Pakistan says it caught an Indian spy, but there is nothing new in such claims. “It’s part of the game,” former Research and Analysis Wing head AS Dulat says. The details of such cases are always far more interesting than the consequences; and in any case it isn’t the real spies who are ever caught – they rarely venture out into the field, which is just too risky – but agents who are on the periphery of the main spy’s networks.

In the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, the man in Pakistani custody who they claim is a R&AW agent that they caught in the Afghan-Pak border town of Chaman – which means he’s either totally inept or not a R&AW agent – the interesting thing is that India officially disclosed that he used to be with the Indian Navy till a couple of years back, and that he has a family connection to the Mumbai police. Also, photos of his passport were released, showing a false name.

Since he had a visa for Iran, and specifically for the Chabahar Port Trust – where it makes perfect sense for a former Navy man to work as a consultant – it is not a stretch to assume his consultancy would have extended to Balochistan. And having formerly been a uniformed man, he would have known espionage professionals who might occasionally (and casually, like over a drink) pick his brains on general matters – the mood, the gossip – to help fill the gaps of their overall intelligence assessments.

And when he was picked up by the Pakistani security forces, he may have under pressure coughed up a name of a friend he had in the R&AW. “Yeah, I know so-and-so,” he might have said. But to call him a R&AW agent might well be a case of Pakistani irrational exuberance.

Spies and sources

To the common media consumer, there is little difference between someone who passes along general information he picks up in the course of his real business, and someone who goes around distributing cameras and bombs, and someone who tries to recruit Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI personnel to be double agents.

Popular media does nothing to dispel the confusion: former R&AW chief Vikram Sood once laughed heartily while mentioning a Sunny Deol movie he saw in which the R&AW chief pulls out a machine gun and shoots down a Pakistani agent standing in his office. (There are so many things wrong with this scenario that you can only shake your head in dismay and keep silent.) Journalists who cover intelligence agencies are too much in awe of them to ever make these clarifications as it would not be in the “national interest”.

In general, a source passing on information of interest because he happens to work in interesting places is not the same thing as a safe-breaking super-spy like James Bond; nor is it the same thing as being a recruiter of networks of spies like the MI6 characters in John le Carré’s novels; nor is it the same thing as being back at Head Quarters, planning elaborate deception operations like George Smiley did in le Carré’s novels.

In any case, picking up spies and agents is fairly routine, and their exchange or release is also fairly routine, and usually done without much fanfare. If anything, since Indian and Pakistani National Security Advisors Ajit Doval and Lt Gen Naseer Janjua have been meeting under the radar, this is probably another thing they can settle among themselves – after all, ours is a former intelligence professional, theirs is a former fauji – to not make too much noise in public about such captures.

Aditya Sinha, former editor of the DNA and The New Indian Express is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May 2016.