Why we need a Spy Exchange Program

One of the oldest treatises of conducting diplomatic affairs in the subcontinent propounded by Chanakya is that of Sama, Dana or Dama, Danda and Bheda. Chanakya also highlighted the importance of maintaining an extensive machinery of espionage under Bheda. The expansive networks of spies were to bring the necessary information of the affairs of the kingdom and of the neighbouring ones. He details more than 29 types of cover that could be exploited to extract information. But what if the cover is blown?

In those days citizenship was a lucid concept and the king was only as much responsible for the well-beings of his subjects as his faith in the scriptures. There was no need to go the extra mile for securing the release of the ones that got caught or arrested. However, with the creation of nation-state and the emergence of the idea of citizenship the state responsibility for its subjects underwent a tectonic shift, coupled with this was the establishment of ministries of external affairs and state-sponsored spying agencies. Both of these affirmed the fact that the Westphalian order was a mirage and states were actively involved in the internal affair of the others. The activities of famous spy agencies like CIA, KGB and Mossad routinely made headlines that were hard to refute.

If the cover was blown, the mere refusal to acknowledge the involvement meant that the involved agents went to the gallows and initiated a vicious cycle of retribution. During the cold war, the two superpowers were quick to realise this and initiated several spies exchange programs. The most notable of them was converted into a motion picture starring Tom hanks in Bridge of spies. The bridge over which Rudolf Abel, the soviet spy and Gary Powers, his American counterpart were exchanged, were to witness numerous such exchanges. In 1985, Marian Zacharski, the soviet spymaster caught in the US was released in exchange for 25 of their agents. In 1986, for the grand finale of exchanges, the Glienicke Bridge saw Anatoly Shcharansky, a spy-activist, crossing the bridge to West Berlin in a Mercedes and Karl and Hana Koecher enter the Soviet Union after having pleaded guilty to espionage in 1984. Similar exchanges were also carried out between Britain and the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, however, the spies of the sub-continent haven’t had a similar fate. Ravindra Kaushik, the Indian spy-master on which Ek tha tiger is loosely based, had his cover blown and died languishing in the jails of Pakistan. Since Bodh Raj, a Pakistani spy caught in Samba Sector (in northern Kashmir, witnessed the notorious Samba spy scandal in the 1980s) over 50 odd spies have been caught, quite unlikely ever to be released. To add to that the missing 54 prisoners of 1971 war haven’t yet been released despite photographic evidence of them being held in Pakistani prisons.

Kulbhushan Jhadav is one of the countless such officers who had to be abandoned due to the lack such mutual agreements between the two nations for exchanging prisoners and spies. Although the government has issued a demarche to Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit for the wrongful conviction of an Indian citizen, the Sarabjit episode reflects that it is unlikely to yield any fruitful results. The need of the hour is to have a functioning back-channel diplomatic program through which the caught spies are exchanged without the loss of life. Meanwhile, the Pakistani authorities have denied consular level access to him contrary the international law despite requests being made 13 times in the past year.  Clearly, any such tacit agreement is years away if not decades.


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