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Posted at: May 26, 2018, 12:53 AM; last updated: May 28, 2018, 1:46 PM (IST)

Spy in your backyard

The purpose of espionage is as varied as the emotions it evokes; Edward Snowden has been hailed as a whistleblower and reviled as a traitor. Our fascination with this world is eternal

Sandeep Dikshit

Meghna Gulzar’s spy thriller Raazi is turning in handsome returns at the boxoffice, and not just because of the director’s deft touch. The business of spying is itself so fascinating — a profession where the calling comes to you, where admission is not by choice and where failure means being skinned alive in the most gruesome way imaginable with the added rub of the home side washing its hands off a “burnt” spy.

Spies come in various shapes and sizes; from sleeper agents who are inserted into the target country at a very young age; they then acquire a false identity, and even a family to go along with it as an Indian spy in Pakistan did. Men like him purloin closely guarded secrets such as weapon purchase plans, keeping an eye on sudden army movements or tracking dissension and difference of opinion in the government and the security agencies. This agent’s swan song was alerting India about the sudden Pakistani air attack on December 3, 1971. 

Then there are the men of action. The boys and girls of Mossad (Israeli secret service) are the most celebrated. Look more closely, and the Mossad has several blowups to its name such as mistakenly killing the husband of a pregnant woman in Europe or the famous bust up in Dubai where the entire Mossad crew on a hot mission was exposed along with their false passports. And of course, the banning of Mossad from the UK after their zealousness encouraged them to cross one red line too many. Many other spy agencies, including the RAW, are more modest in advertising their successes.

Spying seems to be a dirty business. Calling a person a mukhbir is hardly an ode to a higher calling in life; it is instead considered a pejorative. A mukhbir is a necessity but has an attached odium, whether it is ratting on colleagues to the bosses or fingering a person in the neighbourhood for the cops to pick up. But it acquires a nobel hue when the task is being done for a greater cause, preferably in defence of the nation. 

The promiscuous, flirtatious Mata Hari was the most infamous in the West but we in the subcontinent had one better: Codenamed Silver, and once handled by the James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s brother, Bhagat Ram Talwar is said to be the prince among spies. Operating primarily during the Second World War, Talwar played on both sides of the fence, and never got caught. Escorting Netaji through the badlands of Afghanistan-Pakistan, which even today the Pakistan army finds tough to penetrate, Talwar also spied for four countries — Germany, Italy, France and Britain. Retiring in 1945, nothing was heard of him for the next three decades till he was spotted spending his last years somewhere in western Uttar Pradesh. Talwar was believed to have died in 1983 — unmourned and uncelebrated.

The rough-living Talwar was a complete antithesis to the Boxwallah spooks in Britain at that time. Dubbed the Cambridge Spies, the five were recruited by the Soviet Union and infiltrated the British foreign intelligence service. Kim Philby, Guy Brugess Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and possibly John Cairncross leaked critical information on British and Allied military during and after the Second World War. 

The most successful of them was Kim Philby, who was born in Ambala, then a centre for training and dispatching spies disguised as explorers, merchants and adventurers across the mysterious mountain ranges of the Hindukush, the Pamirs, Tien Shan and the Himalayas.

While Talwar peacefully retired into obscurity and Philby smoked his pipe through dotage in Moscow, Kulbhushan Jadhav remains in a Pakistani prison. When the saga of spies of India and Pakistan is opened, a running theme is the practice of disowning an exposed spy; generally abandoning him to his fate.

Both sides need to take a leaf out of the realism of the West. During the Cold War, arrested spies were exchanged on the desolate Glienicke Bridge dubbed the Bridge of Spies, which also became the title of a Steven Spielberg film. Marking the border of East and West Berlin, the bridge witnessed its first spy exchange in 1962 when Colonel Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy, was exchanged for US spy Francis Gary Powers (whose spy plane had taken off from Peshawar and downed in Soviet Union). In all, 40 spies were exchanged on the bridge, returning to their home country to be cared and looked after for their sacrifices. 

As late as 2010, the US busted a spy ring of 10 Russians who had been provided with false identities years back. In due course, this lot was exchanged for US spies and agents held by Moscow of which Sergei Skripal, recently poisoned in a London park, along with his daughter, was one. Sadly no such awakening to acknowledge their exposed spies exists in New Delhi and Rawalpindi. This, when the other side is aware the exposed agent will not be able to withhold information from his interrogators and would have told them all.

Countries cannot do without human spies even though, as Edward Snowden has revealed, an enormous amount of technical gadgetry enables resourceful countries to spot a wrinkle in the shirt or pick up a whisper in a room. India is not too far behind. Almost 20 years back, India managed to intercept a call placed by Gen Pervez Musharraf from Beijing to his Chief of Staff in Rawalpindi that proved that the intruders in Kargil were regular Pakistani soldiers and not some motivated youngsters cut up over the Indian Army’s presence in the Kashmir Valley. But dial back, and we find that the first information about the intruders was provided by wandering herdsmen whom the Army would keep in good humour. Had the information been a week late, perhaps the Kargil conflict would not have ended in the way it did.

The profession offers a wide palette for new inductees, from data crunching abilities to prowess in assessing satellite photos. But the bulwark to a country’s security is provided by human intelligence; the people who put their lives on the line. When they retire, their tales can never be told to their grandchildren. But when they die or are arrested, like Israel, Russia or the US, they must never be left out in the cold.   


Divided by duties

In India, the Intelligence Bureau is the main handler of domestic intelligence much like the MI 5 of Britain, FSB of Russia or the American FBI. But in each country, an alphabet soup of supplementary agencies handle specialised tasks. The boilerplate name of India’s external intelligence gathering agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) gives no hint about its prowess. Over the years, RAW chiefs were influential enough to facilitate state-to-state contacts after diplomats have failed to make a breakthrough. The RAW has its counterparts in Mossad (Israel), CIA (US) and MI 6 (UK). In places where the going is tough, such as Afghanistan, Military Intelligence (MI) tends to step up to the plate.

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