It would have been too much to expect the Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav episode to play out any other way. From the Pakistan side we have a very obviously-edited six-minute video, wherein Jadhav is shown to be detailing his background, his services to India’s external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing, his activities in support of the Baloch insurgents and so on.
From the Indian side, there is a firm acknowledgement of Jadhav as an Indian national, a former naval officer, who was doing business in Iran and who has inexplicably turned up in Pakistani custody. To move forward, the ministry of external affairs has demanded that Islamabad must grant consular access to the Indian side.
The big issue is the one of tradecraft. He has claimed he was a serving naval officer, scheduled to retire in 2022. While the Indian government's statement of March 27 has emphatically stated that he had taken premature retirement and gone into business. Since plausible deniability is at the heart of intelligence tradecraft, getting a serving officer to get involved is highly unusual. Especially since he was involved in this operation even while carrying an Indian passport made out in the name of Hussain Mubarak Patel.
His timeline, too, seems strange. He said that he had been involved in intelligence operations since 2003, established a small business in Chabahar in Iran, and had twice visited Karachi, presumably on intelligence missions, yet he later says he was “picked up” by R&AW only in 2013. So whom was he working for between 2003-2013? The confession is silent on this issue. Presumably he could have been working for the Directorate of Naval Intelligence. But this is a small establishment with no mandate for foreign operations.
He said he was arrested at the Saravan border in Iran on March 3 because he was trying to cross over into Pakistan to meet the Baloch insurgents, but he uses the term “BSN personnel” which is something that Pakistanis use, which is an abbreviation for“Baloch Sub-Nationalis.” It is the equivalent of the Indian Army using “Anti-National Elements” or ANEs for Kashmiri militants.
The point is why did he have to take the risk to enter Pakistan, because the Baloch and he would have been much safer carrying out the meeting in Iran or Afghanistan.
So how will this play out now? Pakistan will now have to give the Indian side consular access, try him for the alleged crimes – or release him. For the present, Islamabad will milk the arrest for all its worth. For years it has accused New Delhi of involvement in the uprising in Balochistan. However, so far it did not have a shred of evidence of Indian involvement and even the United States to whom they complained gave New Delhi a clean chit.
In 2009, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed for a reference to Balochistan in a joint statement arrived at with his Pakistani counterpart following a meeting between them in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Following a meeting between the Indian prime minister and his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Raza Gilani, the two sides issued a joint statement on July 16, 2009 which read:
“Prime Minister Singh reiterated the need to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice. Prime Minister Gilani assured that Pakistan will do everything in its power in this regard….Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.”
Till then India had steadfastly resisted any such reference in any joint document with Pakistan because it had strongly denied any inference that India was involved in the Baloch separatist movement.
Manmohan Singh paid a heavy price for this because the Balochistan reference, made as a gesture to assuage Islamabad’s paranoia, played out badly at home and derailed his Pakistan peace policy.
This time around, too, if India and Pakistan do not find a way around the Jadhav issue, the efforts of the two sides to resume dialogue will grind to a halt. If Pakistan tries and sentences him to a long jail term or, worse, to death, all chances of continuing the dialogue will evaporate.
So far Jadhav’s family have not surfaced in the media, but should they become a feature in the news, they will be a constant reminder to the country that a senior naval officer is being held by Pakistan on what the government itself says are specious charges.
On the other hand, having milked all the publicity, Islamabad can quietly deport him on “humanitarian” grounds. Or, New Delhi and Islamabad can carry out an exchange of persons the other side is holding for allegedly having links to their respective intelligence services.
Dr Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.