Date: May 31, 2020
Place: A non-descript restaurant in Karol Bagh, Delhi
Two Pakistan High Commission staffers working in the visa section of the mission approach a man sitting alone on a table in a corner of the mid-sized restaurant. This is their first meeting with the man they think is a soldier in the Indian Army although the duo had been speaking to the man on his mobile phone on and off for over three to four months.
The duo exchange pleasantries with the ‘soldier’ as they sit down. After a couple of minutes, they take out two brand new I-phones and Rs 15,000 in cash. As they hand over the goodies, half a dozen men sitting around on different tables in the restaurant surround the trio. The Pakistani High Commission staffers, in reality ISI recruiters working in the garb of visa assistants in the mission, realise India’s intelligence and law enforcement personnel have caught them red handed in trying to entice a serving Indian military jawan to part with sensitive information.
The duo is taken into custody. A third Pakistan national—the unsuspecting driver of a Pakistani High Commission’s vehicle with a diplomatic number plate in which the duo had reached Karol Bagh—waiting on the road is also caught. Aware that the diplomatic immunity the trio enjoys will allow them to walk free quickly, sleuths of military intelligence (MI), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Delhi Police start interrogating them then and there.
The Pakistanis reveal three or four more contacts they had established across India among serving Indian military personnel. The duo—later identified as Abid Hussain and Tahir Khan (the driver’s name was Javed Hussain)—admit to being in touch with the soldier, whose identity is being kept secret, since February 2020 but both absolve the soldier of any wrongdoing or betrayal. “He hasn’t given us any papers or information. This is our first meeting,” the Pakistani duo tells the interrogators. On this count, they were truthful. The man they thought was a ‘soldier’ in the Indian Army was in fact a Military Intelligence officer posing as a jawan. For over three months, this unnamed officer kept playing along as the Pakistani duo tried to extract information from him thinking he was one young Indian jawan.
As the Pakistanis spilled the beans, shared other numbers they were in touch with and gave detailed information about their modus operandi, the intelligence sleuths knew they had hit the jackpot. The success had not come overnight though. The arrest was the result of luck, alertness on part of a young Indian soldier, painstaking and patient handling by a Military Intelligence Unit, the IB’s experience in such matters and pressure the Pakistani duo came under to deliver results during the initial months of the pandemic last year, all put together.
The story begins in December 2019. A young Indian Army jawan posted in a unit in Delhi is waiting to receive some important documents from his bank back home in another state. He sends them his Delhi address and is waiting for the letter to arrive. All postal correspondence for the military personnel incidentally is handled by the Army Postal Service (APS) which uses a unique numbering system to identify the unit to which letters have to be delivered. The young jawan, after being told by the bank that the letter has been dispatched to the official address given by him, waits for 10 days before beginning to worry. He knows that such domestic postal delivery normally takes less than four days.
Concerned over the delay, he contacts the bank again. The bank says it had dispatched the letter 10 days earlier. The jawan then decides to put up an online complaint on the National Consumer Complaints Forum (complaintsboard.in), detailing his concern and also leaving his personal mobile number for the APS personnel to contact him.
Unknown to the jawan or the APS authorities, the Pakistani duo in the New Delhi mission, trawling Indian websites to trap potential recruits, come across the complaint of the jawan. One of them promptly calls up the jawan from an Indian mobile number, expresses sympathy and assures quick redressal. The jawan thinks nothing of the first conversation. As luck would have it, a week after the first contact that the Pakistanis made with him, the jawan receives his letter. He writes back to the Consumer Forum online that he has received the letter. The APS headquarters closes the complaint.
The Pakistani duo, watching the correspondence online (it is an open forum), smells an opportunity. A couple of days after the complaint is closed, one of them contacts the jawan and asks him if he has received the letter. The jawan thanks the caller after he describes how difficult it was for the caller (the Pakistani operative) to locate the letter and how he went out of his way to help. All this while, the jawan thinks he is talking to a colleague in the APS and doesn’t think much about the conversation after the call ends.
The real action begins thereafter.
The Pakistani operative dials the jawan after four to five days and tries to strike up a conversation. As a gesture of courtesy, the jawan responds to the call and exchanges pleasantries. The call ends. Four days later, the Pakistani calls again and casually starts asking for details about his career, background, marital status etc.
The young but alert and intelligent jawan cuts off the call by saying an officer is standing nearby and that he would talk later. He goes straight to his Commanding Officer (CO), suspecting the motive of the caller. After questioning the jawan on the circumstances under which the contact was established, the CO calls in the MI’s Counter-Int unit. MI takes over the case, pats the jawan for his quick thinking and takes his mobile. Now a young MI officer starts impersonating the jawan. At this point, MI also brings in Delhi police and IB counterparts on the case. The mobile number from which the Pakistani operative kept calling is traced to Chanakyapuri and then is triangulated specifically to the Pakistani embassy compound located in the diplomatic area. The suspicion about the caller being a Pakistani operative is now confirmed.
As the next call comes from the Pakistani operative’s number, the officer—now posing as the jawan—messages the Pakistani that he can’t talk since he is on duty. And this goes on for over a month. The officer, when asked any specific question by the Pakistani, gives vague, non-classified information to keep the conversation going. In March 2020, the Pakistani asks for the specific location of the unit, its composition, the name of the Commanding Officer (CO) and so on. That’s when the officer says he cannot give this information on the phone and asks for a meeting. The Pakistani says, come and meet me in Sadar Bazar.
That’s when the first miscommunication happens. The officer, thinking about Sadar Bazar in Delhi Cantonment, goes there. The Pakistani, however, had the Sadar Bazar near old Delhi in mind. They fail to meet. Then the nationwide lockdown is declared in India and the trail goes cold for a while.
During the month-plus period of the lockdown, the Pakistani operative calls once or twice, sounding downcast and desperate for information. The officer deftly keeps the conversation going, reveals little information of any value but manages to keep the Pakistani interested. As soon as the lockdown lifts on May 3, 2020, the officer gets a call. This time, he says he will fix the meeting venue. However, the officer plays hard to get and says a lot of work has come up and that the meeting can happen only two weeks later. Reluctantly, the Pakistani agrees.
In between, he calls twice and pushes for an early meeting. The officer shows a little more interest with a remark: ‘you keep asking for information. Koi achha smart phone ya laptop aur kuchh paise wagaira to de do’ (at least give me a smartphone or a laptop and some money in return for all the information you keep asking for). The trap is well and truly laid.
Another phone call and the date is set. The officer gives the place and time. A restaurant in Karol Bagh, May 31, 6 pm. IB, Delhi Police and MI all organisations pool resources. Lady officers, even children, are roped in. The team takes over the Karol Bagh restaurant completely. Some personnel don the uniform of waiters. Another mans the cash counter. One more person assumes guard duty outside the restaurant. Tables are occupied randomly. Some have couples sitting at them. Others have children as well. One is occupied by the officer.
At the appointed time, the Pakistani duo (the operative and his colleague) walks into the restaurant, is trapped, interrogated and expelled in June 2020 (since they had diplomatic immunity and couldn’t be arrested). Thanks to excellent synergy between different agencies, two ISI operatives were caught and rendered persona non grata.
Post Script: As expected, Pakistanis, in a retaliatory move, asked two Indians working in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad to leave that country. In a related move, in keeping with diplomatic practice, India told the Pakistani mission to match the number of Pakistani nationals working in its New Delhi mission with that of the Indian personnel in the mission in Islamabad. Since India had 55 personnel in Islamabad in June 2020, Pakistan had to reduce its mission staff from 90 plus (in June 2020) to 55, making it one of the largest departure of Pakistani diplomatic personnel from India at one go.