The arrest of RAW agent Cdr Kulbhushan Jhadav did not seem to have set so many cats among the pigeons as his death sentence, and there seems to have been a frenetic increase in activity on the Indian side, as RAW tries its best to bring home its boy.

Of course, an important part of the military ethos is to bring back personnel, even if it is only their bodies. At the same time, it is an understood risk of spying that there would be deniability, with spies being, so to speak, on their own, with their state refusing to admit that it had anything to do with them. This has led to India denying that Jhadav was a spy of theirs, but claiming consular access for him, as it admits that he is at least one of its citizens, if not more. That Jhadav has broken the spy’s version of omertà (the Mafioso code of silence) in his confessional statements, may be worrisome for purists, but has not deterred efforts to get him released.

There is the Khatmandu connection, which has cropped up twice recently. First, Pakistan’s Lt Col (retd) Habib Zahir flew from Lahore to Kathmandu on his way to Lambini, on the Indo-Nepalese border, where he had gone for a job interview, and where he disappeared. That event occurred before Jhadav’s sentencing. It was thought that the disappearance was because of a kidnapping by RAW, which would claim he was an ISI man. Then there was the strange case of Muhammad Ahmad, the walk-in defector at Delhi Airport, who was on a Dubai-Kathmandu flight, who claimed he was an ISI hitman, who now wanted to give it all up, and start a new life in India. Unnamed sources told the Indian media the story was dubious, and that Ahmad had developed mental problem after suffering head injuries in a road accident. It seemed as if an attempt had been made to develop a counter to Jhadav, and had been quickly stomped on. That this had happened in two cases is an indication of some intra-agency problems. The involvement of Nepal in both cases is suggestive. Nepal is for ISI and RAW what Berlin (East and West combined) was during the Cold War for the CIA (and other Western intelligence outfits) and the KGB (and other Warsaw Pact agencies): a playground, because it was not home ground to either side, but was stuffed with resources. The ISI presence in Nepal is not natural, as the local National Intelligence Directorate is like the rest of the Nepalese government beholden to India, and thus pro-RAW. Yaqub Memon, one of the accused, along with Dawood Ibrahim and brother Tiger Memon, in the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was arrested in Nepal in 1994, and handed over by Nepalese intelligence to Indian. Memon is the type of Muslim the BJP sees as one of its nightmares. Memon was an accountant, who had won an award from his community, who used his position of affluence and prominence to indulge in acts of terror. And yes, RAW thinks the ISI was behind him, and is still protecting Dawood Ibrahim.

It was perhaps a coincidence that one of Dawood Ibrahim’s successors in the Mumbai underworld, Chota Rajan, finally got a jail term. In the world of the underworld, Chota Rajan was a patriot, not being involved in any blasts. However, the struggle over Dawood Ibrahim showed another aspect of intelligence work in the Subcontinent, whether RAW or ISI: the use of criminals, smugglers in particular. It is no coincidence that Jhadav’s cover story in Iran was that of a businessman. Businessmen involved in trade would have a natural excuse for being in the oddest of places, or of their unexplained absences.

It should not be forgotten that this is happening in the background of a new phase in the uprising in Kashmir, where students have gotten involved, making the BJP narrative of interference by Pakistan that much more incredible. This comes hot on the heels of the Srinagar by-election, where the seven percent turnout was more prominent than the win by the opposition’s Dr Farooq Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of the puppet state. It is clear that RAW is under fire for not being able to help Kashmir stabilise, and is trying to distract its bosses by means of other operations.

Another development in the RAW-ISI battle, which resulted in more pressure being placed on RAW, has been the statement by former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, who surrendered to the Pakistan Army, and said that the TTP was taking money from RAW. Considering that India has institutionalised its campaign to portray Pakistan, especially to foreign powers, as a supporter of terrorism, this accusation would harm RAW’s image abroad. This becomes particularly harmful to RAW in its relations with the CIA.

It has been trying to develop relations with it because the two states have grown closer, while the CIA’s interest is because of the wider role seen for India in Asia as the USA’s surrogate at a time when its rivalry with China is moving up a notch, not least because of the confrontation in the South China Sea. There is also Afghanistan, where the USA would like India to take up a successor role, including the tutelage relationship between RAW and the Afghan intelligence agency, WAD.

Then there are the specific dynamics of Balochistan. Jhadav was, according to the charges against him (as well as his confessional statement), tasked with the destabilization of Balochistan. That province is not just Pakistan’s largest, and borders Afghanistan, but also is supposed to host the so-called Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, it is supposed to be an epicentre of ISI activity.

Into all of this plunges Rajjan Jindal, Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s friend, like him a second-generation steel magnate. Jindal has previously played a role in backchannel diplomacy, and may well have done so again. It is not known what exactly he said about Jhadav, but if he brought it up, it would indicate how important he is not just to RAW, but to the whole Indian government.

The importance given to Jhadav indicates a sort of Indian exceptionalism. Indian primacy in the region would be best expressed if it could get its spies released. In short, it wants the sort of treatment for its citizens that the USA got for its own operative, CIA contractor Raymond Davis. Pakistan provided that example itself, and whereas the ISI might have gone along with that example of American refusal to obey local laws, the Jhadav example is not so instructive. Davis got out of Pakistan using the legal remedy of a plea bargain, but there is no escape for Jhadav except a presidential pardon. Davis was one example of the commitment to bring out one of ‘our boys.’ Another example involving Pakistan was Gary Powers, the US U-2 pilot exchanged for a Russian spy, in Berlin (Powers had flown out of Badaber airbase). In the same spirit, India is trying to get out Jhadav. The murky light thrown on RAW cannot meet the approval of old hands there.