The happy spies just fade away. The unhappy ones hang around, write books with embarrassing details, become experts and television talking heads and, worse, try to get themselves a better deal from a government that wronged them.
Sixty-year-old Balbir Singh has threatened to commit suicide to draw attention to his miserable living conditions. Work as a watchman is neither satisfying nor paying. A salary of Rs 2,400 is too little to support a wife and two children.
His quarrel: an ungrateful nation (read government) that hasn’t done enough to make good his sacrifices as a spy, nerve-wracking operations, potentially-fatal crossings and the days and weeks in solitary confinement in an enemy country.
Singh says the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the country’s external intelligence gathering agency, recruited him in February 1971, within weeks of the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
“A friend of mine was already working for R&AW,” Singh says. The money – Rs 300 a month – was good; and the spy agency would pick up his travel bills when he was snooping around for the country. He was sold.
He was whisked away to a local safe house – one of the many he would spend the next months in – for training, which basically meant a complete identity transformation.
Balbir Singh became Muhammad Sultan, son of Safaid Khan, a former Pakistani army personnel. He was circumcised and learnt to offer namaz.
Plus, he was equipped with the knowledge and wherewithal to slip in and out of Pakistan.
Over the next two years he made several such trips into Pakistan. His first few trips were for R&AW. “I brought back sketches of strategic locations and army deployments on the Pakistani side,” he said.
Then he got into a scrap with an officer of the agency. Around the same time, he got a pitch from Military Intelligence – made by a Jullundhar-based Major. Now, he was truly a national asset, run by both R&AW and the army.
“The army used us as couriers,” says Singh, “to deliver money and task briefs to moles in the Pakistani army.” These moles were mostly Pakistani army men approached during their incarceration in India as prisoners of war. Singh’s moles were a Pakistani army captain, two hawaldars and a clerk.
Singh was done in by an age-old weakness in the second-oldest profession – doublecrossing.
One of his moles, the clerk Izaz Nasir, was caught. He gave away Singh, who was arrested from Peshawar. That was 1974. And his world came crashing down. “The next two years,” Singh says, “were spent in and out of consciousness.” He was kept in solitary confinement in a small, dark cell, with his hands chained behind his back. He had no rights, no lawyers or a sympathetic jailor.
“I was produced before a magistrate two and a half years after arrest,” Singh said. But nothing changed. In fact, his lawyer, given by the government, argued mostly against him.
No surprises then that he got 10 years in jail. In prison, the Pakistani intelligence tried to recruit him as a double agent. “They offered me money and freedom for Kashmir Singh (who was released from a Pakistani prison a week ago) in return for spying on India,” he said.
Before the plan could take off, Pakistani officials stumbled upon another spy ring, involving another Indian called Kartar Masih. Several senior Pakistani army officers were accused of involvement in this ring.
This pretty much sealed Singh’s case. He was sent to the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore. He could now write to his family. And it was here that he learnt of his father’s death. He stayed here till 1986, when he was released. He was by then, 38.
He managed to find a girl and got married. But found jobs hard to come by. Frustration set in. And neither the Army or the R&AW, paid his family anything after his arrest, he said.
Singh went to court and won an order directing the Centre to settle with him in the next three months. Nothing has happened yet. Can he be blamed for getting suicidal?