The arrest of six Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) operatives by the Special Task Force in Kolkata has helped bust a huge Pakistani espionage racket operating from eastern India. Those arrested have certain things in common — they were trained in Pakistan and assigned to hand over to the ISI crucial information pertaining to important installations of strategic importance in the eastern region. The other thing common among them is that they are either linked to West Bengal’s ruling political party, the Trinamool Congress, or have relatives in Pakistan.
Of the six arrested, Akthar Khan worked as a bartender and has relatives in Pakistan. Zafar Khan is Akthar Khan’s younger brother. Irshad Ansari is a Trinamool Congress member and has been a contractual labourer in the Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers (GRSE) since 2003. Ashfaq Ansari is the general secretary of the TMC-led students’ union in a local college and has relatives in Pakistan. Mohammad Jehangir runs a local business and was in close touch with ISI operative Ejaz, who was arrested earlier by the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force. Sheikh Badal is Jehangir’s friend and is responsible for forging documents.
The National Investigation Agency, the Intelligence Bureau and other intelligence agencies are interrogating all the six operatives. Intelligence sources say that the arrested persons form just the tip of the iceberg.
What has the intelligence community in a tizzy is the easy access the ISI operatives had to classified information and vital installations. Colonel (Retd) Saumitra Ray, a strategic affairs expert, blamed the situation to the political influence existing in public sector units like Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers. “The state ruling party’s say in the recruitment of contractual labourers helps these non-state actors to reach high-security zones. The security of these installations should be in the hands of professional forces to avoid any ambiguity in the security apparatus,” he said. Initial investigations have revealed that Irshad Ansari was passing on crucial information about Navy ships to Ejaz in UP, who stayed in Kolkata between 2013 and 2015.
Sources in the intelligence agencies said that all the arrested persons have links with Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, apart from Pakistan. The ISI sends money to its operatives in India through Saudi Arabia and the information collected is passed on to the ISI in Karachi via Bangladesh, a senior officer said.
Sources in the police said that the primary job of the ISI operatives was reconnaissance for the purpose of collecting and collating information. Later, the ISI’s job was to “disseminate” the information to the respective services and finally to take “action” (to execute the plan).
This is not the first time that the ISI has infiltrated West Bengal’s ruling party. The blast in Khagragarh in Burdwan in 2014 took place at the TMC office located in the ground floor of a rented house. First, the state administration denied that the incident was a blast, and instead called it a gas cylinder accident. Later, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee claimed that the plot was hatched by the RSS to tarnish her government. Later, during investigation, the active role of the ISI-backed Jamaat Ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was established. A wake-up call was sounded and arrests were made by the NIA. A consolidated report to the Ministry of Home Affairs from intelligence agencies indicated that numerous madrasas operating in the border areas of West Bengal act as shelters for the JMB and other non-state actors. Many of these are funded by the state government. Sources said the porous and riverine borders between India and Bangladesh were also mentioned as crucial entry and exit points for infiltrators and FICN (fake Indian currency note) handlers.
The Indian Navy is worried about the spying. According to Commodore Ravi Ahluwhalia (NOIC, WB) said, “The quantum of information passed on remains a matter of concern.” But he added that mere photographs of equipment are not enough to judge the equipment’s characteristics. He also said that there is a need for agencies to review their security from time to time. However, the porous border with Bangladesh and Nepal continues to be vulnerable to non-state elements. Vote bank politics and litigations have prevented the CPWD from erecting fences in many areas along the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal, which has worsened the situation.