It was the height of the Indian armed forces' mobilisation against Pakistan during Operation Parakram after the December 13, 2001 terrorist attack on the Parliament. With military on both sides in confrontation mode, Indian satellites picked up a concentration of Pakistani armour across the Barmer border in Rajasthan.
Since the land across Barmer is marshy and not ideal for tanks, New Delhi was perturbed - Pakistan's armour thrust was expected across the Jaisalmer sector, not Barmer. Rather than take chances, the Indian intelligence agencies were asked to confirm whether there was a tank formation across the Barmer sector.Nawab, an opium smuggler, was sent by the intelligence services across the border from Chotan near Barmer to confirm the satellite report. While New Delhi desperately needed information, Nawab was eyeing a shipment of opium from nearby Umerkot - a town in Sindh - as a reward for confirming the satellite imagery.
Within a day, Nawab came back to Barmer and proudly told his handler that he had touched the tank formation with his own hands and found them to be fakes made out of cardboard. The message was relayed back to Raisina Hill that 'all was quiet on the western front'.
Call them Nawab, Ramzana, Kirpal or Surjeet Singh - the man who crossed Wagah on June 29 after spending 30 years and six months in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat Jail on charges of spying for India - the world of trans-border couriers is integral to espionage in the subcontinent.
After coming back, Surjeet Singh claimed that he was indeed spying for India's premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). He now intends to move the courts in India to be compensated by the government for the 30 years he lost in, what he calls, the service of the nation. Without any existing official record, there is no way to verify Surjeet's claims.
Ajit Doval, former director, Intelligence Bureau, said: "There is nothing against Surjeet that indicates that the man was indulging in espionage as alleged by Pakistan's agencies."
A life of danger
However, cross-border couriers traditionally play a crucial role in collection of information in the subcontinent.
Such couriers, quite like Surjeet's claims, are part of the human intelligence network who add value to the information collected through either electronic or satellite means.
With the India-Pak border from Gujarat to Jammu and Kashmir almost completely fenced and huge leaps made in various surveillance technologies, cross-border couriers, though they still exist, are a dying breed.
When border fencing is in place, the life of a trans-border courier is more dangerous than playing Russian roulette. Guards on both the sides of the border know when the gate is opened and who goes through it.
Thus, the courier has to be a double agent who supplies information on India across border to the Pakistan Rangers and then links up with another courier who in turn introduces him to a source for further information.
These couriers act only as agents of intelligence agencies and are not paid employees. The information collected by them is low-grade and is often of low value.
For instance, they might pick up movement of tank trailers or aircraft, or a sharp dip in purchase of vegetables or meat by a particular enemy formation near the border to indicate troop movement. For this service, couriers either get cash rewards or are quietly allowed free passage of smuggled goods.
Evolving the game
With the advent of technology, those days are long gone when Indian agents or moles would be injected across the border after circumcising them and giving them false identities.
These agents would later write letters conveying personal welfare on one side of the page and information with secret ink on the other. These would be posted to a pre-determined address in Dubai or other parts of the Gulf for pick-ups.
Today, the spying game has become far more sophisticated and even sending intelligence reports from missions through the diplomatic bags has become outdated with TV news channels beaming live information from other countries round the clock.
Indian spy tradecraft is actually quite evolved since it has been practiced assiduously from times of Chanakya during the Mauryan empire. The R&AW, for instance, recruits around 600-700 personnel each year with executive cadre being picked up from some 36 Group A government services.
There are some 13 cadres within the R&AW like technical, telecommunications and language, which are tasked to defend India's national security and collect denied information for policy formulation against an adversary.
Besides, the executive cadre is hired from identified group A services on the basis of examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and inducted into R&AW Allied Services (RAS).
The on-campus recruitment has been done away with this year as this route was often used by officers in the past to promote their own kith and kin.
The R&AW officers and personnel are posted in Indian missions abroad under official cover like other countries and are tasked to collect information and build contacts by their parent organisations.
The information collected is then sent through secure networks and analysed by experts before being passed on to the consumers.
RAW's elder sister Intelligence Bureau, which is in charge of India's internal security with personnel posted abroad, is largely officered by civil servants from Indian Police Services even though it has an in-house cadre and training.
The IB cadre is recruited through ministry of home affairs with personnel going up the ladder from constables, assistant central intelligence officer to deputy CIO to assistant director and thereon.
Trained in in-house institute in Lutyen's Delhi, the IB personnel are spread all over India through subsidiary IB units and also man posts on the border collecting intelligence that has a bearing on internal security.
Both R&AW and IB have operational wings which are mandated for special missions or objectives in pursuit of national policies.
Apart from the big two, the Military Intelligence has a mandate within 25 kilometer across the Indian borders and even Border Security Force operates on the borders.
It has a history of stellar operations and operators from the days of legendary IB director BN Mullick and R&AW chiefs like RN Kao and K Shankaran Nair.
Then there are likes of Ajit Doval, who is said to have walked into Pakistani nuclear establishment at Kahuta during his six-year long posting in Islamabad in the 1980s and was inside the Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder in 1988 at the height of the Sikh-separatist movement in Punjab.
Awarded the Kirti Chakra, a military decoration, for a still-classified operation, Doval was later instrumental in blunting the edge of Kashmiri separatists during his posting in London.
His able comrade in IB operations wing and during Punjab militancy days was exceptional Nehchal Sandhu.
He at present heads the IB and is a counter-terror expert, planner and executor par excellence and a walking encyclopedia on Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Islamist terrorist groups.
The R&AW has had its own share of successes like the Bangladesh War, accession of Sikkim and keeping a watch on the enemies of friendly leaders in the subcontinent.
The present R&AW chief Sanjiv Tripathi has had his own share of success in help forging the 1997 Chittagong Hill Tracts Agreement between Bangladesh and Hill Tracts tribals.