The tale of Madhuri Gupta is one of the least titillating spook stories ever. The over all narrative is rather sad and tawdry. Lonely lady seduced by the macho studs of the ISI stable. Bitter employee passed over for promotion. But here’s the rub: an obviously vulnerable woman was sent to one of the most nerve racking posting for an Indian diplomat presumably because she was proficient in Urdu. But the foreign office and intelligence agencies rarely consider sending Indian Muslims proficient in Urdu. There are exceptions and a few Muslims have served in the missions in Pakistan but the broad tendency is to avoid choosing Muslims . Key posts in Islamabad are considered the preserve of the most trustworthy officers and there is the presumption that Indian Muslims are more likely be seduced by the Pakistanis.
This notion is not only steeped in prejudices it is actually a downright stupid policy for agencies to follow. Let me narrate a story about my first trip to Pakistan in 1996. I was relatively inexperienced on such assignments but had managed a visa for a function in Pakistan that did not allow me to report. But it was a politically exciting time in Pakistan as Nawaz Sharif was then on a comeback trail. I pulled strings and managed to get the visa changed to one that allowed me to report as a journalist and travel to three cities (Indians only get city- specific visas).
It was an exciting assignment. I was the sole Indian journalist in Pakistan at that time and travelled with Nawaz Sharif on the campaign trail to areas beyond my visa specification that visitors do not usually get to see. Sharif, like so many Pakistanis, was an exceptional host and I remember him narrating plots of Hindi movies! But then, back in Islamabad, I had this unnerving conversation with one of his key aides who had been very helpful. The man called me for tea to his house and we were seated on the lawns of his beautiful bungalow. Then he calmly stated: “All of you must have been very happy when the Bombay blasts took place. It was punishment for the Babri demolition and riots.” I first froze, and then replied lamely: How can anyone be happy over such things?
The conversation was clearly a fishing expedition. It was an invitation to express some anti-India sentiment to the Pakistan establishment. I was being subjected to this conversation only because of my Muslim name. No matter what I felt about Babri and Gujarat I was damned if I would say so to a figure linked to the Pakistan establishment and ISI. Later trips to Pakistan have made me place this in some perspective. Pakistanis overwhelmingly believe Indian Muslims are a sorry and oppressed lot. It makes them feel better about themselves. As the idea of Pakistan fails quite spectacularly, they would like to believe they still have some parity with India and that the idea of secularism has failed in our country. Pakistanis can also be the most wonderful hosts with my Hindu colleagues most of whom would never get to hear the rude remarks and stereotypes their hosts actually perpetuate behind their backs.
A friend linked to intelligence agencies says that after the Babri demolition and Gujarat riots it has become almost impossible for us to recruit agents in Pakistan who are ideologically attracted to India. Other incentives have to be offered, or fissures within Pakistan exploited, to get intelligence input. But since it’s become harder to get human intelligence, electronic surveillance and tapping is what will prevail in the future.
Meanwhile, I believe the agencies and IFS should let go of this ambivalence towards Muslims. We have so many Muslims in key jobs who are fiercely loyal to the idea of India. Besides, Pakistan that literally means Land of the Pure is hardly a choice any Muslim anywhere would make unless they had a death wish and a burning desire to join some group like the LeT. Self confident and successful Muslims are the best ambassadors for India in a country like Pakistan that is racked with self doubt. Posting more Muslims to Pakistan helps us make a point about the two nation theory. Even if we believe that diplomacy should not be held hostage to scoring points over historical debate, don’t the two countries actually do that with each other all the time? We keep fighting over our histories.
In an ideal world there should be no spooks or spying. But let’s accept that we have to keep our ears to the ground in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Let me suggest the somewhat audacious theory that Indian Muslims would be a great human asset as spooks, as I really don’t see incentives to switch sides anymore that may have been there in the decades after independence and Partition. Yet the Pakistanis believe Muslims from across the border are soft targets and carry a lurking sympathy for Pakistan. The reality is that most Muslims are quite horrified at what has become of Pakistan. The tragedy is that when it comes to the grey zone of espionage they are not trusted by their own.
One version about the Madhuri Gupta story is that she was seduced by “the studs of the ISI stable”. True Pakistan is a land full of stud-like men, inches taller than the average Indian. These "studs" fight each other, wage what they describe as holy war, have never allowed democracy to strike deep roots, made women invisible in large tracts of the land, and in the heart of the establishment nurture great hostility towards India. Studs have their uses in stables but they may not always be blessed with great intelligence. And the aggressive macho policies of the Pakistan state have certainly contributed to their mess.
If we go by the stereotype perpetuated by Pakistanis, they are a nation blessed with machismo while Indians (read Hindus) are a cowardly and wily people. If we are indeed so clever, we should perhaps make our Muslims part of the intelligence armoury. At the very least they could confuse the Pakistanis.