An Alleged Spy Sentenced to Death Rocks India-Pakistan Relations

Recent Features


An Alleged Spy Sentenced to Death Rocks India-Pakistan Relations

Kulbhushan Jadhav’s sentencing by a Pakistani military court brings India-Pakistan ties to the brink.

An Alleged Spy Sentenced to Death Rocks India-Pakistan Relations
Credit: Kulbhushan Jadhav via YouTube screen capture

On Monday, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani Army’s communications wing, announced that Pakistan’s Field General Court Martial, a military court, had sentenced an Indian national charged of “espionage” and “sabotage” to death.

Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian citizen who was arrested in Pakistan last year, was found by the Pakistani court to have undertaken “activities aiming to destabilize and wage war against Pakistan by impeding the efforts of Law Enforcement Agencies for restoring peace in Balochistan and Karachi.”

The question of Jadhav’s fate has exploded in recent days in India and stands to emerge as a defining episode in India-Pakistan relations. India officially maintains that Jadhav was abducted by Pakistani forces inside Iran, where he was on a business trip.

Since the Pakistani announcement of the court’s decision on Jadhav, India has reacted with predictable anger, issuing a formal demarche to the Pakistani government. The demarche, delivered by Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to the Pakistani ambassador in India, noted that if the sentence is carried out, “the Government and people of India will regard it as a case of premeditated murder.”

Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj warned of consequences for India-Pakistan relations should Pakistan make good on Jadhav’s death sentence, which she alleged was decided on “concocted charges.”

India has additionally criticized Pakistan for denying it consular access to Jadhav, which New Delhi argues is a violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Pakistan reportedly reached out to India with conditions for consular access only after Jadhav had been sentenced.

For the moment, the issue appears to be at an impasse, with both Pakistan and India having laid out their course of action. If Pakistan makes good on the sentencing and executes Jadhav, there is little reason to doubt that India’s promise of a swift freeze in bilateral relations wouldn’t come to pass.

Within Pakistan, the case of Jadhav’s sentencing has raised questions about civil-military relations in the country. In December, Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistani prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, said that a dossier he had seen on Jadhav contained “insufficient evidence” regarding his status as a spy in Pakistan.

“What the dossier contained was not enough. Now it is up to the concerned authorities, how long they take to give us more matter on the agent,” Aziz had said. Aziz’s comments notably came long after the Pakistani Army had filed Jadhav confession to espionage activities on behalf of India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) in Pakistan — a video that New Delhi claimed was produced under duress.

The incident also will come to color Indian understandings of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani Army’s new chief of army staff who was described in some early commentary in November and December as potentially less India-obsessed and thus more nuanced in his understanding of Indian interests. ISPR confirmed that Bajwa confirmed Jadhav’s sentence.

His predecessor, General Raheel Sharif, had accused Indian intelligence of working to undermine the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has shot up the list of the Pakistani military’s domestic priorities list since its unveiling during an April 2015 state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pakistan.

Pakistan appeared to be so convinced that Jadhav was an Indian spy that Sharif raised the issue with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his state visit to Pakistan last year — the first such visit by an Iranian head of government in 14 years. (Sharif alleged that Iran was allowing its soil to be used by Indian intelligence for activities extending into Pakistan’s Balochistan province.)

At its core, it seems like there are two resolutions to the crisis that has erupted in the aftermath of the Jadhav verdict. Either Pakistan does what it has said it will do and execute him, precipitating a descent into a potentially lengthy bilateral freeze, or it could use Jadhav as a negotiating chip for some concession from India. (Speculation on this point runs hot right now among the Indian commentariat.)

Indeed, as other commentators have noted, the Pakistani military’s case against Jadhav appears to be part of its well-known asymmetric playbook against India. Furthermore, by elevating his case, the Army’s case for a stronger hand in Balochistan — not to mention, a more direct role in the implementation of CPEC — is made as well.

Ultimately, the Pakistani Army would have to reckon with the norm-effacing event of executing Jadhav, even he were an Indian spy. Most states engage in espionage; India and Pakistan most certainly do. India has captured Pakistani spies in the past, but they have not been executed. The nationalist outcry in the event of Jadhav’s execution may force New Delhi to reconsider.

Moreover, the incident will serve to undermine bilateral trust and significant delay any effort toward bilateral spy swaps between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Instead of emulating the model that the United States and Soviet Union managed during the heydays of the Cold War — of accepting espionage as a reality and negotiating swaps — India and Pakistan may see regular espionage failures snowball into major bilateral crises.