reportage

Team of Rivals

How the strange case of an alleged mole at the High Commission in Pakistan revealed a turf war between two of India’s own intelligence agencies

By KRISHN KAUSHIK | 1 August 2012

IN EARLY SPRING 2010, a few of the most powerful men in the Indian security establishment sat down for a special meeting at the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. The list of participants had been deliberately kept to a minimum to ensure there would be no leaks: the head of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), KC Verma; the Home Secretary, GK Pillai; and the director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Rajiv Mathur, along with one of his officers.

This gathering was not the routine morning meeting that P Chidambaram had instituted when he took over the home ministry in November 2008—an hour-long daily briefing on intelligence and internal security with the director of Intelligence Bureau (DIB), the national security adviser (NSA), the home secretary and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. (The R&AW chief, who bears the cabinet title Secretary (Research) rarely attends meetings at the home ministry.) Chidambaram was not invited to this meeting, and there was only one item on the agenda: the Bureau had discovered a mole inside the Indian High Commission in Pakistan.

A few weeks earlier, the DIB had informed the home secretary that the Intelligence Bureau had placed an Indian diplomat in Islamabad under surveillance after suspicions had arisen that she was passing classified material to Pakistani intelligence. Nothing was recorded in writing, and the details of the operation had not been shared with anyone outside the IB.

It is not uncommon for government officials with access to strategic information, inside the country and at missions abroad, to be put under counterintelligence surveillance for a few weeks, or even months, at a time; in most cases, nothing turns up. But in this case, the suspicion persisted as the investigation continued, and news of the “spy” in Islamabad made its way from Pakistan to the desk of the DIB.

It had been less than a year and a half since Pakistani terrorists killed more than 160 people in a bloody attack on Mumbai that unfolded live on television for three excruciating days and deeply embarrassed the Indian intelligence establishment. The insistent calls for war in the wake of the attack had faded, but India was still seething, and another intelligence failure would inflict grave damage to the battered reputations of IB and R&AW.

According to a person privy to the details of the meeting, Mathur told Pillai and Verma that IB was almost certain there was indeed a mole inside the High Commission—a low-ranking diplomat named Madhuri Gupta. But the investigators had not yet confirmed the nature and extent of the information being passed to Pakistani intelligence; nor had they determined whether Gupta had any accomplices inside the High Commission. A sudden move to arrest her would alert any other involved parties who had thus far escaped detection, so it was decided that the surveillance should continue for two or three weeks—at which point Gupta could be quietly summoned back to India by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), whose officials had not been informed of the investigation. For a few more weeks, at least, the operation would remain a closely guarded secret: nobody else in India knew, and nobody in Islamabad was to be informed.

While Gupta remained under surveillance, the person familiar with the operation told me, false information was planted in channels to which she had access—like a tag whose movements could be tracked. If Indian sources inside Pakistan confirmed that the counterfeit information had arrived, the leak could be traced back to Gupta.

In the world of intelligence, where suspicion cloaks every transaction, careful steps must be taken to corroborate accusations of betrayal before taking action against the guilty party. But as several retired intelligence chiefs explained, there is no standard protocol for undertaking such investigations—no single solution that fits all possible problems. Counterintelligence is like quantum mechanics: if you’ve located the particle, its speed will change; if you think you’ve found the perfect solution, the problem has changed.

When the home secretary, DIB and Secretary (R) were told that Gupta’s leaks had been confirmed, the home ministry asked the MEA to summon her back to India. Under the pretence that Gupta needed to report to Delhi to consult on preparations for an upcoming summit in Thimpu at the end of April for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an official order was issued requesting her return.

On 21 April 2010, Gupta flew from Lahore to Delhi on Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-270, the only direct connection between the two cities, and spent the night in her home in West Delhi. The following morning, she reported to the MEA offices in South Block, where she had been asked to attend a meeting with an additional secretary, Ashok Tomar. Outside Tomar’s office, unaware of the charges against her, she chatted with a few colleagues she had worked with in her 27 years as an MEA official. But when she was called into Tomar’s office for what she thought was a briefing for officials attending the Thimpu summit, she was met by Tomar, a joint secretary in MEA named Gaitri Kumar and three men from the IB.

Tomar placed a call to the Special Cell of Delhi Police, who had already been informed of the case. He asked them to come and arrest Madhuri Gupta, a Grade B Indian Foreign Services official and second secretary in the press and information wing at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, suspected of passing sensitive official information to agents of Pakistani intelligence.

Gupta was taken into custody, and formally placed under arrest early the following morning, on 23 April. The case remained secret for the next few days, while Gupta was interrogated in police custody—until 27 April, when police and security officials began to leak the news of Gupta’s arrest to reporters, and news agencies carried the “sensational revelation” that an Indian diplomat in Islamabad had passed “extremely sensitive information to her contacts in ISI till her movements came under surveillance of Intelligence Bureau sleuths”. But the first reports, based on “official sources”, contained an even more sensational accusation: that the R&AW station chief in Islamabad, RK Sharma, who was posted as a counselor at the High Commission, had also come under suspicion, for “allegedly abusing his position and passing information to Gupta”. The name and designation of India’s top intelligence officer in Pakistan were broadcast far and wide: Sharma’s official cover in Islamabad had been blown by his own country, a move that seemed certain to damage R&AW operations in Pakistan and bring his assignment to a swift and ignominious end.

But the leaks did not end there: in the weeks that followed, details of Gupta’s interrogation poured into the press, painting a lurid and occasionally contradictory picture of her character and motivations. She had passed information to Pakistan “willingly and without any financial benefit” to “teach a lesson” to her “arrogant” seniors in the MEA, according to some reports, which suggested she had “an endless litany of complaints” against the ministry and felt “deprived of recognition”. Unidentified sources claimed she had brazenly taunted the security officials who arrested her, asking, “What took you so long to get me?”

Other reports suggested she had been handsomely compensated for her services to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and that “a healthy cash balance” in her bank accounts was being investigated. Still further reports portrayed the unmarried 53-year-old as a lonely spinster who had been lured into a romantic liaison with a Pakistani agent—who had even dispatched her to Jammu and Kashmir to obtain information about India’s development plans there. A correspondent in Islamabad who had interacted with Gupta reported that she could appear “brash and fearless”, and quoted her boasting that she would soon receive a “plum diplomatic posting” in London or Washington.

Or perhaps, as the headline of another report on 29 April suggested, “Madhuri Gupta may have embraced Islam”—and secretly become a Shia Muslim six years earlier. That same day, a presenter on Aaj Tak introduced a special segment titled “Mohabbat mein deshdroh”—Treason for Love—that described how the “traitor” had fallen into a “honeytrap” set by Pakistani intelligence. By 8 May, an article in Mail Today sketched a dubious past for Gupta, claiming that “her senior officers had been suspicious about her conduct as far back as 1983” and citing her “excessive drinking” while working as a press officer at a summit that year—while another national newspaper reported that Gupta, who supposedly confessed to all charges under interrogation, had since claimed in court that she had been framed.

More than two years later, little more has been revealed about the strange case of Madhuri Gupta, whose trial finally began in a Delhi courtroom earlier this year. The initial narrative that unfolded in the media, of a disgruntled spinster-turned-spy, spilling state secrets for love or money or revenge—perhaps with the assistance, witting or unwitting, of the R&AW station chief—appeared to have come from the officials that investigated the case in the IB and Ministry of Home Affairs. The fact that RK Sharma’s identity had been leaked as well, however, suggested there might be a bigger story that had gone untold: one that had little to do with Madhuri Gupta, but instead revealed a bitter turf war that had played out inside the Indian High Commission in Pakistan, which pitted officers of India’s two civilian intelligence agencies against one another.

TWO

THE TRIAL OF MADHURI GUPTA began on the morning of 22 March 2012, almost two years after she was first taken into police custody. She had been jailed until January of this year, when she was formally charged with violating two sections of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923—an offence which carries a maximum three-year sentence—and released on bail, having already served 21 months in Tihar Jail waiting for a trial.

Shortly before 10 am, Gupta was chatting amiably with the policeman on duty inside courtroom number 17 at North Delhi’s Tis Hazari Courts Complex. Home to about 400 courtrooms, the complex is among the largest of its kind in Asia, a series of imposing concrete slabs built in the 1950s and now painted a dull yellow. Abuzz with solicitous lawyers trying to sell their services to prospective clients, and suffused with the odour of a slightly clean public toilet, the place presents a dim picture of the depressing realities of justice at work.

Pawan Kumar Jain, the additional sessions judge who chairs court number 17 and frequently handles OSA cases, was not present, so there would be no hearing; but Gupta, still out on bail, was required to report herself to the court. She was wearing a henna-green suit, and her straight black hair, neatly parted in the middle, fell just below her chin. Gupta has a round face, with dark, broad lips and a small, flat nose. She appeared to have lost a little weight in the two years since her arrest, when pictures of a short and heavyset older woman, splashed across newspapers and television broadcasts, invited sneering insinuations about her vulnerability to the romantic attention of her alleged ISI handlers.

I had been trying to meet Gupta for more than a month. After I went to her house in Vikaspuri, in mid-February, and left a note with her servant, a grey-haired man named Narayan Singh who insisted Gupta was not at home, she responded with a single email refusing my request for an interview. “You will kindly appreciate that this is hardly the time for any ‘story’—the matter being sub judice,” Gupta wrote, adding that she was “seized with numerous problems of survival”. “Please have some mercy on me and kindly leave me alone,” she concluded.

Inside the courtroom, I introduced myself to Gupta, and tried once again to convince her to talk. She smiled, and confidently declined my request. “I have a great story,” she said. “Why will I give it to you? I will write a book on it when the case finishes.” She had already begun writing another book, she said, about the substandard conditions for female prisoners at Tihar Jail. She would say nothing further, she insisted—though when I asked her about her experience in Pakistan, she gave a quick reply: “I had a great time.”

The trial began in earnest the following day: the judge was now present, along with Pankaj Sood, the investigating officer in the case, and a few other constables from the Special Cell of Delhi Police. Gupta, wearing another green suit, sat confidently at the front of the courtroom, but the public prosecutor was absent, as were all four of the summoned witnesses from the MEA: Ashok Tomar, the complainant in the case; TS Tirumurti and Gaitri Kumar, both joint secretaries in the MEA who had been present for Gupta’s initial interrogation; and RK Tyagi, now the ambassador to Norway, who had in 2010 headed the department that analysed the contents of the emails Gupta was alleged to have sent to her handlers.

According to the charge sheet filed in the case in 2010, 73 emails—19 received, and 54 sent, totaling more than 300 printed pages—had been recovered from the email account atlastrao@gmail.com, which Gupta had used to correspond with her Pakistani handlers. Special Cell had asked the MEA to analyse these emails, and the charge sheet records the opinion of RK Tyagi, filed in May 2010, that they contained information “classified as secret” or “of classified nature”; that this information “can be prejudicial to the safety, security and interest of the state”; and that the information “is connected with security and defence matters of the country”, which “can be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy country”. As proof that Gupta had indeed sent these emails, the charge sheet cites her confession along with a message on her BlackBerry confirming it had been set up to use this particular email account, though the charge sheet does not show any attempt to match the IP addresses of the emails with Gupta’s home or office computers in Islamabad.

A few weeks before the trial began, I had gone to interview Pankaj Sood, who had recently been posted as an inspector at the Old Police Lines police station, just opposite the court complex. After he had arrested Gupta in April 2010, he said, she had been placed under interrogation for 14 to 16 hours each day for a week—which included questioning by officials from MEA, R&AW and IB. According to Sood, Gupta was immediately cooperative: she willingly disclosed the details of her email account (including its amateurish password, her date of birth) and the accounts used by her Pakistani handlers, and admitted that she had agreed to pass them any information she could obtain at the High Commission.

“She told everything she knew,” Sood said several times, though he added that she had also attempted to implicate another Indian official—a man named Sanjay Mathur, who had been the chief IB officer in Pakistan, and whom Gupta alleged had introduced her to the sources in Pakistani intelligence. “But there was no evidence against him,” Sood said.

During her interrogation, Sood continued, she admitted that the email account had been created for her by Mubshar Raza Rana, identified in the charge sheet as one of two “officials of Pakistani intelligence agencies” to whom she had sent information, after being introduced to Rana and another man, identified only as Jamshed, by a Pakistani journalist named Javed Rasheed, early in 2009. “She told them everything she knew, or could find,” Sood said. When I asked him about the nature of the information she had disclosed, he said she had blown the covers of all the Indian intelligence officials in Pakistan, disclosed biographical details for every employee at the High Commission, and also mentioned the existence of “some secret routes to India”.

But Gupta’s lawyer, Joginder Dahiya, was one of several people who suggested that the contents of the emails were distinctly unsensational. “These emails are the backbone of their case,” Dahiya told me. “But what is in those emails? It’s trivial stuff.” Though she had been given the designation of a second secretary in the High Commission, this was essentially an acknowledgement of her long service as an IFS grade B officer—a second-tier rank of the foreign service that consists of support staff for the higher-ranking IFS cadre. As a translator, her duties consisted of monitoring the Urdu media; she was responsible for preparing two daily dossiers summarising and interpreting developments from the Urdu press. In other words, information flowed from Gupta to the senior staff, and not in the other direction.

During my interviews with more than a half-dozen former R&AW and IB chiefs, and another half-dozen retired secretary-level intelligence officials, there was unanimous skepticism regarding the gravity of the information Gupta had allegedly leaked. B Raman, a former additional secretary in R&AW, pointed to Gupta’s position as a second secretary in the information and press division, suggesting that she would not have any access to classified information. “I have seen what kind of work these guys do,” Raman said. One former head of R&AW responded similarly, arguing that while Gupta was “made to look like the spy of the century”, she could not have passed anything but “very low-end type stuff”. A Member of Parliament who had visited the High Commission since Gupta’s arrest said that when he had inquired about the case, he was likewise informed that she had no access to substantial information, and therefore her disclosures had caused minimal damage.

From these accounts, the information Gupta is accused of leaking to Pakistani intelligence seemed to fit with what B Raman had separately described to me as “Whisky-Soda conversation”—who’s who in the High Commission, who’s coming and who’s going; essentially, gossip and administrative details of the sort that might be exchanged over dinner or drinks. Leaked information, Raman explained, could be classified into three categories of escalating severity: whiskey-soda talk, official reports and documents, and worst of all, cipher codes, which would allow a rival agency to obtain access to encrypted communications. Along similar lines, numerous former retired officers of IB and R&AW described a hierarchical classification of possible sources: acquaintances and friends, casual or regular contacts, casual or regular sources, and finally full-scale assets. Though an acquaintance might share low-level information of the whisky-soda variety, access to classified material or cipher codes typically involves a full-scale asset, who would be compensated accordingly for his services.

A person who passes information to another intelligence agency, I was told by one former IB officer, can do so knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly or unwittingly, and willingly or unwillingly. And to knowingly, wittingly and willingly reveal secret information to an “enemy state” requires strong incentives. Money is the most common and effective motivation, another former R&AW chief told me, but “sex, blackmail, revenge and ideology are also strong players”. Sex, he added, is often a hook that leads in turn to blackmail, which can be used as leverage to extract further information.

In terms of the above classifications, the charge sheet depicts Gupta as a full-scale asset who passed sensitive official information—and her motivation, according to the prosecution’s case, was love. “They threw a young man at her and she got trapped,” Pankaj Sood said. One of Gupta’s two handlers, known only as Jamshed, was a younger man, about 30, whose job was to romance the older single woman, and thereby obtain information from the High Commission. “The main thing is, she was caught in a honeytrap. That’s it,” Sood concluded.

To this end, the charge sheet contains the contents of only one email allegedly sent by Gupta, dated 3 October 2009, which is intended to provide evidence of her romantic entanglement. It is a message from “Javeria” to “Sultana”—Gupta and her handler Rana, according to the prosecution—that laments the end of her relationship with “Jim”, supposedly an alias for Jamshed.

“I know that you tried your best and I shall always remember your kindness,” the email begins:

but it’s final goodbye to all of you because Jim has also said his final goodbye to me. He has a lot of complaints against me that he is under a lot of pressure but I am doing nothing for him; that I do what I want, that I don’t listen to him; I have changed and I am bewafa [disloyal], and so on. I have done my best for him and for his sake but he treats me like a dog. He has position. Till we are married and till I am in the present job I have to behave and live accordingly but Jim has strong objection to my socializing with any Pakistani. Why does he have such a poor opinion of his own people? In any job that I take up this attitude of Jim will be a big hurdle. I am not used to just sitting at home in purdah. After marriage he will neither socialize himself nor let me socialize with anyone.

So it is better that we part our ways. He told me to find my own way and Inshallah I will find my own way.

Please convery my thanks and goodbye to your senior doctors. Tell Jim ki Pakistani ko aazma ke dekh liya. [Now I know what a Pakistani man is like.]

I shall find some way to return your SIM cards.

Please do not try to contact me otherwise I shall be happy to leave this place for ever within a week. Jim has already said that he would be very happy if I left today instead of tomorrow. He asked me to leave him alone and I am happy to do at least one thing that he wants me to do.

Regards,

Javeria

Though the email provides a putative motive for her spying, it simultaneously suggests a volatile relationship between Gupta and one of her ostensible handlers: if Jamshed-Jim had successfully cultivated a source inside the Indian diplomatic mission by feigning love, why would he push her away? And why, as has been alleged, would Gupta continue to provide information to Jamshed or Rana?

A retired senior intelligence official familiar with the details of Gupta’s case admitted that it would be highly unusual for a handler to risk losing a source with such erratic behavior, but insisted that she had broken down and confessed to the charges against her. “When I saw the initial reports,” he said, “I asked, how are they going to prove in a court of law that she had sent those emails? Where is the proof? All she had to do was keep her mouth shut, but she confessed she was in love with the guy.” Though Gupta “said she was a spy”, the official told me, he had seen the emails and “there was nothing secret about them”. Gupta, he suggested, had probably attempted to pass off routine information as classified to impress her handlers. “I can write secret on the top of a file and give it, but that doesn’t make it a secret. I don’t think it fooled the Pakistanis even for a day.”

Gupta’s lawyer, Dahiya, told me that his client was being framed, though he refused to say whether he intended to contest her authorship of the emails described in the charge sheet. Gupta, he argued, “was a victim of a fight between IB and R&AW”. The retired senior intelligence official dismissed any suggestion that Gupta was innocent—citing her confession—but he indicated that Dahiya might be partially correct. “Yes, there was a turf war,” he told me. “There was a lot of unpleasantness at that time”—unpleasantness that included leaking the identity of RK Sharma, R&AW’s top man in Pakistan, to the media. “His name was muddied in the papers, that he was involved,” the official said. “That’s total fiction.” I asked him if the leaks had come from IB, as Gupta’s lawyer had suggested. “I can’t confirm it,” he said, “and I can’t deny it.”

THREE

ABOUT TWO WEEKS after the first sensational stories of Gupta’s arrest began to appear in the media at the end of April 2010, two high-ranking retired officials from the MEA and R&AW hinted publicly that the torrent of information leaked to the media was far out of proportion to the significance of the case. “We normally don’t talk about such things,” the former R&AW chief Vikram Sood told a national newspaper. “I am surprised by the hype surrounding this case. We are making a spectacle of ourselves in front of the world.” In the same article, G Parthasarthy, the former high commissioner in Pakistan, directly raised the prospect that the media reports were evidence of a turf war between the Indian intelligence agencies. “The leaks were unseemly and unnecessary. They’ve left a clear impression that this was a case of IB and R&AW trying to settle scores with each other.”

All of the former intelligence officials I spoke with—including the retired R&AW and IB chiefs—confirmed that there have been occasional outbreaks of conflict between the two agencies, though every man was quick to add that this was hardly a phenomenon unique to India, usually by citing the well-publicised disputes between the American Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency. “These things happen,” I was told by a retired high-level home ministry bureaucrat, who said that when R&AW and IB officers come face-to-face overseas, bitter rivalries sometimes result. “Maybe one guy is smarter than the other guy—he gets more information. The other guy doesn’t get as much, so then his boss might call up and say, ‘The other agency tells me all this is happening, but you haven’t given me a thing.’ After you get a few of these calls, you might go to the other guy’s turf to get the information next time.”

One former R&AW chief, who stressed that turf wars between IB and R&AW were not widespread, said they were usually caused by competition over information—or the sources who provide it. Officers in the field, he said, are protective, or even possessive, of the sources they’ve cultivated; if one guy feels his agent is being threatened by the other guy, a fight may break out. “Sometimes there can be clashes,” he said. “In an ideal situation, it should not happen.”

Another retired R&AW official, however, insisted that conflicts of this sort were far more common than the intelligence chiefs admit. “These things happen very often,” he told me. “There are hundreds of cases. The synergy in the outside missions is just not there.” It was a conflict of precisely this sort, he said, that had transpired at the High Commission in Islamabad—and which led, after Gupta’s arrest, to the leaks that blew RK Sharma’s cover. “It was a turf war, and there was a problem,” the official told me. “Gupta was working under RK Sharma, but that was it. He never involved her in any of his operations. This guy Sanjay Mathur wanted to implicate Sharma—he said that Gupta was some sort of conduit between R&AW and ISI. But the theory did not stick.”

The name of Mathur, who had been the top IB officer at the High Commission in Islamabad, was first mentioned to me by Pankaj Sood, the Delhi Police inspector who led the Madhuri Gupta investigation. During her interrogation, Sood had said, Gupta attempted to implicate Mathur, claiming that he had introduced her to Javed Rasheed, the Pakistani journalist identified in the charge sheet as the initial link between Gupta and her handlers.

Mathur had been Gupta’s boss in the press and information wing at the High Commission, where he served as first secretary and spokesman—his diplomatic cover—from 2006 until he returned to India in 2009. According to a diplomat posted to Islamabad at around the same time, Mathur, then 38, seemed to have a cordial professional relationship with his much older subordinate. Relations between Mathur and Sharma—both Indian Police Service officers—had appeared to be similarly amicable since Sharma joined the mission under diplomatic cover as the economic and commercial counselor in early 2008. Sharma and Gupta, roughly the same age, had a closer friendship; Sharma and his wife occasionally dined with Gupta, the diplomat said, and she had a habit of walking into his office without knocking, even if Sharma had guests.

For the two intelligence men, Islamabad presented considerable pressure and not much excitement. Contrary to the public’s imagination of death-defying operations behind enemy lines, the life of an Indian spy in Pakistan’s capital is more Veer Zaara than Agent Vinod. “People don’t want to go to Pakistan,” a retired senior R&AW official told me. “Nobody is willing to go, but you don’t need the brightest person—we just need a body there, being present and observing the country and the politics.”

Indian officials and their families in Pakistan are tailed around the clock by Pakistani intelligence, making it impossible to run operations from inside the country. But in the capital, even the ordinary work of intelligence gathering is a challenge. “The problem with Islamabad is that it is a very very sterile diplomatic town,” another retired R&AW official said. “You don’t meet the general public. There is no interaction. The more people you know, the more chances of raising sources—and if you cannot meet anybody it’s difficult.”

Both Mathur and Sharma hosted occasional parties at home, like many diplomats; invites went out to journalists, politicians, academics, army officers, businessmen and other local elites. But most of the usual party crowd—even those who attended other diplomatic events—tended to steer clear of Indian intelligence officers, whose diplomatic covers are almost always a poorly-kept secret. Any prominent person who wished to avoid the unwelcome attention of Pakistani intelligence wouldn’t think of mingling with Mathur or Sharma—which meant that anyone who did mingle was either of little interest, or already well-acquainted with the ISI. One acquaintance of Mathur’s said he sometimes lamented aloud that anyone willing to attend these gatherings had almost certainly obtained clearance from Pakistani intelligence before arriving.

It’s not clear if Javed Rasheed, a senior correspondent with the Urdu daily Jang, attended any parties thrown by Mathur or Sharma, but his presence would not have been a great surprise. As the high commission’s official point of contact with local media, Mathur dealt with many journalists—including Rasheed, whose beat includes covering India and terrorism. When I called Rasheed in May, he told me that he had visited India about a dozen times in the past three decades—and met various eminent political leaders: “Kalam sahib, Advani, Sonia Gandhi, Mulayam Singh, Ram Jethmalani…”

Rasheed confirmed that he knew Mathur: “We were friends,” he said. “I had been to his house a few times.” He had met Madhuri Gupta, he said, but they were only casually acquainted. Asked about the other men named in the charge sheet as Gupta’s handlers, Mubshar Raza Rana and Jamshed, Rasheed said he didn’t know any such men, and hadn’t introduced Gupta to anyone.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26 November 2008, Rasheed had been the only journalist from Pakistan to obtain an Indian visa: he came to Delhi for two or three weeks in December 2008, he said, and filed dispatches for his paper on the escalating tension between India and Pakistan. But he did not come on a journalist visa, he admitted: Mathur, who headed the press and information wing in Islamabad, helped him secure a “blood relation” visa, intended for Indians and Pakistanis visiting family members, though Rasheed confessed he did not actually have any relatives in India. “Without the help of the press secretary in the Indian High Commission, it’s impossible to come to India,” Rasheed explained.

Though Rasheed denied that he had any connections to the intelligence agencies of either country—“I do not do any work related to intelligence or anything of that sort,” he said—putting together all the details he described in our interview would appear to suggest otherwise. Like many other well-connected reporters in India and Pakistan, Rasheed seemed to occupy a grey area between intelligence work and journalism.

Rasheed had made repeated visits to India, which two former R&AW officials suggested would be unlikely—though not impossible—without the blessing of ISI. But he had also had frequent interactions with Sanjay Mathur, who had said himself that any Pakistani who approached him had obtained clearance to do so from the country’s intelligence agencies. The fact that Mathur, who could not have ignored his own maxim, had arranged an Indian visa for Rasheed under a false pretext, at an extremely volatile moment in India-Pakistan relations—a decision that could not have been taken without consent from the home ministry—cannot but present the impression that Mathur or the IB regarded Rasheed as a valued source.

For the past several years, however, Rasheed’s visa requests have been summarily denied. By the time he filed for another visa a few months after returning from his post-26/11 trip, a new high commissioner, Sharath Sabharwal, had arrived in Islamabad—and his friend Mathur had been prematurely called back to India, five months before his anticipated departure and without any successor in place. The reason for Mathur’s unexpected exit was openly discussed inside the High Commission, according to two sources who were then posted in Islamabad: Mathur, they said, had been sexually involved with his domestic help, a young Pakistani woman. Mathur’s lapse rendered him vulnerable to exploitation by Pakistani intelligence—fatally compromising his continued service to the IB in Islamabad. Shortly after Sabharwal arrived, Mathur confessed, and was promptly sent back to India.

Mathur has since been returned to his IPS cadre in Tamil Nadu, where he was appointed police commissioner of Madurai earlier this year. Contacted by phone, Mathur confirmed that he had been posted in Pakistan until April 2009, but declined to comment further; he did not respond to subsequent interview requests. Several of the former R&AW and IB chiefs told me that it was rare for an intelligence officer to be remanded back to their cadre. Without commenting directly on Mathur’s case, the former intelligence heads, who used words like “uncommon” and “unusual”, suggested that similar moves—particularly for an officer previously deemed fit for a sensitive post like Pakistan—were usually a form of punishment or an acknowledgement that the officer had lost the trust or confidence of the agency.

In the wake of Mathur’s sudden departure, which left the IB without a presence at the High Commission, his position as head of the press and information wing was filled by one of the mission’s junior R&AW officers, who had been working under Sharma in the economic division. It was around this time that Javed Rasheed’s repeated visa requests began to be met with unfavourable replies. “The Indian High Commission refuses to even comment why I am not getting a visa,” Rasheed told me. The R&AW officers in the high commission apparently saw no reason to repeat the efforts Mathur had made on Rasheed’s behalf; perhaps Mathur’s unceremonious farewell had cast doubt on his erstwhile contacts. But if the IB had indeed considered Rasheed a worthwhile source, he had now been completely cut off.

When Mathur’s replacement from the IB finally arrived in Islamabad in October 2009, he was not given the post occupied by his predecessor atop the press and information wing, and was instead assigned to a role under Sharma in the economic division. (Though a few of the retired R&AW and IB chiefs suggested that the occasional rotation of diplomatic covers was not necessarily uncommon, most suggested that it was conventional for a new officer to fill the role held by the person they replace.) By this point, the “turf war” inside the High Commission mentioned by multiple retired senior intelligence officials was under way, and R&AW appeared to have the upper hand.

It is still not clear when suspicions about Madhuri Gupta’s conduct were first raised inside the High Commission. But the investigation of her activities, which was conducted by the IB, must have begun between October 2009, when a new IB officer arrived to fill the agency’s vacancy in Islamabad, and early 2010, when Rajiv Mathur, the DIB, first presented its preliminary conclusions to the R&AW chief and home secretary inside North Block a few weeks before Gupta’s arrest.

“This case was the IB’s baby,” a retired senior R&AW official said, and his agency was kept out of the loop until the very end—when they were shocked to see the name of their top man in Pakistan muddied and spattered all over the news.

FOUR

ON A CHILLY WINTER MORNING in Delhi two days before Christmas in 2009, the home minister, P Chidambaram, took the stage in the Plenary Hall of Vigyan Bhawan to deliver the 22nd annual Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture. The 1,200-seat hall was filled to capacity with senior police officers from every state in the country, bureaucrats of joint secretary rank and above, and a number of parliamentarians and cabinet ministers. The national security adviser, MK Narayanan, and the DIB, Rajiv Mathur, were seated on the stage next to Chidambaram.

In slightly more than a year since taking up his new portfolio in the aftermath of 26/11, Chidambaram had moved aggressively to overhaul the home ministry, trumpeting his determination to build a strong central security apparatus. In his speech, whose title promised “A New Architecture for India’s Security”, Chidambaram unveiled his plan to implement a sweeping reorganisation and centralisation of the country’s intelligence services, under the supervision of a newly-created National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC).

The proposed NCTC, whose “logical and natural” place would be under the Ministry of Home Affairs, would assume full responsibility over a handful of smaller agencies, while the “positioning of R&AW, the Aviation and Research Centre and the Central Bureau of Investigation would have to be re-examined”, such that they too came at least partially under the oversight of the NCTC. The disposition of the IB, already under the supervision of the home minister, was conspicuously not discussed. “It is my fervent plea,” Chidambaram added, “that this should not result in turf wars.”

Chidambaram’s speech, however, was itself the latest and most audacious salvo in a turf war of his own—and it was unquestionably acknowledged as such by his rival combatant, MK Narayanan. After sitting through a lecture spiked with thinly veiled criticism of his own leadership, which also proposed to radically diminish the NSA’s role in security policy, Narayanan resolutely walked out of the event he had helped to establish in 1987 during his stint heading the Intelligence Bureau. The walkout was first reported a month later in The Telegraph, which characterised it as “an undisguised revolt by the NSA against the home minister, the culmination of months-long sparring between two of the most powerful men on Raisina Hill”.

“For many months,” the report continued, Chidambaram had “slowly and steadily encroached on Narayanan’s turf”. But the NSA’s silent revolt came far too late. By the end of January 2010, Narayanan had been vanquished to Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, and replaced by Shivshankar Menon, a career diplomat whose status as an outsider to the intelligence apparatus made him a far less formidable rival to Chidambaram.

Before Narayanan’s removal, a Congress MP said, “there was a huge turf war in the current government”, with Chidambaram “trying to take the entire internal security architecture under his wing”—a campaign that culminated with the proposed creation of the NCTC.

When he became home minister in 2008, Chidambaram had introduced a daily hour-long briefing on security issues, which he chaired, to increase coordination and share intelligence between agencies. Narayanan resented what he saw as Chidambaram’s move to appoint himself as “intelligence czar”; the home minister, by contrast, sought to portray Narayanan’s unwillingness to participate as an attempt to avoid accountability and guard his own turf. A retired high-level home ministry bureaucrat told me that Narayanan felt he was entitled to keep his distance from the home ministry. “He preferred to exercise his powers from the back room,” the bureaucrat said. “When he came into the front room, he had to say yes or no; from the back room, you can do things and not be held accountable.”

This was the “old way” of doing things that Chidambaram sought to sweep away while bringing the intelligence architecture under his ministry. But Narayanan had come up through this system over several decades: shutting down the “back room” was essential for Chidambaram, because it would deny Narayanan the upper hand. Though the home minister controlled the IB, Narayanan had been its director, and his deep contacts inside the agency made it easy to bypass Chidambaram. “He had a whole lot of people in the IB who were his subordinates,” the retired bureaucrat said. “You know people by their first names, you can pick up the phone and get information directly.”

Menon, he said, was focused on the big picture and avoided “the nitty-gritty”, unlike Narayanan. “But then, if you have always been doing the nitty-gritty for 35 years, then even if you go out [from intelligence] you want to keep doing that—you don’t want to give the elbow room to the new bosses.”

However unfair, the bureaucrat’s dig at Narayanan may capture a few essential traits of the intelligence community he inhabited: resistance to change, hostility to oversight and a commitment to infighting. For two decades after Independence, the IB, which had been inherited from the Raj, was the country’s only civilian intelligence agency, responsible for both domestic and international espionage. Its notable lack of success in the latter department, widely exposed during the 1962 India-China war, led Indira Gandhi to bifurcate the bureau six years later at the urging of her influential principal secretary, PN Haksar.

The history of infighting between IB and R&AW dates back to the birth of the younger agency. RN Kao, the revered first chief of R&AW, sparred with his counterpart atop the IB, MML Hooja—and within five years of its founding, R&AW could claim victory in the first turf war between the two, after Kao used his considerable influence with Indira Gandhi to have Hooja removed.

The executive order establishing R&AW gave its chief the designation of secretary to the Government of India, answerable only to the prime minister. The R&AW chief had unchecked administrative and operational powers: he could create any post he thought was necessary, and recruit any person he wished to fill it, without any effective oversight. What his right hand created, his left hand nurtured, and R&AW quickly earned a reputation for nepotism, cronyism and corruption; before long it was being called the “Relatives and Associates Wing”.

According to an intelligence expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a government think-tank, the birth of R&AW led directly to efforts by the IB to expand its own authority as well. Once R&AW had been created without the administrative structures that bound the IB, the IDSA expert said, the IB chiefs sought to emulate the example of their counterparts. “The power of R&AW tempted IB to become a clone of R&AW,” he said. “Before R&AW came into being, the director had operational independence, but after R&AW he began to have financial independence as well, and then the IB became an empire like R&AW.”

Both IB and R&AW, in fact, exist in a legal grey area: neither agency was created by an act of Parliament, and there is no law or statute that enumerates their powers and responsibilities, or gives constitutional sanction to their activities. The absence of a statutory basis has several consequences, but the simplest one is that it renders both agencies essentially exempt from legal and parliamentary accountability.

The funding for the intelligence agencies is shrouded in secrecy. The retired intelligence chiefs all declined to answer questions on this matter: a few noted the figure was officially secret, while others insisted even they had no idea about the actual amount—though as one said, “There was never a lack of funds.”

The overall spending for both agencies can be divided into two portions: budgeted expenditures, which cover regular administrative needs like salaries and logistics; and secret service funds, presumably far larger, which cover anything else deemed to be involved in intelligence operations.

In the case of IB, the planned expenditures are allocated directly from the home ministry and listed in the government’s annual budget. (This year’s official figure is R10.73 billion.) For R&AW, however, the budgeted expenditures are drawn from the Cabinet Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, foreign ministry and defence ministry. But even these allotted expenditures are not disclosed in the government’s overall budget or those of the individual ministries, which do not allocate funds directly to R&AW; instead money is withheld from the ministries’ budgets and routed through the Consolidated Fund of India. Though the figures are hidden from the public, this portion of R&AW’s budget is subject to internal audit, like any other government department.

But the real money power that feeds the two behemoths, the IDSA expert said, comes from unaudited secret service funds, whose existence is not reflected in the government’s annual budget. “The government has never explained where the money comes from,” he said. “No question has ever been asked, and no auditing has ever been done.” A few retired intelligence officials and politicians offered me their broad speculative estimates of the total spending each year, which ranged from about R50 billion all the way up to a few trillion rupees. (For the sake of comparison, this year’s defence budget is about R2 trillion.) There is no conceivable way to gauge the accuracy of these figures; for the purposes of analysis, they’re functionally useless. But the stupendous range between the low and high estimates is telling in its own way, as a reminder that even insiders can’t quite grasp the whole picture.

FIVE

AFTER RK SHARMA’S NAME was leaked to the Indian media in conjunction with the case against Madhuri Gupta—blowing his cover, but also hinting that he may have been somehow involved—the expectation was that he would return prematurely to India, just as Sanjay Mathur had done a year earlier. But R&AW officials were confident that Sharma had not been even peripherally involved with Gupta’s alleged disclosures, and were unwilling to lend any credence to the leaks by pulling him back. According to a retired senior intelligence official, they sent one of their own men to join the ongoing interrogation of Gupta, partially to put a stop to any further leaks—and told Sharma he should remain in Pakistan until whenever he wished to return.

Though the details of this particular episode—an accused spy, the public leak of a R&AW officer’s identity—are extraordinary by any standard, most of the retired intelligence officials I met suggested that the increasing overlap between R&AW and IB officers posted abroad made similar future conflicts inevitable. Since the early 1990s, two former IB directors told me, more of their officers have been sent overseas, on the logic that the agency’s responsibility for domestic security will sometimes require the collection of intelligence abroad. “You cannot just say to the other agency, ‘My job stops here, and now you should take over,’” a former R&AW chief told me. Information, he continued, doesn’t obey national borders. As might be expected, the IB’s expanding footprint outside India has not gone over well with R&AW. But it has also displeased the MEA, whose diplomats would prefer fewer, rather than more, intelligence officers in their embassies.

The MEA officials I contacted were unwilling to discuss what had taken place at the High Commission in Islamabad, particularly the charges against Madhuri Gupta. When I called Ashok Tomar, the complainant in the case and a special secretary at MEA, he responded with evident displeasure, and insisted that I could not even report that he had declined to speak. (“All of this is non-attributable,” he said.) Rahul Kulshreshth, who served as the deputy high commissioner in Islamabad during this period, flatly declared that he was now working in a different department, and quickly hung up the phone.

On the second day of Gupta’s trial, back in March of this year, I arrived early at the courtroom to discover Gupta sitting on a bench in the corridor outside, waiting for the hearing to begin. I tried to talk to her once again. She refused to discuss the case, or anything about her time at the High Commission in Islamabad, apart from declaring she was innocent, but allowed me to sit next to her and ask a few questions.

Prior to her assignment in Pakistan, she said, she had been posted in Iraq, Liberia, Malaysia and Croatia. Immediately before moving to Islamabad, she had been sent to the Indian Council of World Affairs in Delhi to serve as an assistant director. She completed her MA History from Delhi University about 10 years earlier; now she was pursuing her PhD, on what she called “the emergence of political systems in medieval Rajasthan”, under the famous historian BD Chattopadhyaya. It was her academic work, Gupta explained, that led to her learning Urdu—which in turn led to her posting in Pakistan. It was a desirable post, she said, because it was not too far away from home; during her time in Islamabad, she frequently made visits back to Delhi, usually driving by herself along the Grand Trunk Road through the border at Wagah. While we talked, Gupta was chewing tobacco; the women in her family, she told me, have had this habit for generations.

She lives alone, she said, in a house built by her parents in the late 1970s. Her mother and father had been teachers, but were both deceased; she has one brother, who lives with his family in the United States. Though her status as a single woman in her 50s had frequently been mentioned in news reports, most often to suggest her vulnerability to the charms of young Pakistani spies, she said she had never felt the need to marry. “I loved my work,” she told me. “I didn’t marry because I was so happy with my job. This was marriage for me.” As she discussed her work in the foreign service—which she would presumably not rejoin, even if acquitted—Gupta went quiet. After about 10 seconds, I heard her sniff, and then noticed a few tears roll down her cheeks. She quickly regained her composure and apologised. A few minutes later, another journalist walked over to ask her some questions, and I got up to walk into the courtroom for the start of the hearing.

The next time I saw Gupta was two months later, when her trial resumed on 6 June. She politely said hello, but it was clear she had no further interest in talking. This was the third hearing in her case. Three witnesses from MEA named in the charge sheet, including Ashok Tomar—from whose office Gupta had been arrested—were now present in the court after having skipped the first two dates. A few minutes before the proceedings began, Tomar spotted me taking notes, and told the head constable on duty that any journalists should be removed. At this point, the judge declared that the hearing would proceed in camera, and cleared everyone from the room.

IN EARLY SPRING 2010, a few of the most powerful men in the Indian security establishment sat down for a special meeting at the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi. The list of participants had been deliberately kept to a minimum to ensure there would be no leaks: the head of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), KC Verma; the Home Secretary, GK Pillai; and the director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Rajiv Mathur, along with one of his officers.

This gathering was not the routine morning meeting that P Chidambaram had instituted when he took over the home ministry in November 2008—an hour-long daily briefing on intelligence and internal security with the director of Intelligence Bureau (DIB), the national security adviser (NSA), the home secretary and the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. (The R&AW chief, who bears the cabinet title Secretary (Research) rarely attends meetings at the home ministry.) Chidambaram was not invited to this meeting, and there was only one item on the agenda: the Bureau had discovered a mole inside the Indian High Commission in Pakistan.

A few weeks earlier, the DIB had informed the home secretary that the Intelligence Bureau had placed an Indian diplomat in Islamabad under surveillance after suspicions had arisen that she was passing classified material to Pakistani intelligence. Nothing was recorded in writing, and the details of the operation had not been shared with anyone outside the IB.

It is not uncommon for government officials with access to strategic information, inside the country and at missions abroad, to be put under counterintelligence surveillance for a few weeks, or even months, at a time; in most cases, nothing turns up. But in this case, the suspicion persisted as the investigation continued, and news of the “spy” in Islamabad made its way from Pakistan to the desk of the DIB.

It had been less than a year and a half since Pakistani terrorists killed more than 160 people in a bloody attack on Mumbai that unfolded live on television for three excruciating days and deeply embarrassed the Indian intelligence establishment. The insistent calls for war in the wake of the attack had faded, but India was still seething, and another intelligence failure would inflict grave damage to the battered reputations of IB and R&AW.

According to a person privy to the details of the meeting, Mathur told Pillai and Verma that IB was almost certain there was indeed a mole inside the High Commission—a low-ranking diplomat named Madhuri Gupta. But the investigators had not yet confirmed the nature and extent of the information being passed to Pakistani intelligence; nor had they determined whether Gupta had any accomplices inside the High Commission. A sudden move to arrest her would alert any other involved parties who had thus far escaped detection, so it was decided that the surveillance should continue for two or three weeks—at which point Gupta could be quietly summoned back to India by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), whose officials had not been informed of the investigation. For a few more weeks, at least, the operation would remain a closely guarded secret: nobody else in India knew, and nobody in Islamabad was to be informed.

While Gupta remained under surveillance, the person familiar with the operation told me, false information was planted in channels to which she had access—like a tag whose movements could be tracked. If Indian sources inside Pakistan confirmed that the counterfeit information had arrived, the leak could be traced back to Gupta.

In the world of intelligence, where suspicion cloaks every transaction, careful steps must be taken to corroborate accusations of betrayal before taking action against the guilty party. But as several retired intelligence chiefs explained, there is no standard protocol for undertaking such investigations—no single solution that fits all possible problems. Counterintelligence is like quantum mechanics: if you’ve located the particle, its speed will change; if you think you’ve found the perfect solution, the problem has changed.

When the home secretary, DIB and Secretary (R) were told that Gupta’s leaks had been confirmed, the home ministry asked the MEA to summon her back to India. Under the pretence that Gupta needed to report to Delhi to consult on preparations for an upcoming summit in Thimpu at the end of April for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an official order was issued requesting her return.

On 21 April 2010, Gupta flew from Lahore to Delhi on Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-270, the only direct connection between the two cities, and spent the night in her home in West Delhi. The following morning, she reported to the MEA offices in South Block, where she had been asked to attend a meeting with an additional secretary, Ashok Tomar. Outside Tomar’s office, unaware of the charges against her, she chatted with a few colleagues she had worked with in her 27 years as an MEA official. But when she was called into Tomar’s office for what she thought was a briefing for officials attending the Thimpu summit, she was met by Tomar, a joint secretary in MEA named Gaitri Kumar and three men from the IB.

Tomar placed a call to the Special Cell of Delhi Police, who had already been informed of the case. He asked them to come and arrest Madhuri Gupta, a Grade B Indian Foreign Services official and second secretary in the press and information wing at the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, suspected of passing sensitive official information to agents of Pakistani intelligence.

Gupta was taken into custody, and formally placed under arrest early the following morning, on 23 April. The case remained secret for the next few days, while Gupta was interrogated in police custody—until 27 April, when police and security officials began to leak the news of Gupta’s arrest to reporters, and news agencies carried the “sensational revelation” that an Indian diplomat in Islamabad had passed “extremely sensitive information to her contacts in ISI till her movements came under surveillance of Intelligence Bureau sleuths”. But the first reports, based on “official sources”, contained an even more sensational accusation: that the R&AW station chief in Islamabad, RK Sharma, who was posted as a counselor at the High Commission, had also come under suspicion, for “allegedly abusing his position and passing information to Gupta”. The name and designation of India’s top intelligence officer in Pakistan were broadcast far and wide: Sharma’s official cover in Islamabad had been blown by his own country, a move that seemed certain to damage R&AW operations in Pakistan and bring his assignment to a swift and ignominious end.

But the leaks did not end there: in the weeks that followed, details of Gupta’s interrogation poured into the press, painting a lurid and occasionally contradictory picture of her character and motivations. She had passed information to Pakistan “willingly and without any financial benefit” to “teach a lesson” to her “arrogant” seniors in the MEA, according to some reports, which suggested she had “an endless litany of complaints” against the ministry and felt “deprived of recognition”. Unidentified sources claimed she had brazenly taunted the security officials who arrested her, asking, “What took you so long to get me?”

Other reports suggested she had been handsomely compensated for her services to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and that “a healthy cash balance” in her bank accounts was being investigated. Still further reports portrayed the unmarried 53-year-old as a lonely spinster who had been lured into a romantic liaison with a Pakistani agent—who had even dispatched her to Jammu and Kashmir to obtain information about India’s development plans there. A correspondent in Islamabad who had interacted with Gupta reported that she could appear “brash and fearless”, and quoted her boasting that she would soon receive a “plum diplomatic posting” in London or Washington.

Page 1 of 712345...Last »
View as  
Single Page
Multiple Page

Krishn Kaushik is a staff writer at The Caravan.

READER'S COMMENTS

10 thoughts on “Team of Rivals”

Well researched column! but needed better editing; looks like a first draft with out the rigorous editing;Too many long sentences, takes too much time to make a point;not much conveyed in so many words..a good attempt by the writer;but probably the editors were sleeping

An interesting and riveting insight into how RAW and IB works and their rivalry! IB is always been Congress’s tool like CBI. They both are rife with internal politics and defeat the very purpose of defending the country against foreign intelligence cum terrorist agencies like ISI. RAW was created exactly to give intelligence-gathering machinery a more professional outlook and less internal strife.

Riveting stuff. Brilliant writing and editing. If only more journalists in India paid this much attention to detail and careful use of words.

This was informative but some sentences are too long and difficult to read. Take this para for example. ” It is still not clear when suspicions about Madhuri Gupta’s conduct were first raised inside the High Commission. But the investigation of her activities, which was conducted by the IB, must have begun between October 2009, when a new IB officer arrived to fill the agency’s vacancy in Islamabad, and early 2010, when Rajiv Mathur, the DIB, first presented its preliminary conclusions to the R&AW chief and home secretary inside North Block a few weeks before Gupta’s arrest. ”

Good article, gives us a hint of the larger picture.
One more point to note is that Mamta Bannerjee rallied against NCTC, she is from bengal where Naraynan is Governor, Narayan was last seen dancing with Mamta and SRK on KKR win in Eden Gardens.

This is a very good example of persistant pain staking reporting..sadly very few of the kind remain in the Indian media.

When someone writes an article he/she maintains the idea of a user in his/her brain that how a user can
be aware of it. So that’s why this piece of writing
is great. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *