‘Three years in Sialkot jail were hell’
Gurbax Lal is 41. Doesn’t have a steady job. And is single, with diminishing hopes of ever marrying. Life is over for him. And there are just regrets he can look back at.
Gurbax is a former spy, sent, he says, to Pakistan by the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the agency primarily responsible for gathering intelligence outside India.
He won’t divulge operational details, but not out of loyalty to the country or the intelligence agency. He doesn’t want more trouble. “They can put me away under the Official Secrets Act,” Gurbax says.
He doesn’t have the stomach for another jail term. The last one is still fresh in his mind and he can still feel the pain of the beating he got before he was thrown into Kotlakhpat Jail in Lahore, Pakistan, where he stayed for the next 14 years.
They say all spies run out of luck some day.
And his time came in 1991. He had decided to give it all up and return home. At the border, just a few feet from India and freedom, an alert Pakistani official waved him to aside for a search. And it was all over for him then.
Life of a spy was good, he had read in thrillers. So, when, at the age of 24, a quack in his village — Khai Pheme Ki in Ferozepur district — made a pitch to him, he jumped – the bait offered was a permanent job with Central Bureau of Investigation at the end of his tenure.
He bit. The ITI draftsman and National Cadet Corps cadet was soon on his way to Delhi become a spy. Gurbax doesn't know where in Delhi he was trained but remembers it was quite comprehensive, stretching over nine months.
"I was administered sunnat (the way of the Prophet - includes circumcision) taught Islamic rituals and Urdu and was told about the socio-economic structure of Pakistan," says the former spy, adding, "and, of course, the many cover stories for use there."
Gurbax was ready to start off as a spy in August 1988, when he was slipped into Pakistan one fine day (or night, he won't tell which as that would amount of revealing operation details). This mission lasted 10 days, at the end of which he gave a report to his runners.
He was told his job would entail staying away from home a lot, so he needed a cover. And he was given one - an agent of the government-owned Life Insurance Corporation. Gurbax now had a cover for his family, and another for his "adoptive" country.
Gurbax became Sattar. He was given a fake identity card with faked official stamp of Pakistan. Next month, he crossed over to Pakistan. He wasn't to know then but he wasn't to return home for a very long time, many, many years.
But for now, it was the thrilling life of a spy. He showed up in Okada, a cantonment which also had an air force station. Gurbax was now Sattar, a fruit vendor. Gurbax collected defence-related information — about formations, movements and army exercises.
Gurbax doesn't know his runner — "never came face to face with him", he says. He sent his reports to an address in Dubai, from where the message was re-routed to his runner(s). "I was doing quite well," he says, eyes glinting and a rare smile on his lips.
Back at home, his family — parents and three brothers — definitely missed him. But took consolation from the fact that he was working as a government employee somewhere. Besides, a certain amount of money would be delivered to the family every month - his salary.
It was all going fine, Gurbax says. And then in 1990, the Pakistani authorities arrested an Indian spy called Balbir Singh. Gurbax was worried. There was one element common in the cover stories given to them by their runners: both were orphans.
Gurbax asked his controllers for permission to shift base. They agreed. He moved to Lahore. But he had had enough of spying by now - his cloak-and-dagger world was getting a little too dangerous. He wanted to give up and return home.
But he was an asset his controllers did not want to lose. They insisted he should. But Gurbax had had enough of them too. In 1991, he decided to cross back into India. His luck stayed with him till the border and then dumped him.
The Pakistani border officials found sensitive documents in his possession - about the Pakistani Air Force. And that was the last thing Gurbax should have been carrying. He recalls with shudder the days that followed.
"I was beaten almost continuously," he says. He was kept hanging upside down for hours. The interrogators wanted details of other spies, his sources and the secrets stolen by him. He wouldn't tell, of course. "The three years in Sialkot were hell," he says.
The intrepid spy held his tongue, and the interrogators finally gave up. He was tried and sent to jail for 14 years. And that's where he stayed till his release in 2007. By which time the world had changed completely.
"I had lost my father in 1990 and my mother passed away in 1998," he says. His brothers are all married and have their own families. They are nice to him, he says, but he can't be burden on them, he can't live off them.
So, he takes on odd jobs to make ends meet - some times he washes cars and at other times he works as a painter. But Gurbax thinks his life is over. Who will marry a former spy who is now over 40 and without a steady job? Was it worth it?