On November 10, 2020, I received a letter from the Embassy of India at my home in Sweden informing me that I had been barred from entering India. In addition, the letter included a “show cause” notice, asking me to provide reasons why my Overseas Citizenship of India should not be canceled. An OCI is an immigration status that allows foreigners of Indian origin to live and work in India indefinitely.

The official reason for this action was my alleged involvement in “inflammatory speeches and anti-India activities”. I submitted my response, fully aware that it would likely be disregarded. As anticipated, my OCI was canceled.

Subsequently, I appealed to the High Court in Delhi. The court revoked the Indian government’s order due to the absence of evidence supporting their claims of my so-called anti-India activities. However, within two weeks, the Indian government once again canceled my OCI. In response, I filed another appeal to the court, which then requested the Indian government to provide justification for their decision.

After several months, the government stated to the court that Indian intelligence agencies had determined my activities to be detrimental to the sovereignty, unity, and integrity of India. They claimed that the evidence was classified as a state secret and could not be disclosed openly in court. However, they mentioned that it could be provided in a sealed cover if necessary.

It is no secret that the Indian government is using the guise of intelligence agency findings as a cover for what one might argue are unconstitutional and undemocratic exercises of power.

Credit: Ashoswai, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

My interactions with Indian agencies are not a new development. Over the decades, I have had brushes with intelligence agencies in at least two other countries. My journey through the intricate webs of international relations and intelligence surveillance paints a vivid picture of the complex dance between individual freedoms and national security interests.

From my early academic pursuits to my encounters with intelligence agencies across several countries, each experience has offered a unique lens through which to view the delicate balance of power, perception, and personal integrity.

The recurring themes of suspicion, surveillance, and the quest for transparency and justice have not only shaped my professional trajectory but have also highlighted the broader implications for democratic principles and human rights.

I began to think about this in the early 1990s, while conducting post-doctoral research in Bangladesh and India, I gave an interview to the widely read English newspaper in Bangladesh, the Daily Star.

My research findings supported the official position of Bangladesh in part, while the other portion aligned with the official stance of India. Predictably, the Bangladeshi newspaper chose not to publish the segment that contradicted Bangladesh’s position. This alone was sufficient for an Indian intelligence agency to threaten me with blacklisting. At that time, I consented not to discuss my research with any media outlet or write about it, enabling me to return to India to visit my parents.

Despite this agreement, an official from the Indian embassy in Uppsala in Sweden, where I live and teach, would visit me every year, since they were obliged to report back to India about my activities. Eventually, at an embassy gathering in 2002, an agency official informally informed me that they had closed my file.

Reflecting on it, I realise that I had already appeared on the radar of an Indian agency during my time as a research student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in the late 1980s. My research focused on the security of microstates, with a particular interest in small island countries like the Maldives.

In those pre-internet days, if you were a student, accessing information was a formidable challenge, limited mostly to what was available in your university library. Finding material on the Maldives proved especially difficult for me.

The Pakistan Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. Credit: I99pema, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During this period, the military attaché of the Pakistan High Commission attended a seminar in my department at JNU. He was knowledgeable, and his input on the security complexities of the Maldives was thoughtful. Consequently, I approached him after the seminar to inquire if he had any materials on the security challenges facing the Maldives. He responded affirmatively, and invited me to his office to collect them.

Without giving it much thought, I visited the Pakistani High Commission the next day. Upon arrival, I was permitted entry and asked by the reception staff to wait. After waiting for almost two hours, perhaps even longer, I decided to leave without having met him. I assumed he was simply too busy and didn’t dwell on the reasons why he had invited me but failed to meet.

A few months later, it came to light that this military attaché had been caught receiving sensitive information from an Indian informant and was subsequently asked to leave the country. In hindsight, I felt somewhat relieved that our meeting at the embassy never transpired.

However, my sense of relief was fleeting. A senior military official, who was also a PhD classmate of mine and stationed at India’s military headquarters, was juggling his studies with his job, so I often shared my class notes with him. Despite our differences in age, social, and professional status, we became friends. He frequently visited me on campus, and I sometimes went to his official residence in Delhi cantonment.

Shortly after the incident involving the Pakistani military attaché, he was absent from the university for nearly a week. Concerned, I decided to visit him. He was visibly pleased to see me but appeared exhausted. Upon inquiring about his well-being, he disclosed that he had been instructed not to come to the office for a week due to an internal investigation to ascertain if he had any connections with the Pakistani official. Fortunately, he was cleared in the investigation.

Upon hearing his story, I told me about my encounter with the Pakistani official and my visit to the Pakistan High Commission. It dawned on us that I might have been the inadvertent link the Indian intelligence agency considered between him and the Pakistani military attaché. My friend was dismayed that I had not informed him about this earlier and questioned my judgment in visiting the Pakistani High Commission.

At the time, I hadn’t perceived it as a significant problem. However, as the situation unfolded, it became clear that intelligence agencies often scrutinise even seemingly minor and insignificant actions.

Vikassinghhhh, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Post of India, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1996, I organised an international workshop at a hotel near Puri in Odisha, not far from my hometown. The workshop drew participants from several academics from Sweden and South Africa, in addition to our research collaborators from two universities in India. The focus of the workshop was “social capital and democracy”. The discussions were strictly academic in nature.

A few months later, during a visit to my hometown Bhubaneswar for some work, I encountered someone in a marketplace. This individual approached me, claiming to know me. Curious, I inquired how, and he revealed that he and his colleagues had been monitoring my workshop. I was taken aback, as the workshop was a closed gathering of research collaborators without any media involvement. Upon asking about his profession, he disclosed that he worked for the intelligence agency, followed by a laugh.

It was unclear whether their interest lay solely in the academic discussions that spanned five days or if they were keeping tabs on me due to speculation about my career in politics in Odisha. If their intention was to ascertain my political plans, they could have directly asked me instead of covertly monitoring an academic workshop focused on trust, norms, and networks.

It's not just Indian intelligence agencies that subject ordinary individuals like myself to surveillance. In October 1993, during my first research trip to Bangladesh, I stayed at the Dhaka University guest house. I arrived in the evening, and the very next morning, I was greeted by a knock at my door. Upon opening it, I encountered a smartly dressed young man who introduced himself as a research student. He expressed an interest in discussing my papers on the Ganges Water sharing issue. However, at that point in time, I had not published any papers on the subject of Ganges River water sharing.

Despite this discrepancy, I engaged in conversation with him. He revealed that he was a recent recruit to the Bangladeshi foreign service. What began as a professional interaction under the guise of academic interest quickly evolved into a genuine friendship. To this day, we remain friends. This experience illustrates the nuanced and complex interactions that can occur under the umbrella of intelligence and surveillance activities, transcending initial intentions to foster lasting personal connections.

In 2013, I found myself in Kathmandu alongside a younger colleague, with the aim of acquainting him with the political landscape of Nepal. We had scheduled an appointment with one of the country’s former prime ministers. However, en route to his residence, our taxi lost its way. Suddenly, two men appeared seemingly out of nowhere and directed our driver to the correct location. This incident left little doubt in my mind that I was being monitored throughout my stay in Nepal.

In 2019, amidst escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, which nearly reached a warlike state, a senior Pakistani military officer reached out to me a few times via social media. These interactions consisted of light, pleasant conversation and even invitations to visit Pakistan. Drawing on the lessons from my experiences during my days at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I maintained a polite yet firm distance from these overtures.

Despite this cautious approach, my newfound prudence did not shield me from the disfavor of the Indian government. In 2020, I was officially banned from entering India, underscoring the complex and often unpredictable nature of international relations and role of intelligence agencies.

South Asian intelligence agencies are not unique in their allocation of resources towards individuals who might not be considered typical subjects of interest. Sweden, too, has its moments of scrutiny. Although I was eligible for Swedish citizenship in the mid-1990s, I decided to wait until 2004. That year, the Indian government announced a policy for dual citizenship, albeit one that turned out to be somewhat illusory.

Around the same time, a younger colleague from the Balkans also applied for Swedish citizenship and received his passport within a month. When I hadn’t received any communication from the Swedish passport office for a year, I decided to call them. The response I received was an inquiry into whether I was in a rush to obtain my citizenship. Being someone who finds it difficult to dodge direct questions, I answered “No”, which was followed by another year of silence.

A police officer checks passports inside a bus at Lernacken, on the Swedish side of the Oresund strait Sweden and Denmark, in this photograph from November 2015. Credit: Reuters.

In 2006, my situation took an unexpected turn when I received a call from the Swedish secret police on my office phone, with the officer requesting an urgent meeting. The following day, I went to meet him at the police station in Uppsala. Unlike the usual procedure at Swedish offices, where you receive a token number and wait for your turn, the officer was already outside waiting to meet me. His demeanor was formal and somewhat stiff, which did not surprise me, given his role in the Swedish intelligence service.

He led me to a room that, upon first glance, appeared more like an interrogation room than one meant for a meeting. The furniture consisted of a very small, almost dilapidated table and two chairs. The officer chose the better chair for himself and offered me the other, which bore a striking resemblance to chairs found in Indian village police stations. Without verbalising my discomfort, I refused to sit on that chair. After a tense few seconds filled with sharp glances, the officer retrieved a chair from another room that matched his own. Only then did I take a seat.

The initial question posed by the Swedish secret police officer was about my profession. I responded by pointing out that since he had called my office number, he must already be aware of what I do. Nevertheless, he requested a direct answer, so I informed him that I was a professor teaching at Uppsala University.

The conversation then shifted to a more serious tone, with the officer inquiring about my relationships with diplomatic missions in Stockholm. At that time, I had some connections with officials from the Indian embassy. I explained that, being originally from India and having mutual friends with some embassy staff, our meetings were of a social nature.

His immediate reaction was to acknowledge awareness of my interactions with Indian embassy officials, clarifying that this was not the concern. Prompted by my request for specificity, he revealed his interest in my interactions with embassy officials from three particular countries – two from Southeast Asia and one from Central America. He even produced printed photos of me with those officials, which understandably upset me.

I clarified that my role as the director of the Master’s Program in International Studies at Uppsala University necessitated these interactions. At the time, there were very few master’s programmes offered in English at Swedish universities, and these embassy officials often met with me to inquire about potential admissions for themselves, their colleagues, or their spouses into the programme I was overseeing.

Upon hearing my explanation, the officer concluded the meeting and escorted me out of the police station with politeness. Remarkably, I received my Swedish passport the following day.

Following this incident, I was under the impression that I was no longer of interest to Swedish agencies. However, a recent experience suggested otherwise. A friend, employed by one of the Swedish state security agencies, was undergoing an interview for a more sensitive assignment. Surprisingly, a significant portion of his interview was devoted to clarifying his relationship and interactions with me. This could imply that Swedish agencies are highly meticulous in their responsibilities and carry out comprehensive follow-ups.

However, I remain unconvinced about their effectiveness, considering how they have been handling recent threats directed at me from various parts of the world.

As I reflect on these events, it becomes clear that the struggle for understanding and mutual respect in the shadow of power dynamics is a continuous journey – one that demands vigilance, resilience, and an unwavering commitment to uphold the values that define us as individuals and as a global community.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at the Uppsala University, Sweden.