Despite the fragile domestic scene in Pakistan due to political instability, and forces rallying to gang up against disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has stepped up, rather blatantly, its espionage activities in India.
The agency’s well-crafted agenda for subversion in India was recently evident when a stenographer, Raghvendra Ahirwal, posted in a magistrate’s office in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh (UP), was taken away for sustained interrogation on preliminary charges of passing on sensitive information to the ISI.
On the face of it, it looks innocuous – why would a lowly stenographer be targeted by the ISI? And what kind of intelligence gathering can be had from him?
Now Jhansi may be historically famous only for Rani Laxmibai, yet from the ISI’s perspective, the city is a prime target for having a huge military cantonment in Babina, which houses the Indian Army’s XX1 Corps, 31 Armoured Division (White Tiger Division) and the 94 Armoured Brigade. Accessing information from such a coveted military establishment is a gold mine for the ISI.
It’s important now to dwell on the modus operandi of the ISI to garner intelligence about Babina. It must also be known that Babina is believed to have the biggest firing range in the country where Army units from different parts of India, paramilitary outfits and others practise firing from different weapons with focus on artillery firing.
It’s very useful for the ISI to know the type of weapons used in firing exercises, their range, kind of ammunition used and the impact.
Information thus collated by the ISI is then examined in depth by military experts at the Pakistan GHQ and a holistic picture is drawn up to know India’s capability in this area in case of a war or any other military exigency.
Now the question is that where does the stenographer fit in the larger picture?
Whenever the Army is conducting any firing exercise at the Babina Field Firing Range (BBFR), the Army formally notifies the district administration via a circular to warn the civilian populace to be careful.
Ahirwal, the prime suspect, by implication, has been on the payrolls of the ISI and he shared the circulars with his handlers.
Surprisingly, preliminary interrogation reveals that this game has been going on since 2009. By now, therefore, the ISI must be in possession of a wealth of military-linked information pertaining to BBFR over the past several years.
As part of the dynamics of the handlers of the ISI, one Major Yadav (assumed name) used to make telephonic calls to the stenographer ascertaining the information. Interestingly, phone calls were made either through internet or via a SIM box. They were invariably from a nine-digit number where calls could not be returned. These facts were confirmed through analysis of call detail records (CDR) of Ahirwal’s phone.
Thankfully, timely intervention by the intelligence agencies and subsequent pro-active action by the Anti-Terror Squad (ATS) of the UP Police, led to the nabbing of Ahirwal. Cases under Official Secrets Act have been registered against him and investigation has begun, hopefully leading to exposure of major players in the larger network. Investigative agencies need to intensify their probe to minimise the damage.
This Jhansi development is an eye-opener for the country’s sleuths. The ISI is obviously trying to penetrate deeper into the Indian military establishment to enrich its intelligence and data bank. It’s intriguing that despite occasional arrests and vigil, the ISI continues to pursue its espionage activities in an aggressive manner.
In the light of this, it may be recalled that in the not so distant past, several ISI operatives were arrested for collecting intelligence from Bareilly and Meerut cantonments but it had somehow no deterrent effect.
ISI’s audacious moves were also evident almost a year ago when it targeted the BSF and won over an officer working in its intelligence branch. This operation was facilitated by one Kafaitullah Khan alias Master Raja operating from Rajauri, Jammu, closer to the LoC. In this case, borders with Pakistan and the BSF both remain vulnerable.
ISI operations in India seem to be result-oriented, forthright and vicious. They target anyone to get whatever is worth. If there is availability of a stenographer, he is befriended through their tradecraft for years.
Again, a PA (Farhat) of a Samajwadi Party (SP) Rajya Sabha MP, Munawwar Salim, was arrested a couple of years ago for supplying information to the ISI through Pakistani High Commission staffer Mehmood Akhtar. This also confirms to what extent the High Commission in New Delhi is active in recruitment of ISI agents and executing operations for their intelligence gathering.
Another example is glaring. The ISI had employed undercover agents Irshad Ansari, his son Ashfaq and accomplice Mohammad Jehangir in 2015-16 to garner intelligence from Garden Reach Ship Building Yard in Kolkata about ship designs and related information. So no area of activity is left untouched. The aim of the ISI is to fish out maximum intelligence from its agents.
These events call for a robust counter intelligence mechanism to foil ISI attempts for talent spotting and induction of agents. However, the task is humongous. Yet, there cannot be any lowering of guard on the part of security and intelligence agencies.
This seems more imperative in view of today’s (August 10) arrest in New Delhi of an al-Qaeda activist, Raza ul Ahmad, who also belongs to the dreaded Ansar Bangla outfit from Bangladesh.
Recently, another Bangladeshi, Abdullah al Mamoon, was arrested from Saharanpur by the ATS, where he had been living almost unnoticed for the last four years. He got his Indian passport made from Saharanpur at a premium of only Rs 9,000 though he is originally from district Mymensingh, Bangladesh.
He also managed to get a voter’s identity card from Assam. Abdullah is currently in police custody and during interrogation gave out several startling details, including the fact that a large number of Bangladeshis are still entering Assam, West Bengal, Tripura etc, by paying a premium to agents.
Many of them are entering India illegally in the guise of students. This trend looks alarming. Here, it needs to be stressed that the ISI is very active in Bangladesh and uses its agents to target Indian interests through Fake Indian Currency Note (FICN) and other unethical means.
*The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.