As India’s external intelligence operations expand globally, a growing army of spies left out in the cold

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New Delhi: From his office on the Abu Dhabi corniche, just a short walk from the Louvre museum and the Maryah island gallery, Shihani Meera Sahib Jamal Mohammed surveyed the flow of the world’s great ships into Mina Zayed, the Emirate’s great deep-water port. Sometimes, his lawyers would later say, he’d take photographs for friends at the Indian mission in Abu Dhabi, or pass on bits of especially-interesting information.

Ever since 2015, Shihani has been in prison, serving a 10-year sentence accusing him of being an Indian spy. Following litigation filed by Shihani’s family in the Kerala High Court, an appeal has been filed to seek his exoneration. 

“The Government of India is being quite helpful now,” says Supreme Court lawyer Jose Abraham, “but Shihani is still in jail, and we don’t know how long the appeal might take.”

The Shihani case isn’t exceptional. As Indian intelligence operations have gone increasingly global, reflecting the country’s growing strategic interests and needs for information, operatives and agents drawn from the diaspora have been bumping into counter-intelligence services across the world, sometimes with tragic consequences.

In many cases, the Shihani prosecution and several others across the world show alleged Indian spies have gone to prison for providing low-grade information, of little apparent strategic value.

Used and abandoned?

Following allegations — so far unproven — of Indian involvement in the killing of Sikh secessionist Harpreet Singh Nijjar, it has become clear global intelligence services are keeping an ever-closer watch on Indian covert operations.

Eight Indian nationals are facing trial in Qatar for allegedly leaking design data on stealth submarines, and an Indian diplomat was quietly asked to leave the kingdom for his ties with the group.

Lawyers for Shihani claimed, in litigation filed in 2021, that he was tortured, by means which included being incarcerated in “cellular burrows for months in extreme cold temperature”. The Kerala resident was also forced into a belt “which delivered high voltage shocks”.

Also Read: India hitting enemies on global scale, govt winning applause. But there’s cost being paid too

Low-grade intelligence

Four RAW-related incidents have taken place in Germany alone — the only country where, because of historical circumstances, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operates two stations. Frankfurt prosecutors, in 2020, secured the conviction of Balvir Singh to one year in prison and a €2,400 fine for allegedly spying on Khalistan supporters in the city.

The trial led Germany to request the withdrawal of an RAW officer, on deputation from the Indian Revenue Service and operating out of India’s consulate in Frankfurt. In turn, India asked German officer Uwe Kehm to leave the country.

Earlier, a Frankfurt court gave Manmohan Singh, a journalist running pro-Khalistan online news platform in Germany, an 18-month sentence for spying on Kashmiri and Sikh secessionists for RAW’s Frankfurt station. Along with his wife Kamaljit Kaur, Manmohan Singh was found guilty of receiving €7,000 for information provided to RAW between 2015 and 2018.

Legal records in the case show Manmohan Singh provided RAW with the names of individuals who attended Khalistan events. He also sought information on Kashmiri secessionist protests planned ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to attend a G20 summit in 2017.

Earlier, in 2015, a German immigration officer working in North Rhine-Westphalia was prosecuted for accessing government databases to sell information on suspected Khalistan activists to RAW. 

The previous year, Ranjit Singh — who had sought asylum in Germany claiming to be an All India Sikh Students Federation activist persecuted by India — was sentenced to nine months in prison for spying for RAW.

In none of the three German cases, the legal documents show, did surveillance conducted on behalf of RAW detect either individuals planning violence, or seeking to incite it.

“This is the kind of thing you’d expect some low-grade police officer to be interested in,” an RAW officer told ThePrint, “not the head of an intelligence station in a major Western city.”

Escalating suspicions seem to have hurt the lives of many Indians unconnected with espionage. The application of an Indian newspaper editor for permanent residence  in Canada was denied in 2020 simply because of his contacts with RAW and the Intelligence Bureau. The government alleged the editor had been asked to use his influence to lobby Canadian politicians.

A Canadian court of appeals later struck down the immigration  determination, noting that an editor could have contacts with intelligence services in the course of their normal work.

Left out in the cold

Large numbers of Indian nationals have been held in Pakistan over the decades, on allegations of conducting espionage. Even though their families have lobbied the courts and government for compensation, New Delhi has consistently denied any connection to the men.

The case of Shihani, where families have claimed government support for their kin who worked for the intelligence services, is relatively rare.

In the high-profile case of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, who faces the death penalty in Pakistan, India succeeded in litigation at the International Court of Justice, demanding a civilian trial for the suspect. The case has since been caught in legal tangles, though, with Islamabad claiming the former Indian naval officer does not want to challenge the sentence.

A botched attempt to kidnap fugitive businessman Mehul Choksi from the island of Antigua in May, 2021, has led to civil proceedings which are set to include allegations against RAW, according to legal pleadings. Earlier, Choksi named four UK nationals, three of Indian origin, as being responsible for his kidnapping.

Even though cases involving India are small in number and significance — large scale intelligence operations by China have been regularly detected in recent years, while Russian networks were detected in the UK just last week — experts believe some of the arrests and detection of networks reflect poor spycraft, in turn, the consequence of the large-scale entry of Indian Police Service officers on deputation.

Structural problems

Although RAW has a long tradition of effective covert operations in the near-neighbourhood — including operations against Khalistan terrorists in the 1980s, according to former officer B. Raman, as well as covert warfare in Bangladesh — the arrests and controversies suggest the organisation is facing the inevitable pains of working on a larger stage.

“The internal cadre of RAW has declined to zero,” a senior RAW officer notes, “and it has for all practical purposes become a branch of the police services.”

Former RAW officer V. Balachandran has noted that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had insisted that the organisation not be structured like a central police organisation. Prime Minister Gandhi, he says, understood that the spy agency needed human resources trained in the “special skills to do unconventional work abroad in hostile surroundings”.

Instead of specialists with deep language and regional skills, some Indian officials believe, RAW has become increasingly dependent on officers on short-term deputation, some inducted after training of just a few months.

The postings of IPS officers to RAW’s parent organisation, the Cabinet Secretariat, are even posted online by their parent state cadres — an unprecedented practice among the world’s intelligence services.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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