India’s efforts to bring back Kulbhushan Jadhav, a retired Indian Navy officer currently in Pakistan’s custody, has been dealt another blow with that country’s top military body backing the death sentence awarded to the Indian last month.

Pakistan has accused Jadhav of spying for India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, and claims to have caught him in the border town of Chaman in Balochistan last year. India has maintained that Jadhav has had no links with the government since his retirement from the Navy in 2002 and that he was abducted from Iran. On April 3, Pakistan announced that a military court had sentenced Jadhav to death for espionage.

On April 13, at the 201st Pakistan Army Corps Commanders meeting, the verdict received the full support of the military brass. The Corps Commanders is the Pakistani Army’s highest decision-making body. It wields enormous power over the civilian leadership too and its decisions are binding on most authorities in Pakistan.

Indian security analysts view this development as a setback to New Delhi’s efforts, especially at a time when the civilian government in Pakistan has ignored repeated requests by the Indian High Commission for consular access to Jadhav. Islamabad has refused to discuss this matter despite New Delhi starting back-channel talks at the highest political levels. There is little space to manoeuvre for India in such a situation.

Bargaining chip?

Among the options on the table for New Delhi is a spy exchange on the lines of what existed between the United States and the former Soviet Union. While the Soviets would execute their nationals when they were caught spying for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation or the United States, they used other nationalities as bargaining chips. New Delhi is wondering if Islamabad would be keen to use Jadhav as one such bargaining chip, which could hold some hope for his release.

“It all depends on what kind of an opportunity will arise, and if the Pakistani military is keen to exploit it,” a senior government official dealing with the matter said on condition of anonymity.

However, such a strategy is fraught with risk. New Delhi is clear that Jadhav is not a spy. How he ended up in Pakistan with an Indian passport under an assumed name and a work permit visa for Iran has not been clarified. Indian intelligence officials have said that had Jadhav been an operative, he would not have been sent to Pakistan on an Indian visa. Such a senior official would have instead travelled under an assumed name and a foreign passport. That would have increased the deniability factor for Jadhav, according to top government officials.

“But Pakistan seems keen to whip up public opinion in favour of an execution and that isn’t helpful,” a senior official said. If that assessment is correct, then the chances of getting Jadhav back seem remote, just as his chances of avoiding the death sentence. The more the Pakistani military leadership hypes up an execution, the less likely it seems that Jadhav will return to India.

Hostage to ties

Jadhav’s fate also seems tied to bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, which have plummeted since the announcement of the death sentence. And in its wake, news of the abduction of a retired Pakistan Army officer in Nepal appears to have heightened suspicions between the two neighbours.

Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Habib Zahir, who went missing from Lumbini in Nepal, is believed to have been part of an operation led by the Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, according to an Indian analyst. The Pakistani media reported last week that official investigations had revealed the involvement of “three Indian individuals” in his disappearance. Indian officials have not offered any comment on this so far.

It is believed that if Lieutenant Colonel Zahir is in the custody of elements over whom New Delhi exerts some influence, then the matter would be resolved through third parties and not bilaterally. Which means, both New Delhi and Islamabad could look at a third country to resolve the matter and get back their men. But this is just a possibility, while Jadhav faces a death sentence and Zahir an unknown future.