On April 10, Pakistan’s Field General Court Martial sentenced Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav of the Indian Navy to death for involvement in espionage and sabotage activities in Karachi and Balochistan.
Jadhav was arrested in Pakistan’s Balochistan province for entering illegally near Chaman at Pakistan’s border with Iran. At the time, he was operating under the pseudonym of Hussain Mubarak Patel. Jadhav is believed to have been running a jewelry business in Iran while he masqueraded as a scrap dealer in Pakistan. Jadhav allegedly crossed over the border multiple times in the past to coordinate with Baloch insurgent groups in addition to meeting with militant elements in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and economic hub, which has been plagued with criminal violence for several years now.
Soon after the arrest, rumors started that the Pakistani authorities had managed to nab an officer of the Indian military inside Pakistan. The news was neither confirmed nor denied by government sources until several days later and was followed promptly by a rare joint press conference with the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) head Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa and Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid. The press conference also featured a confessional statement from Jadhav, recorded on video, where he admitted to charges of fomenting trouble in Balochistan and Karachi at the behest of India’s Research and Analysis Wing. In the confession, Jadhav named several high-ranking officers who he alleged were responsible for directing his activities in Pakistan.
It was during this presser that the phrase “your monkey is with us” became known to the world. The phrase, quoted by Bajwa, was allegedly a code that was to be used to sensitize the Indian command to Jadhav’s arrest if such a scenario came to pass.
In the subsequent months, there were several raids and arrests conducted on targets highlighted by Jadhav across the country. The individuals arrested were alleged to be Jadhav’s local contacts, co-conspirators, and assets. Pakistan also deported several members of the Indian diplomatic mission who were found to be a part of this conspiracy.
Earlier this the year, there was enormous public outcry when a news story suggested that Jadhav might be extradited. The outrage was quelled only when the government rebuked all such reports and convinced the public that the matter was not being brushed under the carpet. The story was found to be fabricated.
Pakistan has had a long and complex history with Indian spies. Notable among them are Ravindra Kaushik, an Indian spy who managed to infiltrate the government service as a civilian clerk in 1979 and funneled information back to India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) until he was compromised by another low-level operative in 1983. Kaushik succumbed to tuberculosis and died in captivity in 2001.
Another important name is Kashmir Singh. Arrested in 1973 and prosecuted for espionage, he maintained that he was innocent right up till 2008, when his plight was brought to public attention by the caretaker human rights minister Ansar Burney. Then President General Pervez Musharraf, moved by pity, chose to sign a presidential pardon that allowed Singh to walk free. Right up until crossing the Wagah border, he spoke with Pakistani media and maintained that he was innocent all along. Once he crossed the border, however, Singh soon redacted his statement and openly declared that he had been a spy all along. This case led to significant public outcry and effectively quashed the possibility that someone accused of spying could again be released on humanitarian grounds. The public humiliation from this episode far outweighed any conceivable backlash that would have followed if Singh had been confined till death.
Lastly, Sarabjit Singh, an alleged Indian spy convicted for a string of bombings in Pakistan, was held in Pakistani jails for 22 years. He too is noted for admitting his offenses on camera. Over the years there were numerous campaigns and efforts launched to secure his release and events seemed to indicate that there was a high possibility he might be acquitted before the Kashmir Singh fiasco effectively put an end to his chances of being discharged for some time. Sarabjit maintained his innocence throughout the period of his incarceration but after his death during a prison riot in 2013, he was accorded the honor of a state funeral by India, which all but confirmed that he had been a spy all along.
A notable similarity among all these cases is that despite being sentenced to death, all three of these individuals had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment, despite the fact that they were all, at best, lower to mid-tier operatives. Looking at these cases, the precedent seems to suggest that we might not see Kulbhushan Jadhav executed any time soon.
For the time being, he serves as a major bargaining chip for Pakistan in its interaction with India. Having Jadhav in custody gives Pakistan the moral high ground of holding the self-professed architect of a major espionage/terrorism operation, an active military officer whom its security services arrested within the country’s borders. The seniority of the official involved makes it perhaps the only such case since the end of the Cold War. Regardless of whether the sentence is commuted or not, the situation favors Pakistan at the moment.
India’s options are severely limited. If Pakistan does decide to hang Jadhav, it will leave India looking impotent, rather than the regional power it wants to project itself as. If he is kept alive, however, Pakistan can continue to tout him as the face of India’s undeclared war against Pakistan.
Seeing the sharp deterioration of relations in the last two years, finding a diplomatic solution to this situation looks to be near impossible. Thus in reaching this decision, Pakistan has effectively played a masterstroke designed to put India into a corner. With few options and room to maneuver, it will be interesting to see how India plays its gambit. Will it try to secure the release of its officer from Pakistan but risk international embarrassment? Or will the country allow him to walk quietly to the gallows and accept its helplessness in the matter? Either way, the situation does not factor well into the Indian strategic calculus.
Muhammad Zarrar Saeed is an independent researcher. He received a BS in International Relations from Bahria University Islamabad.