On August 4, the office of a sub-divisional magistrate in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, witnessed an unexpected event – a raid by the anti-terrorism unit of the state police. The magistrate was later told that sensitive information from his office had reached individuals suspected to be linked with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. After the police confiscated computers in the office and mobile phones of employees, it zeroed in on a stenographer who often spoke over the phone with a suspected intelligence agent who projected himself as a Major in the Indian Army.

According to the police, the stenographer, Raghavendra Ahirwar, and the suspected intelligence agent were in touch since 2009. Most of the information that Ahirwar had shared with the impostor pertained to troop movements in an Army cantonment and firing range in Jhansi. Ahirwar was booked under the Official Secrets Act.

“We had received inputs about the information exchange and the role of an ISI agent from the Directorate of Military Intelligence,” said Inspector General Asim Kumar Arun, who heads the Uttar Pradesh police’s anti-terrorism unit. “What came as a bigger shock was that the stenographer fell victim to an illegal telephone exchange racket which was being used by the intelligence agents.”

The Uttar Pradesh police is now drafting an advisory to be distributed to all government offices, asking officials to be cautious while sharing information on the telephone.

Illegal telephone exchanges

Illegal telephone exchanges is a term that the police commonly uses for groups that engage in the unauthorised process of transforming data calls into voice calls. These exchanges route internet calls through a device, based in India, that has multiple slots with several Indian SIM cards. If the receiver has a caller ID, it will display the local number of the SIM card that is being used to route the call, the officials said. This gives the caller a degree of anonymity. For those who seek an additional layer of anonymity, some exchanges provide a facility in which a fake number is generated through a computer application. This fake number shows up on the receiver’s caller ID.

According to police officials, illegal exchanges work like a parallel service provider for clients based abroad. Their associates, also abroad, usually charge a fee from these clients for the service. The fee collected is then distributed down the hierarchy, said the officials. For clients, paying the fee works out to be cheaper than the cost of making foreign calls through the legal route.

Senior police officials say that these illegal exchanges are not new to Uttar Pradesh. They first came under the police scanner around two years ago when the matter was flagged by the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring Cell in the Department of Telecommunications under the Union Ministry of Communications. Such illegal operations are believed to have caused the department a loss of revenue worth crores.

The gangs again came under the scanner of the anti-terrorism squad in January after Army personnel posted in Jammu and Kashmir complained that they regularly received phone calls from persons claiming to be their seniors who sought sensitive information from them. The Army personnel raised the matter with the Directorate of Military Intelligence after which one of the calls the officers had received was traced to Lucknow. That is how the anti-terrorism unit of the Uttar Pradesh Police was roped in, Arun said.

Members of the telephone exchange racket busted by the anti-terrorism squad of the Uttar Pradesh Police in January. The racket was suspected to have links with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. (Photo credit: UP Police).

The espionage angle

The suspicious role of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence gained more prominence when one of the accused arrested in connection with the racket busted in January turned out to have worked in a technical capacity with NATO or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. This person was posted in Afghanistan for nearly five years during which time he is believed to have met ISI agents, senior officials of the anti-terrorism squad said.

Over the next six months, similar cases of illegal telephone exchanges emerged from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana.

When the telephone exchange rackets first came to light, they were perceived to be improvised versions of phishing rackets – in which scamsters dupe people by extracting confidential details of their bank accounts after pretending to have called from the banks on some pretext or the other. However, the illegal telephone exchange rackets seem to be more organised in nature. They have also become a question of national security, senior police officials said.

The anti-terrorism squad has already sent a set of recommendations to the Director General of Uttar Pradesh Police, Sulkhan Singh, so that the advisory for government officials can be drafted at the earliest, Arun said.