, a suspected Indian spy caught in Pakistan, has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court having denied him consular access. The Indian narrative suggests that Jadhav was a businessman apprehended from Iran by Pakistani agents.

With both sides of the narrative inconclusive, the issue has managed to ruffle enough feathers to disrupt bilateral relations. Expert advice in India vary between using international judicial means to discipline Pakistan, a covert prison break operation, and a Cold War-style spy swap.

The first two advices are near impossibilities, while the third option needs to be discussed at length. International judicial means to attack Pakistan is virtually absent considering that international judicial opinion on espionage is ambiguous — neither legal nor illegal.

Considering that Jadhav was not handed a diplomatic passport, seeking immunity and safe passage is hopeless. Hence, inso­far as this case is concerned, the law of the land (Pakistan) shall prevail. This, of course, must not dissuade India from fighting to grant him consular access.

The second suggestion had already been invalidated by several experts in the backdrop of the surgical strikes, and the subsequent excitement among many, about emulating similar operations to capture Dawood Ibrahim. Indian capability to conduct clandestine operations like Op Eichmann or Op Geronimo is limited. Even if a stealthy infiltration commences successfully, an exit strategy is implausible. Operations of this magnitude require a perfect symbiosis of resources, training and rehearsals bearing a huge cost on time and resources — one that is currently unaffordable.

The third suggestion of a spy swap is possible but needs consideration of a few additional factors. During the Cold War, the West and the Soviet bloc had apprehended several individuals on charges of espionage. These convicts turned out to be strategic assets to their captors as negotiating cards.

Running between Berlin and Potsdam is the Glienicke Bridge, the secret services’ rendezvous, where apprehended spies were traded. It is the same “Glienicke Bridge” theory that experts prescribe as a solution to the Jadhav morass. But there are complica­tions to a seemingly simple feat.

Secret intelligence gathering is an acknowledged evil by all states and the agents who risked their lives for the national cause were perceived honourably at home. Be it George Blake and Rudolf Abel, Soviet spies in England and the US, or Francis Gary Powers, Sergei Skripal and other US spies caught in Russia, they were accepted by their handling governments as honourable individuals operating beyond enemy lines.

However, the saga of Kulbhushan and the ISI operatives captured in India is starkly different. The charges levied include not just spying but also of fomenting terrorism.
Despite the incumbent government’s overt sympathies with the Baloch grievances, there hasn’t been any formal proclamation of assistance to the resistance movement. The official Indian stance has always been in denial of any subversive operations in Balochistan. Now, Jadhav, as per Pakistan’s dossier, appears a saboteur and fuels Pakistan’s allegation of an Indian hand in the Baloch agitation.

The ISI operatives caught in India also suffer a similar predicament — the only difference being Pakistan’s refusal to acknowledge their nationality. Jadhav’s portrayal as a terrorist is an important symbolic victory for a Pakistan threatened by budding Indo-West friendship that is poised to recognise its sponsorship of terror.

Punishing Pakistan

The recent high profile capture by Indian security agencies — to match Jadhav’s stature — is former ISI Lt Col Habib, and may seem a perfect quid pro quo. However, what one must understand here is that the hullabaloo by the Indian public is not just for the safe return of Jadhav but for punitive actions against Pakistan’s adventurism.
Former prime minister A B Vajpayee had adopted a similar approach to deal with a hostage crisis in 1999 and released three terrorists, one later founded the JeM. Not only were the security costs of such a trading enormous, but the public opinion also hit a low.

The Jadhav episode is, hence, a litmus test for Prime Minister Modi, who sports a hardliner image in dealing with matters of national security. The domestic stakes are high, and any move by the government that could be interpreted as a concession could spark negative opinions.

The Indo-Pak ‘Glienicke Bri­dge’ can only exist when the two nations wholeheartedly accept their national heroes, who have either served their sentence or are being swapped for another spy, and respect their services.

As long as India and Pakistan have a culture of disowning their “soldiers of national interests” to avoid embarrassment — a logical step in the immediate aftermath of the arrest but not perennially — the theory will remain ineffectual.

In this hostile working environment, the theory seems applicable only in absolute secrecy, conducted by the secret services, far from public scrutiny. The Jadhav case has generated public debate and a swap is favourable only if an innocent Pakistani is traded — like the innocent teenagers arrested on suspicion of abetting the Uri attacks and later released. Therefore, the Glienicke Bridge theory in this case is challenging, but not entirely impractical.

(The writer is a M Phil scholar at the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi)

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