The BJP government might have found it ironic that it was dragged further on a collision course because of someone who belonged to an Other Backward Caste, even though it is full of high-caste Hindus, but then being headed by Narendra Modi, whose own Modh Ghanchi caste is counted as being an Other Backward Caste in his native Gujerat, it may well adapt to the reality of modern India, which is caste-ist, but allows various castes quotas. Another aspect that has come to light is the difficulty that retired military officers of field rank face after retirement. Though the examples are Indian, in Kulbhushan Jhadhav, and Pakistani, in Habib Zahir, the retired officer who disappeared from Lumbini on the Indo-Nepalese border, the problem is universal, and has perhaps not been solved.

Jhadav’s name, like that of many people from the Subcontinent, does not just function as a surname, but reveals much about him. Jhadav indicates that he is from Maharashtra; that he speaks Marathi with his family does not indicate much beyond his doing so. The Jhadavs may include Marhatta commanders historically, but today they are numbered among the Other Backward Castes of the state, which means they are also entitled to quotas in state-run educational institutions. However, these designations are at state level, with the only quotas reserved at the federal level being for scheduled castes, mainly Dalits. At the National Defense Academy, from which Jhadav graduated, being an OBC did not help.

Jhadavs are counted among the Kunbi. They are not related, but are all agriculturists, and Kulbhushan was no exception, with firm roots in Anewadi village in Satara district of Maharashtra state, which he visited several times a year, and where his family, including his father, a retired Mumbai Police officer, still live. He was not born in Anewadi, but in Sangli, in 1970, presumably following the tradition whereby a woman goes to her home village for the birth of children. Though it would say nothing about Kulbhushan, the legislative assembly seat was won by the National Congress Party in the teeth of a BJP-Shiv Sena wave.

Jhadavs are supposed to be a cattle-herding caste. As Yadavs, members have reached the chief ministerships of Uttar Pradesh (the father-son duo of Mulayam Singh and Akilesh) and Bihar (the husband-wife duo of Laloo Prasad and Rabri Devi), but are not to be confused with Gujjars, another agricultural caste, supposed to own cattle. They herd cattle, but do not hire themselves out to tend other men’s cattle, as Yadavs or Jhadavs do. Pakistan has a number of Gujjars, including some who have made good in politics, but does not seem to have any equivalent of Yadavs.

Though a naval officer and an engineer, after the attack on Indian Parliament in 2003, Jhadav went into intelligence, specifically into the Research and Analysis Wing. He must have found superiors to agree that the transfer was a good idea, even though normally no service likes having to give up technically trained personnel, especially officers. Either he was seen by RAW as an exceptional operative, or his Navy superiors saw him as a substandard engineer. As it is, he kept a lien on the Navy, and reached the rank of commander, the equivalent of lieutenant-colonel. He had probably reached his personal ceiling, and it is not very likely that he would have been promoted to the next rank of captain.

Interestingly, the Pakistani officer, Lt Col (retd) Habib Zahir, retired with the army equivalent of the rank Jhadav had attained in the Indian Navy. He retired in 2014, and though there is speculation about his being picked up by the ISI for certain tasks, he is also supposed to have disappeared in Nepal after having been invited there, supposedly by an Englishman, to appear in a job interview. He had previously been working in a Rafhan factory. The official reaction to his disappearance is that it was not expected of a former lieutenant-colonel that he would fall victim of an entrapment. There seemed no acknowledgement of the reason why he could have been entrapped: he would have retired with about a decade to go to the civilian retirement age of 60.

Even this is being thought to be too young a retirement age, mainly because of the advances in medical science. However, the military has an up-or-out policy, in which officers who have been superseded are given incentives to retire. The more junior the rank at which an officer is superseded, which actually means when he leaves the ‘zone of promotion’, the younger he retires. Promotions are only guaranteed to the rank of major; after that an officer enters the zone after a certain period of minimum service, after which his name is forwarded for consideration by the relevant boards. He is considered superseded when he exits the ‘zone’ and his name no longer goes before the boards, and he may opt then, or at any time later, for retirement. This is when considerable benefits are said to accrue. However, it takes great courage, as well as independent wealth, for a retired officer not to wish for some civilian employment.

This has always been a peculiarly military problem. Most officers retire before reaching general officer rank, and at ages where they still ‘have several good years in them.’ Perhaps more important, this is the time when financial burdens caused by children’s education and marriages are perhaps at their most, and generous packages end up used on these. This is not just the case in the Pakistan or Indian militaries, but afflicts armed forces the world over. No solution is possible, but all militaries do provide all possible help post-retirement. For example, the Soviet military made sure that its officers were educated so that they could become science teachers after retirement.

Both Colonel Zahir and Commander Jhadav seem to have career patterns which led them down rather risky paths. Intelligence services are both feared and admired in the services. Often technical knowledge is required, but at the same time cloak-and-dagger activities are abhorrent. Yet an interesting career path is open to an officer in peacetime Consider the option that Jhadav had if he had not gone into RAW: years and years tending to the engines of various ships in the Indian fleet. As it is, he posed as someone else and carried out activities against the enemy. Of course, the worst that could have happened to him if he had remained in the sailing navy would have been death on a vessel if there had been a war, and if his ship had its engine room hit. He would never have faced a Pakistani court martial, let alone been sentenced to death, even in the unprecedented event of his ship being captured with him aboard. But there was never a war between the two countries ever since he was commissioned.

Of course, the elaborate entrapment of Colonel Zahir seems to have been based on a desire to respond to Pakistan as soon as Jhadav was sentenced. That seems to have gone wrong, and Colonel Zahir might unfortunately disappear. Unlike Jhadav, whom Pakistan told the world it had captured, India has not admitted holding Zahir. But then, when spies play games in their wilderness of mirrors, simple soldiers (or sailors) get engulfed.