Behind India’s Bust Of A Pakistan SpyApril 29, 2010
Suman K. Chakrabarti and Omar Warraich
“At 53, she was bored, alone and attractive. Single, but definitely one step ahead to mingle.” That’s how the man who led the operation to bust Madhuri Gupta, the first Indian diplomat to be found spying for Pakistan, described her. For most of her two years in espionage, Gupta was a lone-wolf, conducting a classic spy operation from her base in Islamabad. Old-school “dead drops,” in which she passed off information without even meeting her Pakistani handlers, were her signature style. Yet it was a silly indiscretion — sending e-mails to her spy bosses from her office computer — that finally led to her arrest.
Gupta has not exactly been near the center of Indian decision-making, posted as a second secretary in the media section of India’s high commission in Pakistan’s capital, where her job had been to provide English and Hindi summaries of Pakistan’s Urdu-language newspapers. On April 22, the 53-year-old was summoned back to New Delhi ostensibly to help colleagues prepare for the ongoing South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit in Bhutan. After landing at Indira Gandhi International Airport, she was whisked away by officials of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (IB), India’s internal intelligence agency, straight to an interrogation chamber in an undisclosed location. Twenty-four hours later, she was handed over to Delhi police, charged with treason and accessing confidential documents under India’s Official Secrets Act.
“Her spy game was up the moment a Joint Secretary — an IB officer — inside the Islamabad mission suspected her around October 2009 and reported back,” a high-level IB case officer in New Delhi told TIME. The IB launched a massive counter-intelligence operation, in which even its counterparts in the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the country’s external intelligence agency, were kept out of the loop.
Over the next six months, Gupta’s every step was monitored. She was found to be taking undue interest in informal discussions among the senior embassy officials regarding important policy matters, including India’s strategic plans in Afghanistan and resuming a dialogue with Pakistan. She was even fed with incorrect information to be passed on to her Pakistan handlers, suspected to be from the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
Pakistani authorities refused to comment on the case, but analysts in Islamabad saw her arrest as an attempt to scupper upcoming planned talks between India’s and Pakistan’s prime ministers. “The timing was supposed to send a signal that India is not ready to talk to Pakistan yet,” said Cyril Almeida, an editor and analyst at Pakistan’s
Dawn newspaper. “India has not moved beyond its post-Mumbai [the terror attack which Indian and Western authorities say originated in Pakistan] phase. It is not looking for talks with Pakistan any time soon.”
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was scheduled to meet his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, this week, although the purpose of such talks is contested. After breaking off all dialogue with Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, Indian officials had suggested a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC summit to discuss a long-running water dispute, but Pakistan has made clear that it wants a formal, open-ended peace talks. As Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the India’s CNN-IBN network on Tuesday, “We need to go beyond a handshake.”
Asked whether the two prime ministers would still hold talks in Bhutan this week, Pakistan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Malik Amad Khan told TIME, “Maybe, maybe not, but that’s totally independent of [the spying] allegations.”
Almeida notes that espionage efforts to “turn” the other country’s diplomats are par for the course between the long-time rivals, “But given [Gupta’s] relatively junior position it is unlikely that she would have had access to sensitive documents, unless there was a real breakdown internally.”
Indian government sources say Gupta had been spying for Pakistan since September 2008. “We have reasons to believe that she was not recruited inside Pakistan,” says a senior officer in R&AW. “Possibly she was picked up and nurtured either in Baghdad or Kuala Lumpur where she was posted earlier.” The agency also says this could have been a reason why she was keen for a Pakistan posting — usually a last choice among Indian diplomats and intelligence officials.
Vishnu Prakash, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, says that Gupta “is co-operating with the investigations and inquiries.” Sources told TIME that she has told interrogators that she spied for Pakistan to settle scores with senior Indian diplomats who mistreated her during her early career. She has also reportedly confessed that a prominent Pakistani journalist put her in touch with Pakistani intelligence officers.