It took the outrageous pronouncement of a killer verdict from a Pakistani military court against an Indian businessman to effect an unprecedented parliamentary unity. The man in question, former Indian Navy Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, was kidnapped by Al Qaeda/Taliban in Iran. He was subsequently sold to Pakistan’s ISI, a little before the Pakistani terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase in January 2016.
The trumped-up charges of spying for India’s RAW, and a three-month long kangaroo court-like proceeding against Jadhav had MP after MP on his feet demanding action and satisfaction. On 11 April, when news broke about Jadhav’s death sentence, the NDA had just finished holding a celebratory meet after recent election successes. This, on the auspicious occasion of Hanuman Jayanti.
And while Parliament was in no mood to tolerate this latest provocation from Pakistan, the day’s events also saw a motley crew of Indian peaceniks inviting the Pakistani ambassador, Abdul Basit, former Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and others to tea at the India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi. But things did not go altogether to script at the IIC. It ended with a scuffle and some cuts and bruises, when members in the audience objected to Basit, long thought of as a Pakistan army nominee, calling Jadhav a terrorist on a Pakistani TV channel.
The Pakistan army court verdict on Jadhav was arrived at on the strength of an ISIS style video-taped confession, obviously extracted under duress, evidenced by its rough editing. Jadhav was apparently not even accorded a defence counsel.
The Modi government, via Home Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, were the ones who called the death sentence a primitive attempt towards “premeditated murder”.
Kulbhushan Jadhav travelled often between Chabahar port area, where he ran his business, and Tehran, in Iran. He was simply abducted on one of these trips.
Pathankot, let us remember, came just after Modi’s impromptu visit, dropping in to meet Nawaz Sharif at his granddaughter’s wedding near Lahore, on his way back from Afghanistan. The Pakistan army made it clear then, and not for the first time, that it is not interested in rapprochement with India.
The Pathankot attack and Jadhav’s emergence as a prisoner, both underline the same grim fact.
Jadhav was transferred into Pakistani hands along with his valid Indian passport and relevant Iranian visa, becoming an instant pawn in the Pakistani narrative, that India too played, if not at cross-border terrorism, then certainly at cross-border spying. And it was stirring up trouble in Balochistan.
A spy with transparent identification alone would tend to rule him out of such games for the lack of deniability.
But the Pakistan army couldn’t care less, and seems determined to use him for leverage anyway.
That is why there has been a variance in the pronouncements made on Jadhav, by say, senior politico Sartaj Aziz, who said there was no clinching evidence against him, and what is now emanating from apologists like Defence Minister Khwaja Muhammad Asif. Asif has been busy since the 11th, drolly deflecting criticism for the “premeditated murder” barb, by citing atrocities here in India.
The broader implications of this sudden Pakistani action, in violation of the Geneva Convention, suggest a new level of desperation. Many of Pakistan’s initiatives to cause trouble in the Kashmir Valley and elsewhere in India are losing traction, notwithstanding the stone-pelting, arson and insolent behaviour. Something needs to be done to revive the hostility pitch and prevent any possibilities of dialogue between the two countries. Hanging an innocent man just because they can might just fit the bill.
This move signals, in short order, that Pakistan will not follow international law on the treatment of captured Indians. In this, it draws inspiration probably from North Korea, its old missile providing buddy.
But former RAW chief A.S. Dulat, familiar with Pakistan’s ISI, scoffs at the notion that Jadhav will actually hang, hinting therefore that this is a feint to keep the pot boiling. That it will, if carried through, almost certainly invite reciprocal and even punitive consequences from India seems to be lost upon the Pakistan army. The loss of men for a cause does not bother Salafists or Communists.
Is China egging Pakistan on for this one? Could be, but this seems like very small potatoes in that context, or is there more, not in the public domain? Are Pakistan and China worried about Balochistan and the CPEC/Gwadar and India’s potential to wreck their plans? Perhaps. Is the Pakistan army just busy putting its own political friends in their place in the run-up to elections in Pakistan?
The ISI, fighting with shadows and looking for scapegoats, also captured a pair of Indian clerics, it must be remembered, recently. It detained the head of the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi and his nephew, during their visit to Pakistan. They were let go off after a couple of days of questioning, but only after vigorous intervention of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
Jadhav has been held without Indian consular access. It is a who will blink first game. India refuses to agree that Jadhav is a spy and grant Pakistan the equivalence it seeks. Pakistan won’t grant consular access unless we agree that he is.
Jadhav now has 40 days to appeal the order in the Pakistan Appeals Court, which may or may not be their High Court or even their Supreme Court in this instance. And failing which, to beg the army chief and/or the President of Pakistan for clemency. Will he have to do all this personally, without help?
India, officially ruled out of the action, cannot do the knee-bending, even if it wanted to. It can only exert diplomatic, back-channel and internationally orchestrated pressure, to resolve the matter and get Jadhav returned home.
That it may not even have 40 days, should the Pakistan army decide to hang Jadhav in a hurry, is also a matter of no little concern.
And since the primary effort at the moment is to save Jadhav’s life and secure his return, all other options on retaliation are necessarily on the back-burner.
Meanwhile, scrambling already for legitimacy in the face of the hue and cry raised by India, Pakistan is trying to retrofit Jadhav’s name with that of a minor Balochi mafia don it has been holding in custody for even longer. However, internationally, even spies are tried in the civil courts during peacetime, and guaranteed “due process”. This is a bit of a Pakistani PR problem, but the uniforms seem determined to ignore it. The use of a military court in this instance and the death sentence might also, some suggest, be a desire to urgently swap Jadhav with some of their assets languishing in Indian jails. But going by the past, the Pakistanis are not very keen on claiming any nationals caught on the Indian side for any reason.
In this context, more fevered theories include the notion that India may, or may not have, spirited a former ISI Lt Colonel out of Pakistan into Nepal and thence from Kathmandu to Lumbini and finally into its “non-state actor” clutches across the Indian border. Is this man for questioning, or trading, if we really do have him? Does he have anything to say and does Pakistan care? The US/USSR Cold War parallels may be vastly overblown here.
The manner of the doings with Jadhav certainly reiterates the point that it is the army, at Rawalpindi, and not the political dispensation, at Islamabad, that truly runs the country. And the Pakistan army, as usual, wishes to maintain its visceral hatred for India unchanged in order to maintain its domestic ascendancy.