Hours after New Delhi asked a Pakistani high commission official to leave India accusing him of running a spy ring, Islamabad late on Thursday expelled an India embassy staff in a tit-for-tat move that signalled a ratcheting up of hostilities.
Surjeet Singh’s activities were against diplomatic norms, Pakistan foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry told Indian high commissioner Gautam Bambawale. Singh, an assistant in the mission, and his family have to leave by October 29.
Earlier in the day, India declared Mehmood Akhtar persona non grata (Latin for an unacceptable person) and gave him 48 hours to move out. Pakistan denied the charge and in turn accused Indian investigators of manhandling Akhtar, who was briefly detained by Delhi Police. New Delhi rejected Pakistan’s accusations.
Three Indians, all from Rajasthan, were arrested for allegedly passing on information about border deployment to Akhtar, who worked for ISI and was an assistant in the high commission’s trade section, Delhi Police said.
Maps of border areas and a list of names of BSF personnel were also recovered from Akhtar, who was carrying a forged Aadhaar card that said he was a resident of Chandni Chowk.
In the morning, foreign secretary S Jaishankar summoned Pakistan high commissioner Abdul Basit and told him that Akhtar was caught with sensitive documents and declared persona non grata.
“The foreign secretary also strongly conveyed to the Pak high commissioner that the Pak high commission must ensure that none of its members indulge in activities inimical to India…,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said.
Akhtar was detained at the Delhi zoo on Wednesday while accepting documents about deployment of the Border Security Force in Rajasthan and Gujarat from two Indians, who were arrested, Delhi Police said.
Akhtar, who has been with the high commission for three years, was released after he invoked diplomatic immunity, Delhi Police joint commissioner Ravindra Yadav said.
Police identified the arrested men as Maulana Ramzan Khan and Subhash Jangir, residents of Naguar in Rajasthan.
Late in the evening, the third member of the alleged spy ring, Shoaib Nagaur was detained at the Jodhpur and was being brought to Delhi.
Police said they were watching Akhtar for six months.
“The Pakistan high commission official was the kingpin. The module was active for one-and-a-half years,” Yadav said.
Akhtar recruited Khan (50), a teacher in a Nagaur mosque school, and Jangir (37) a vegetable vendor, and sought information about Rajasthan and neigbouring Gujarat, both states share land and maritime boundaries with Pakistan.
The men also had names of serving and retried BSF men and Akhtar might have honey-trapped personnel, Yadav said.
Akhtar initially insisted he was a Delhi man but later admitted he was with the Pakistan high commission.
“He stated that he had joined the Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan army in 1997 and came on deputation to the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) in 2013,” Swarup said.
Basit lodged a protest with Jaishankar over “detention and manhandling of Pakistan high commission staffer”.
Pakistan foreign office, too, took strong exception to the expulsion. “This act clearly reflects Indian actions to shrink diplomatic space for the working of Pakistan high commission,” it said.
Tensions between the two countries have soared after a group of suspected Pakistani militants attacked an army camp in Kashmir’s Uri in September and killed 19 soldiers. A few days later, the Indian Army crossed the line of control and hit militants preparing to enter India from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.