On Tuesday, a day after Pakistan announced that a secret military court had sentenced Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav to death for espionage, India stepped up back-channel efforts to resolve the crisis. While senior government officials were tight-lipped about the contact between New Delhi and Islamabad, it is reliably learnt that both countries have decided to initiate talks between highly-placed political representatives from each country to negotiate the current imbroglio. Indian officials refused to state who had been deputed to deal with the crisis.

Earlier, India had issued a strong statement that the execution of any such sentence would constitute premeditated murder.

India has held similar secret back-channel talks on “peace and security, terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, and other issues, including tranquillity along the LoC” when the National Security Advisors of the two countries met in Bangkok in December 2015.

The Indian government is also opening a line with key officials in the US administration. In 2011, the US managed to pull out Raymond Davis, a CIA agent, who had killed two Pakistani nationals in Lahore and had been arrested. Davis was allowed to return to the US after the payment of “blood money” – which refers to the money paid as compensation to the family of someone who has been killed – with the Inter-Services Intelligence leaning on the family of the deceased to accept it.

While Jadhav has not committed any criminal act, he is still facing the death sentence, and the Davis precedent could possibly provide a face-saver for both New Delhi and Islamabad.

Who is Jadhav?

Pakistani authorities arrested Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian Naval officer, in March last year. While Jadhav was believed to be in Iran, running a cargo business from the port town of Chabahar, Pakistan claimed to have arrested him from the border town of Chaman in its province of Balochistan, bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistan has claimed that Jadhav had infiltrated into Pakistan for “espionage and terror activities” and was in touch with Baloch separatists. They also claimed that Jadhav was travelling on a false passport, which identified him as Hussain Mubarak Patel, a resident of Powai in Mumbai.

India rejected all these charges while pointing out that Jadhav had retired from the Navy in 2002, and had not been in touch with the government since. India maintains that Jadhav was kidnapped from Iran.

Little is known about Jadhav, and it is not clear if he did retire from the Indian Navy in 2002. What is known is that he joined the National Defence Academy in 1987 as part of the 77th course and then attended the Indian Naval Academy three years later. Commissioned in 1991, Jadhav opted for the engineering branch of the Navy, which raises doubts about his alleged role as a spy. Most naval engineers work as non-combatants, and would have little or no experience in espionage or sabotage roles.

This reporter spoke to some of Jadhav’s course mates, who rejected the idea of Jadhav being involved in espionage outright. “We used to be in touch through forums created for the course, but we were told that he had taken retirement and left the Navy,” a serving course mate said. According to him, Jadhav had gone into business, but he had lost touch with him since then.

The details available from a so-called confession by Jadhav that was broadcast on Pakistani TV channels raise further questions about his purported role as a spy. In the video statement, Jadhav claimed that he was being handled by someone called Anil Kumar Gupta, a joint secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or R&AW. However insiders pointed out that no such person – who had the task or the profile to handle such matters – exists.

Jadhav’s claims that he worked with Naval Intelligence were also debatable since the Indian Navy does not have the charter or the ability to post a retired commander from the Navy abroad for any intelligence-gathering operation. “That would be very difficult for us to explain,” said a senior Naval officer, who has worked with Naval intelligence.

The fact that Jadhav was caught with an Indian passport that is purportedly fake also raises doubts about his alleged role as a spy.

“Why would India send across a man with an Indian passport if he was involved in espionage and sabotage,” said a senior intelligence official. “India has traditionally depended on third parties for such operations, keeping a wide berth from sending across Indian officials, let alone someone bearing an Indian passport.”

The official added that traditionally, most intelligence operations that are focused on Pakistan are usually dealt with in the Middle East or in Europe. “Posting a retired naval officer from the engineering branch, with an Indian passport seems far-fetched,” the official insisted.

Tit for tat?

The bilateral crisis seems to have been sparked off by the disappearance of a retired Pakistani military official from Lumbini, Nepal, in the first week of April.

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Habib Zahir, who arrived in Nepal on April 6 via Muscat in Oman, and then proceeded to the border town of Lumbini, was reported missing by Pakistani news channels on April 9, a day before the death sentence on Jadhav was announced. According to reports, Zahir was looking for a job and had posted his resume on social networking site LinkedIn and was contacted via email and telephone for a job interview in Nepal.

Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Habib Zahir (left).

Some reports suggest that Zahir was a part of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and was tasked with operations in India through Nepal. While Zahir created two LinkedIn profiles (see here and here) in which it is mentioned that he had worked with the United Nations in Haiti, none of them contain any other detail – a strange set of profiles for someone looking for a job. While reports claim that he worked with a food company, Rahfan, a subsidiary of Unilever, Zahir does not mention this on either of his LinkedIn profiles.

If Zahir was a part of the Inter-Services Intelligence then his disappearance could have been the trigger for the sudden announcement of Jadhav’s death sentence.

Jadhav was tried in a secret military court. It is believed that Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa confirmed the death sentence after the news of Zahir’s disappearence emerged.

Bringing back Jadhav

India had known for a while that Jadhav was facing a military court. However, the death sentence came as a surprise. Pakistan had repeatedly denied consular access to Jadhav.

Soon after the announcement, key Indian officials including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar and at least two intelligence officials met to discuss options, said people in the know. There, it was decided to immediately issue a demarche to Pakistan High Commissioner Abdul Basit, while New Delhi examined other options to deal with the crisis.

Those in the know say that the chances of getting Jadhav back are currently remote. While New Delhi will continue to press Islamabad to reduce the death sentence, he may have to continue in a Pakistani jail. The matter is complicated as so far there has been no precedent between India and Pakistan to exchange people at such senior levels.

Earlier, at least two Indian intelligence officials – as senior as Jadhav currently is – were sent back to India from Pakistan. But the circumstances were vastly different.

In 2003, an official of the Intelligence Bureau was sent back with two other officials in what is believed to be a tit-for-tat measure after India busted a major spy ring operating out of the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi. The Intelligence Bureau official was posted in Islamabad to oversee the security of the Indian High Commission, and this had been declared to Islamabad.

In August 2006, a middle-ranking R&AW official was declared persona non grata in Pakistan after he was kidnapped and beaten up while travelling between Islamabad and Lahore. India reacted to the expulsion by sending back known Inter Services Intelligence personnel posted in New Delhi.

India insists that Jadhav was neither a spy, nor on its official rolls. This complicates the matter and limits the options it can exercise to get him back.

It is not clear how Jadhav ended up in Chaman, and an Iranian investigation has been inconclusive. The fact that Jadhav’s passport is purportedly fake also makes diplomatic parleys tricky, said Indian government officials.

That leaves only one option for New Delhi.

“It has to be made clear to Pakistan that Jadhav is not a Sarabjit Singh,” said a senior official familiar with the issue. “They could get away with his execution, but any harm to Jadhav will send bilateral relations into a deep freeze and probably escalate hostilities.”

The fact that political contact has already been established for back-channel talks indicates that this option is already under discussion. Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs will continue to be the public face of the diplomatic efforts to get Jadhav back.