What’s It Really Like to Be a Spy?

Outlook’s in-depth story on the black hole of spying 

Recruited as spies by various intel agencies, these poor men risk everything under cover in Pakistan—only to be abandoned when they are caught

She received a letter from her husband Om Prakash in 2005 from a jail in Rawalpindi. Another letter and some photos arrived in 2012 from PoK. She has no idea how he might have spent time in PoK. Taunts from relatives and neighbours have made life hell, she says.

Is Kulbhushan Yadav alias Hussein Mubarak Patel an Indian spy held in Pakistan? Or is he a former Ind­ian navy officer who took premature retirement, set up a business in Iran, and was ‘abducted’ by the ISI to strengthen its allegation of an ‘Indian hand’ in its troubles in Balochistan? As Yadav’s alleged confession on camera is debated hotly, with Indian agencies denying any connection with him, many former Indian ‘spies’ say they are not surprised. Giving their own example, they say spies who get caught are routinely disowned by their recruiting agencies.

Possibly the two exceptions, they say, were Sarabjit Singh and Chamel Singh. A film on Sarabjit, who died in 2013 after being attacked by other inmates at the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, is due for release this year, and Narendra Modi had made Chamel Singh’s death, in the same jail, an issue during his 2014 election campaign. At the ‘lalkar rally’ in Jammu, he had highlighted how the the death of Sarabjit had got media attention but that of Jammu native Chamel Singh hadn’t. The BJP had demanded that the UPA government pay his family Rs 1.25 crore in compensation; party MP Avinash Rai Khanna had paid Chamel Singh’s family Rs 3 lakh and sought martyr status for him.

But the lot of spies is the same, whatever party is in government: since Modi was elected prime minister, no one from the BJP has visited the family, Chamel Singh’s widow Kamlesh Devi says. She recounts how he went missing on December 22, 2008. Eventually, the family, which lives barely three kilometres from the international border, received a letter from him. He is said to have died on January 15, 2013, and his battered body was handed over to the Indian authorities after 57 days. His son Deepak, aged 22, says, “In J&K, the government has a rehabilitation policy for surrendered militants as well as youths who throw stones at security forces, raising anti-India slogans. But it doesn’t recognise the sacrifices of people like my father.”

Harbans Lal, 65
Claims to have acted as a guide to several younger boys who sneaked into Pakistan. In a Pakistani prison he was shown containers with the ashes of Ind­ian spies who died there. He now suffers a deep sense of betrayal and says he feels like slitting his veins with a razor.


Anonymity is par for the course in espionage: spies seldom receive gallantry awards or gun-salutes. But governments elsewhere are known to compensate spies adequately for the risk and trouble. The story in J&K is different. Poor, barely educated locals, recruited for their knowledge of the region, its language and its customs, are pushed into spying, often with a few thousand rupees and patriotic fervour as inducement. When caught, the state blandly rejects them—and it hurts.

With India and Pakistan, spy stories—including denials and tit-for-tat actions­—play out along parallel lines. Soon after Sarabjeet Singh and Chamel Singh were beaten to death in Kot Lakhpat, a repeat played out at the Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu. A former soldier convicted for murder killed Sanaullah Haq, a Pakistani imprisoned for “spying and subversive activities”, in a retaliatory attack. “I felt sad about Sanaullah,” says Vinod Sawni, who had rushed to the hospital to enquire about him. Sawni is a former Indian spy, who now runs the Desh Premi Fast Food Corner near Jammu bus stand and is president of the Jammu Ex-Sleuths Association, which works for the welfare of former Indian spies and their families. “People like us are but pawns,” he philosophises. He has recently completed a book on the work he did spying for India in Pakistan and his days in jail. He is looking for a publisher.

Swarn Lal, 53
He claims to have illegally crossed over to Pakistan 120 times on behalf of intel agencies. Says he has spent 15 years in Pakistani prisons, and complains that relatives and police are conniving to grab his house by framing him in false cases and describing him as a Pakistani.

He claims to have illegally crossed over to Pakistan 120 times on behalf of intel agencies. Says he has spent 15 years in Pakistani prisons, and complains that relatives and police are conniving to grab his house by framing him in false cases and describing him as a Pakistani.

“It’s usually semi-literate or unlettered youth who get sucked into spying, driven by acute poverty at home and romantic ideas of patriotism. When they get rec­ruited, they are generally promised a good deal. If perchance they get caught, the agencies disown them, declaring them trespassers, illegal entrants, smugglers and fishermen,” he says. And indeed, smugglers and fishermen (especially in regions like Kutch and the Gujarat coast) are coopted into espionage by agencies on both sides. Some are blackmailed into it.

Vinod Sawni 66
Operating a fast food counter at the Jammu bus stand, he claims to be president of  an association of former spies who worked for Indian agencies. He has written a book on the time he spent in Pakistani prisons and is looking for a publisher. “We are but pawns,” he says.

Sawni says he was a 22-year-old taxi-driver when he was lured by the BSF’s intelligence wing. “My local guide in Pakistan, who I suspect was a double agent, betrayed me. After serving a 12-year jail term, I returned in March 1988 during an exchange of prisoners,” he says. “Getting on with life was not easy. It took 20 years to set up a small kiosk for a living. But this too was demolished by the Jammu Municipal Corporation last year. I observed a fast-until-death for 18 days and eventually the divisional commissioner ordered the civic body to reconstruct my shop at the same site.”

Sawni was lucky. Many of the spies tortured in Pakistani prisons have returned as physical and mental wrecks. Raj Kumar of R.S. Pura has no recollection whatsoever of his past–of being a spy, being caught, jailed and returning to India. Living now with his family at their house, which is near a cremation ground, he just keeps staring at the bodies being brought there to be burned. His sister Kanta Devi speaks of how the family had taken him for dead for a long time and had his last rites performed.

Swarn Lal, 53, claims to have illegally crossed to Pakistan to spy for India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) no less than 120 times. “My job was to take pictures of certain places and send them to the agency,” he says. “My recruiter was a distant relative. He knew I had a penchant for spy novels and was very patriotic. By the time I came back, he had retired and advised me to remain silent… My wife had to sell vegetables on the streets to run the family when I was in jail.”

Read more at Outlook


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