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Tinker translator spy

delhi Updated: Apr 29, 2010 01:03 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
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More than two decades ago, a young Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer, a Muslim, requested the then foreign secretary, to whom he was particularly close, for a posting in the Indian Mission in Pakistan. The foreign secretary was politically well connected. He had himself asked the officer whether he had a destination in mind for his next job.

Assigning officers to Pakistan wasn't easy those days. The procedure was rigorous. The selection for some posts required clearance at the highest level. His tenure drawing to a close, the FS was keen the proposal got the nod before he demitted office. So he took up the matter with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

She heard him in silence at the first instance. But on a later occasion she dissuaded him from persisting with the matter. The way she revealed her mind left wiser the veteran diplomat, who executed the country's foreign policy in those peak years of the cold war. The PM began by assuring the foreign secretary that she trusted his judgment. But her faith in intelligence agencies wasn't all that implicit. One adverse report against the officer the FS was pushing for the job could destroy his career beyond repair, she said.

The officer, who couldn't make it to Pakistan, told me this story — not by way of running down intelligence organisations, which tend to be more cautious than correct, but to illustrate Indira Gandhi's realistic approach to administration. He took the point sportingly and later held other coveted assignments.

La Affaire Madhuri Gupta has rattled the foreign policy establishment to its core. Viewing it purely from the espionage angle — as to what her handlers got out of the diplomat they compromised through the lure of money or honey — could mean missing the wood for the trees. The breach has to be studied from the perspective that made Indira Gandhi reject the idea of a young Muslim diplomat working in the Indian Mission in Pakistan.

The former premier wasn't the least troubled by the officer's faith. Her concern was about his vulnerability in a situation where hostility begets hostility. "Look around and you'd see many retired diplomats including those who have served in Pakistan breathing fire against it in private conversations and TV debates," remarked an intelligence expert. He said Gupta could be compromised because she was so obviously vulnerable: Single, middle-aged and a huge temperamental misfit on a tangibly inimical and lonely beat. Initial reports have also suggested the IFS (B) (subordinate to the Group A service) officer could have acted out of a "pathological dislike" she admitted having for the stiff-upper-lip first-rung foreign servicewallah.

There was no immediate confirmation. But Gupta has had face-offs with her IFS superiors including one who is currently India's ambassador in an important Islamic country.

A former Indian envoy to Pakistan who later made the grade in politics saw the Gupta case as a systemic failure. "Islamabad isn't a normal posting. It's like being sent to a war zone. Those selected to serve there are warned and asked to be on guard. The officer must have been very stupid or very unhappy with her life or her job," he said.

Former Intelligence Bureau director Ajit Doval agreed. He said: "It's not about gender. It's about selecting the best, the brightest and the toughest for sensitive foreign assignments."

"An officer may be extraordinarily bright. But will you send him to Pakistan if he's an alcoholic," asked Doval. His question rang a bell. Very much recorded in South Block's institutional memory is the case of an intelligent but tame-hearted scribe who hit the bottle in Islamabad's psychologically punishing work environ. The foreign office advised his recall when things started getting out of control in a country where liquor isn't available off the shelf. Another journalist who spurned inducement in return for information on Indian diplomats was denied visa extension and had to return home, prompting a friendly Indian official to remark: "You were for them a burnt-out case …"

The motivational levels of Pakistani sleuths know no bounds. They'd go to any length to keep the Mission staff and scribes looking over their shoulder. The Indians too do their bit. But their tactics are covert; lacking the hallmark rough and ready approach of Pakistani agencies. There have been complaints in the past of their operatives following diplomats' spouses into shops selling ladies' undergarments.

It's hard to miss the surveillance mounted at the Indian Mission, residential quarters of its staff and the Indian High Commissioner's official residence in Islamabad. Such high-profile envoys as J N Dikshit and S K Lambah experienced bumper-to-bumper surveillance of their flag-cars.

Lambah's spouse Nilima Lambah's hugely readable Recollections of a Diplomat's Wife (Roli Books, 2008) records episodes affording instructive peeps into the mindset of ISI agents and their lesser Pakistani cousins. Sample one: On the arrival of Group Captain Pervez Hamilton Khokker as air advisor in the Indian embassy in the early 1990s, the hosts became suspicious of his first and last names, which were so typically Pakistani.

The name troubled them more because the Pakistan High Commissioner to New Delhi at the time was Riaz Khokker -- a street-smart Punjabi who once accused L.K. Advani of practising witchcraft (while actually meaning to use the word 'witch-hunt'). The hosts' protestations had no bearing on the IAF official, who refused to be known as anything other than Pervez Hamilton Khokker. At official Pakistani dinners, he'd either have the nameplate "Group Captain Hamilton" changed or skip the meal. The Khokker story, as related by Nilima Lambah, has lessons for a long-term view on the staffing of the Indian outpost in Pakistan. Are the headhunters listening?