The Village of Spies

atpal (last name unknown) crossed the Wagah border, between Amritsar and Lahore, from Pakistan into India for the last time on May 17, 2000. He was 35 years old. Draped in a tattered white cloth, his body was wheeled out of a white ambulance by Pakistani rangers who handed him over to officers from India’s Border Security Force (BSF).

When his family saw him in Amritsar, the cloth was covered by the Indian flag. The white of the flag was coloured red from his blood.

According to his death certificate, Satpal was admitted into the Services Hospital, Lahore, on February 25, 2000 with “neck stiffness, fever, drowsiness and confusion.” It said he died from Tubercular Meningitis five days later on March 1, 2000.

“I don’t believe that,” says his brother, Dharampal, who had collected Satpal’s body.

There were three visible injuries on the left side of his body, according to his family and one of the officers who saw the body: a laceration that ran from his lower ribs to just above his hip; a circular wound on his forehead; and severe bruising on his lower left calf. All his fingertips were sliced off. He could only be identified by his face.

His body “bore marks of torture,” says Surinderpal, his 32-year-old son.

Satpal had been a low-level informant for military intelligence. His was a common story in the border district of Gurdaspur in northwestern Punjab. Since the 1950s, Indian intelligence agencies have been offering work to poor, unemployed villagers. The largest number of them were recruited when India and Pakistan went to war - in 1965, 1971 and 1999. They brought back maps, railway timetables or any shred of information that might have been useful to their handlers. Some died in Pakistani prisons. Many came home to a life of poverty. Only a handful earned compensation from the Indian government.

Drafted by the BSF, the Directorate of Military Intelligence, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), men like Satpal were tasked with finding strategic information about the movements of the Pakistani army. One of its more prolific recruitment areas was Dadwan village, 12 kilometres south-west of Gurdaspur town.

Dadwan, nicknamed the village of spies, was Satpal’s home.

Several men from Dadwan and Gurdaspur had served time in Pakistani prisons and nearly all of them had been disavowed by the Indian government. It was the official line taken by intelligence agencies: they denied any knowledge about these foot soldiers. “That’s the rule of the game,” says a former Intelligence Bureau officer, who, like his colleagues, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In Ferozepur and Jammu, neighbouring areas, these disavowed spies formed “spy associations”, which fight for compensation from the government.

Surinderpal, 32, has been collecting documents on his father since Satpal died. Pictured is Surinderpal (left) and Dharampal.(Reuben Singh/HT Photo)

These groups, composed of men who live near the border, often trek to Delhi together for an overdue paycheck. They believe they deserve the same compensation and gratitude that Indian soldiers receive. Nearly every home in Dadwan has a brother or father who worked for an intelligence agency. There is no official number because most of them are “off the books,” a former IB officer says.

While they get some form of recognition or recompense, they make ends meet with odd jobs in nearby towns. Dadwan exemplifies this struggle. It resembles an urban slum -- a stinking sewer runs through its main street. There is no trace of an espionage past.

No one’s responsibility

Each year, an unknown number of informants cross the Indo-Pakistan border and end up stuck in a Pakistani prison for an indefinite period. Or they return to India only to be asked to go back. Many start out as smugglers, but invariably are caught by either side. As a compromise they’re asked to relay information to their handlers. More often than not, they are captured and tortured for information by Pakistani authorities.

They’re subject to archaic forms of interrogation that inflict long-lasting psychological harm. Nearly all of them are confined to a room no bigger than a cubicle in a public toilet with little natural light.

“I didn’t see the sun for eight or ten months,” says Sunil Masih, 57, a former informant and a neighbour of Surinderpal. Masih, who worked for the army’s intelligence wing, was repatriated in 2006 after serving 8 years in a Pakistani jail.

The methods of torture varied little. Most were victims of strappado, an excruciating practice of binding together the prisoner's arms and legs and suspending him against a wall, half-naked, to repeatedly strike him with a cane. The process takes so long that prison officers took turns in order to regain their strength.

Sunil Masih, 57, was repatriated in 2006 after serving eight years in a Pakistani jail. Repeated cane strikes during his incarceration have caused severe damage to Masih’s kidneys.(Reuben Singh/HT Photo)

“I ate, shat and slept in the same room,” Masih says. Nearly all of those who were captured recall a similar fate.

After strappado, which usually occurred every two hours early in the incarceration period, they clamped alligator clips onto their thumbs and passed current through their bodies. It’s momentary but causes lasting damage such as slurred speech.

The repeated cane strikes to his lower abdomen had caused severe damage to Masih’s kidneys, which were now failing -- a common characteristic of repeated blunt trauma to the rectum.

Most of them relent but they are giving “no information of actual consequence,” a former IB deputy director says.

You feel like used currency. I can’t pay for my survival.

While intelligence officers often believe that prisoners under extreme pressure, induced by torture among other things, give up secrets, enough research proves that such coercion doesn’t result in accurate intelligence.

“We are no better,” a former IB deputy-director says.

India too has a history of treating its prisoners with brutality. There is no official report of the treatment of Pakistani prisoners in India but data suggest Indian prisoners fare no better. Between 2010 and 2015, 591 people died in police custody according to the National Records Crime Bureau. A report by Human Rights Watch alleges that these deaths are a direct result of torture.

“All of us who have been captured have gone through this. We know how bad it is,” says David Masih, 55, another informant and neighbour of Satpal who was also tortured. He could barely walk five feet without stopping. He needed a walking stick to keep standing.

Unlike highly trained spies who slip through Islamabad’s streets, informants such as Satpal are considered expendable. They can languish in prison for years since they don’t have the privilege of diplomatic immunity that their “polished” counterparts enjoy, a former IB official says.

They are considered the lowest of the low says a former BSF officer who also asked not to be identified by name.

Ordinary beginnings

Since 1985, Satpal had been an informant and courier for military intelligence. Over the course of his 15 year espionage career, he made more than two dozen trips.

Like his siblings, he had a stocky build. You couldn’t pick his face from a crowd. He had wavy hair and sometimes wore printed shirts. His obscure life was quite normal for a man who lived his entire life in Dadwan.

Like most men in his village, he had a day job. He’d been a painter all his life -- a profession that his son has taken on. Intelligence gathering trips were unexpected.

His wife, Jeeto, who died in 2006, worried about when the white jeeps would arrive at their door. Men in civilian clothes would shepherd Satpal into the vehicle. They were never sure when he’d return. Or if he would.

Visits by officers from Intelligence agencies were referred to as “visits from the cellar” because of the mental anguish that men experienced when they returned after long stints on the other side of the border.

Satpal’s family tried to stop him. His father, Tejpal, tried the hardest.

But money and liquor, offered by his handlers, were too tempting. Satpal and many of Gurdaspur’s men made anywhere between 1,200 to 2,000 rupees depending on the nature of the mission.

“The better the information, the higher the reward,” a former IB official says. But seeking better information meant going deeper into enemy territory and, therefore, a higher chance of capture.

On his last mission, Satpal was captured by Pakistani authorities on November 26, 1999. He was booked for illegal border crossing and smuggling. He’d allegedly been working on a routine courier when he was captured close to the Kashmir border. Satpal was thrown into Kot Lakpat Jail in Central Lahore, a prison famous for holding Sarabjit Singh, an alleged RAW informant who died in 2013 after being attacked by other prisoners.

Satpal’s family didn’t learn of his capture until months later. By then, he was one of Dadwan’s and Gurdaspur’s missing men.

On April 17, 2000, men in white shirts and khaki pants came to Tejpal’s door. They told him his son had been dead for nearly 40 days. It would be a month before he saw Satpal’s body.

Satpal’s death left his family reeling. Neither did they receive compensation nor the possibility of a government job. In the immediate aftermath, they were helped by politicians Lakshmi Kant Chawla and Maninderjit Singh Bitta. But it was short lived.

This feeling of abandonment is too much

His wife, Jeeto, started working as domestic help in Dhariwal town, a little over a kilometre away. She made a pittance, but it was enough to get by.

An informal policy of Intelligence agencies is to provide a “golden handshake” which would enable families to start over in some way.

Roop Lal Sahariya, who returned to India in April, 2000, after spending 26 years in a Pakistani prison was promised his own petrol station. It was only officially sanctioned by a Delhi court in May 2010. He was one of the few who actually got something from the government. Sahariya died in 2011.

“We have received nothing,” says Surinderpal.

Surinderpal was 15 when they told him that his father was dead. He had helped light the funeral pyre. Then, for the next two decades he accumulated information about his father’s death.

Under the mattress in his bedroom were reams of newspaper clippings and legal documents that have helped him build a case for compensation. But he’s had little success.

Pictured is Satpal’s election identity card and a portrait that sits on the kitchen wall of Surinderpal’s home.

A solitary portrait of Satpal sits high above the kitchen walls. He’s wearing a navy blue suit with a beaming smile. It’s a well fitted suit with a red and gold tie. It’s a stark contrast to the barebones home that Surinderpal and his wife Pooja now occupy.

Photos placed around the home hardly divulge what Satpal had done with his life. After his death, the family had become smaller. His father and mother passed away and the, six years later, his wife. His presence only manifested in Surinderpal’s continuous pursuit for monetary compensation.

“You feel like used currency,” says Sunil Masih. “I can’t pay for my survival.” Masih has been fighting a similar to battle for compensation

In September 2005, the Public Works Department Minister, Partap Singh Bajwa promised two lakhs each to of the families of former Dadwan spies from the Chief Minister’s discretionary quota. There is no record of this money reaching the village. Bajwa’s office declined to comment.

Surinderpal has studied the legalese and has explored possible routes to compensation. He has been given multiple promises by lawyers and local politicians. But, he says, “no one comes. This feeling of abandonment is too much.”