The tragic end of Sarabjit Singh in the Lahore jail unplugged long-frozen memories of my journalistic encounters with the surreal and secretive world of cross-border spies. Documenting tales of these real-life spies who had survived years of torture and incarceration in Pakistan was a bone-chilling experience that can still send a shiver down the spine.
And, contrary to popular imagination of spies such as a James Bond character armed with cool gadgets or fast cars, they were ordinary folk, inhabiting the grubby, poverty-stricken villages on the India-Pakistan border where espionage has always been a risky but alluring option to eke out a living. Many become cannon fodder during the furtive border crossings or perish in jails.
On a hot morning of late April in 1988, the iron gate at Wagah opened to reveal the sight of 107-odd Indian nationals on the Pakistan side, barely metres short of the zero line. Looking forlorn and emaciated, they waited for their homecoming as a large batch of Indian prisoners repatriated from Pakistan after many years. Once the official formalities were over, they crossed over to India, one by one, clutching the shabby bundles of their bare belongings.
Each had a harrowing tale to tell. One of them had on him only a small earthen-pot that carried the ashes of his fellow Indian prisoner, who had died during incarceration, hoping to deliver it to his family in a village of Gurdaspur.
Another gaunt-looking prisoner with his surname as Azad hobbled across on crutches. As an operative of Indian intelligence agencies who returned after an 18-year sentence in Pakistan jails, he wore tell-tale signs of torture like a badge of honour -- some of which he ascribed to his protests against ill-treatment meted out to Indians in Pakistani jails.
That lent him the status of a leader among fellow prisoners.But the return to the homeland was in no way welcoming. Swarmed by intelligence sleuths for de-briefing sessions, the repatriated prisoners were made to sit on their haunches under the blazing sun for hours. Not served even a glass of water, they felt distraught and insulted at such a heartless reception in their motherland.
Soon enough, the angry prisoners were on their feet, raising slogans against the Indian authorities while amused Pakistani officials looked on from a distance. It took quite an effort to pacify them before they were bundled into waiting vehicles to ferry them to their homes.
Years later, curious to know what happened to the spies upon their return, I set on the trail to locate some of them to do a story for India Today. A few trips to the border belts of Punjab and Jammu didn't throw up any lead. Meeting intelligence officials was equally frustrating as they feigned knowing any ex-spy.
A few months later, a Jammu-datelined news caught my eye. It was about a Pakistan-returned spy on hunger strike outside Raj Bhawan, demanding the reward money that his intelligence handlers had promised before launching him into enemy territory. The next day I was in Jammu, and the protester turned out to be Azad.
Asked whether it would be possible to meet some ex-spies of his ilk, Azad shot back: "Kitne jasoos chaheeye (How many spies would you want to meet?) We drove through dusty villages along the border and soon our Maruti van was overflowing with ex-spies of different ages.
They shared the same chilling tale - of being left out in the cold.