Thursday, 9 May 2013

Spy vs Why: Sarabjit Singh

One of the more interesting things that happened during my recent break was the story of Sarabjit Singh.

Who is (or rather was) Sarabjit Singh?

A while back, I wrote about the execution of two people in India – Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab and alleged Indian terrorist Afzal Guru. At that time, Pakistan also had an Indian prisoner on death row –convicted as a spy and terrorist by the Pakistani courts and sentence upheld on appeal. That was Sarabjit Singh.[1]

According to Sarabjit Singh’s family – more especially according to his sister, Dalbir Kaur – Sarabjit Singh was merely an innocent who wandered across to Pakistan while drunk and was arrested on trumped up charges by the Pakistanis. This also happens to be the version most Indians prefer to believe, because of course India never, ever, uses saboteurs and terrorists of its own to foment trouble elsewhere.

Oh, wait – it totally does.

In fact, the Indian spy agency (the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW) is known for several things, chief among which is a mind-numbing incompetence. It’s so incompetent that when its own chief defected to the US a few years ago, nobody had a clue. It’s so incompetent that it can’t even run its own dedicated spy networks inside Pakistan – which has, you know, ethnically and linguistically the exact same people as most of North-West India.

Instead, it recruits poor villagers as spies.

They dot the border area between the countries – villages full of poor people, usually of the lower castes, completely economically deprived and willing to take any risks whatever to make ends meet. A lot of them are already criminals, often running alcohol into Pakistan and smuggling back heroin from Afghanistan. RAW recruits them, often by arm-twisting them by threatening to run them into jail for their criminal activities. After a modicum of training, they’re thrust into Pakistan, often with a Muslim fake name, and paid a pittance for their efforts.

It isn’t surprising that, usually, they don’t last that long. Pakistani jails are full of Indian spies.

And what happens when these Indian recruits of RAW, who at least notionally are working for the country in a hostile land, are caught? Does the Indian government make any attempt to recover them? Does – like the Cold War CIA and KGB – RAW arrange prisoner swaps for Pakistanis held in Indian jails, of whom there are a not inconsiderable number?

Of course not.

Let me quote what a RAW official said about them –

“As soon as he is caught, he ceases to exist for us. They go into this dirty business with their eyes open and generally an undertaking is taken from them that if they are caught, they are on their own.” [2]

Not only does that happen. If, by some chance, any of these spies are released by Pakistan and deported back to India, they aren’t welcomed with open arms. Instead, false cases are immediately registered against them in order to intimidate them into silence. As long as they keep their heads down, the cases stay dormant. If they become uppity and demand some compensation for their sufferings, the cases are revived and their lives put on hold.

“Dirty business” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

A couple of years ago there was a case of an Indian prisoner released from Pakistani imprisonment after over thirty years, one Surjeet Singh [3].  All these years the Pakistanis claimed he was a spy, and he steadfastly denied it. After he was sent across the border crossing at Wagah in a blaze of publicity, he crowed to the cameras that he had been a spy after all, RAW whisked him away immediately after that and he must have been made to regret the day he was freed. Certainly, his fellow spies in Pakistani jails would have been happy to see him suffer.

So, there’s no particular reason to believe Dalbir Kaur’s assertion that Sarabjit Singh wasn’t a spy. But we don’t even have to rely on circumstantial evidence. RAW itself, speaking informally, admitted it[4] :

"Sarabjit was an Indian spy in Pakistan. He managed to accomplish the task given to him but was caught while trying to flee... Some of the operations executed by the R&AW during the period were totally mindless...Sometimes, the agency officials executed operations out of personal bravado that they can get 'something' done in Pakistan.”

The anonymous official refused to state just what this “operation” was, except that it was “mindless” – and the Pakistani accusation against Sarabjit Singh was that he was a terrorist responsible for bombings which killed fourteen civilians in 1990. That qualifies as “mindless” enough in my book.

Anyway, unlike India, which has recently developed a nasty tendency to hurriedly and secretly execute people without even letting their families know till after the fact, Pakistan didn’t expedite the hanging of Sarabjit Singh. In effect, he became a political pawn, with the two sides using him as a foreign policy bargaining chip, with Bollywood actors seeking cred by petitioning for his release, while India’s parliament passed resolutions demanding it – the usual tokenism so beloved of this country.

After the hanging of Kasab and Guru, Pakistanis began demanding the immediate hanging of Singh as a retaliatory move – and a lot of us expected that it would be carried out. However, the Pakistani government showed a commendable level of restraint. Sarabjit Singh remained on death row, but wasn’t, apparently, in immediate danger of dancing at the end of a rope.

Then, on 26 April 2013, Sarabjit Singh was – according to the official accounts – beaten into a coma by other prisoners in the Lahore prison. Just how a death row convict can be put into a situation where he can be assaulted by other prisoners I’m sure I couldn’t tell you, but then neither Indian nor Pakistani jails are exactly models of penitentiary administration. Admitted to hospital with critical injuries, Singh finally died on 2 May[5] and was given a state funeral in India after his corpse was flown back. I am absolutely convinced his sister will attempt to parlay his “sacrifice” into a political career for herself – if she hasn’t already.

Even in death, Sarabjit Singh’s utility as a political token was too great for anybody to resist.


As another, Pakistani, prisoner in an Indian jail was beaten into a coma, possibly in retaliation, and subsequently died[6], the Indian government demanded increased security for Indian prisoners in Pakistani prisons – you know, in case this turns into a tit-for-tat thing, all too common in the India-Pakistan context.   Also, the current mess in Pakistan – and Pakistan is in a mess so extreme it makes India look good – is far too tempting for the meddlers of RAW to leave alone.

You can be absolutely assured that more Sarabjit Singhs are being recruited even as we speak – and that they will be abandoned in their turn when things turn sour, unless they become politically convenient.

And so it goes.



  1. Thanks, Bill, for the peek at an aspect of Indian-Pakistani relations. The U.S. FBI and CIA are notorious, as I'm sure you know, for recruiting not-too-bright people to manipulate into committing 'terrorist' crimes.

  2. So typical of governments in any country. As sad as this is, at least the old US of A is not the only criminal enterprise pretending to be a government.

  3. So much for the glamorous life of a spy. I always knew it was a fairytale anyway. Maybe I didn't know how evil the ogres were.

  4. Finally someone who looks at things in their proper perspective.


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