The Forgotten Spies

Lured by a promising future and thrill to serve his country, a young taxi-driver from Jammu sneaked into Pakistan to snoop for Indian forces. But when he was caught and jailed for 11 years his ‘employers’ chose to forget him. Dejected, he contacted other amateur spies like him to fight against the system, they once served happily.  Asif Iqbal Naik and Shams Irfan report.

Vinod Sahani showing a letter he had written to Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.
Vinod Sahani showing a letter he had written to Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan.

Vinod Sahani remembers the summer of 1977 vividly. He would ferry tourists fleeing humid planes of India for a break in summer capital Srinagar.  Sahani, 22, a taxi driver by profession was happy to help his widow mother financially after his father expired leaving behind a family of eight to feed. On one particular journey a guy named Mr Dhan, boarded his taxi for Srinagar.

A polite man with aristocratic mannerism and perfectly trimmed moustaches, Mr Dhan told Sahani, he is posted in Jammu and is visiting Kashmir to see his family. It did not take Mr Dhan and Sahani long to strike a conversation. During eight hour journey their conversation steered from one topic to another. “We talked about religion, sports, politics etc.,” remembers Sahani. They had lunch together at a small hilly town called Ramban. “After lunch it was like talking to a childhood friend. We had so many things in common including our hatred for enemy country Pakistan,” Sahani said.

As they were about to reach Srinagar Mr Dhan offered Sahani to join BSF so that he could serve his country in a better way. “He told me that I can get you in touch with people who can recruit you,” said Sahani.

Mr Dhan left his Jammu address with Sahani and promised to see him again. “That night I could not sleep at all; after all I was just offered a job,” Sahani said.

On his return, Sahani contacted Mr Dhan without wasting time. “We met at Gandhi Nagar based BSF headquarters,” Sahani remembers.

Mr Dhan introduced Sahani to one of his superiors and they all began talking casually. After gaining Sahani’s trust, Mr Dhan’s superior told him that they need someone who can serve the country without fearing for his life. “He told me that they need a spy who can go to Pakistan immediately and bring back information about troop deployment,” remembers Shanai.

Without giving it a second thought Sahani accepted the offer. Mr Dhan advised Sahani to keep this ‘mission’ a top secret. “Don’t even tell your family what you do or where you are going,” Mr Dhan told Sahani.

After doing a thorough background check on Sahani he was contacted again by Mr Dhan and his superior. The superior officer then made Sahani sign a few papers and told him that his recruitment in the BSF is complete now. “I was told that I am officially part of BSF now,” recalls Sahani.

When Shanai was about to leave, Mr Dhan’s superior came close to him and wrapped his arm around him in a friendly manner and said, “Your family is now our concern. You just go and serve your motherland.”

On the same evening Sahani was taken to RS Pura, a forward border town near Jammu district, where he stayed at Suchetgarh border post – a safe-house for spies launched into Pakistan. “There I was introduced to a person who was my guide and travel companion,” recalls Sahani.

Then under the cover of darkness, with BSF’s help Sahani and his guide crossed into Pakistan with instructions to map important routes and army deployment, and come back within 5 days.

Before leaving for his ‘new-job’, Sahani had told his mother that he is going to Kashmir with a tourist party. “I told her I will be back within a week,” said Sahani.

Once in Pakistan, Sahani and his guide travelled extensively across the country. “In first four days I went to Sialkot, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lialpur and Lahore,” recalls Sahani.

It was August and Pakistan had just celebrated its 30th birthday. “There was lot of political chaos in Pakistan which made our job difficult,” Sahani said.

A month before Sahani and his guide sneaked into Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq had staged a military coup and seized power by overthrowing the then incumbent Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Martial law was enforced in the country and the Constitution suspended.

Vinod Sahani (extreme right) sitting with two other spies whom he knew from Multan jail.
Vinod Sahani (extreme right) sitting with two other spies whom he knew from Multan jail.

It was really difficulty for Sahani and his guide to gather required information for their ‘bosses’ back home. At the end of his five day deadline Sahani and his guide decided to return. “We stayed at a safe-house near the border and waited for the night fall to cross into Indian side,” Sahani said.

Sahani was happy to complete his first ‘mission’ successfully. “I was missing my home badly,” Sahani said.

But the ‘mission’ was far from over for Sahani.

As it was time to leave, Sahani started looking around for his guide who had gone out in the village to meet some friends.

“He did not return at all. I started feeling nervous. I knew something bad is about to happen,” Sahani said.

That night the safe-house was raided by Pakistani army rangers and Sahani was arrested. “I still remember that day – it was August 23, 1977,” said Sahani.

He was straightaway taken to army interrogation centre at Sialkoat. “I was tortured there for 132 days,” recalls Sahani.

Finally he was handed over to Sialkoat police who produced him before a court for illegally crossing the LoC. After 10 month long trial Sahani was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment for trespassing into a foreign country. “I was taken to New Central Jail Multan,” said Sahani.

At Multan Jail, Sahani met other Indian inmates and most of them were serving jail terms for crossing over illegally into Pakistan. “I was shocked to learn that they were all spies who, like me, had volunteered to gather information for forces in exchange for a secure future,” recalls Sahani.

He realized that they all had been promised the same thing – a permanent job in BSF or Army. “After talking to other inmates, I became sure that we were simply used and then left to die in a foreign country by people like Mr Dhan,” said Sahani. There were around 50 other Indians lodged in Multan Jail with Sahani, most of them amateur spies like him. “There were spies from Rajasthan, Haryana, Jammu, Kashmir, Gujarat, Punjab etc,” Sahani said.

Nobody had any formal training in information gathering. They were all picked randomly from different corners of India and sent across to gather information. “One thing was common among all spies lodged at Multan Jail – everybody had come across a person like Mr Dhan,” Sahani said.

Back home Sahani’s family had no idea where he was. His mother looked everywhere for him, contacted every person he knew for his whereabouts. After a year-long wait, when Sahani did not show up, his family presumed him dead and performed his last rites.

At Multan Jail, Sahani made friends with a number of Pakistani prisoners. “There were a number of political activists imprisoned in our jail. They were all well educated with good knowledge of the world politics. I would sit with them for hours and talk about life, politics, India, Pakistan and my family,” recalls Sahani.

For first two years Sahani could not write to his family as Indian prisoners were barred from sending letters. It was only after Indian prisoners protested and went on an indefinite hunger strike that they were allowed to write to their families.

Sahani, a school dropout, could not write and asked a fellow prisoner, a Pakistan People’s Party worker who was serving time at Multan Jail under martial law, to help him write a letter. With his help Sahani wrote his first letter telling his family about his whereabouts. “I told them clearly where I am and how I reached here,” said Sahani.

Sahani’s first letter reached home two years after he crossed over to Pakistan. “Through letters I came to know that my mother had died in abject poverty. She wanted to see my face just once. But that could not happen,” said an emotional Sahani.

Till he started receiving letters from his home, Sahani was under the impression that his family is being taken care of by his recruiters as promised. “Nobody had come to my ailing mother’s help when she was dying for want of medical attention. They (BSF) had cheated me,” said Sahani.

Sahani spent rest of his days in Multan Jail praying to get out and see his home just once.

Police had no idea why Sahani crossed over to Pakistan. “I was happy that they treated me as a routine case of wandering across unmarked LoC,” Sahani said.  Unable to establish his links with any Indian intelligence agency,  Sahani was cleared for release after he completed his six month sentence in Multan jail.

But his troubles were far from over. Before he could actually walk out of the Multan jail as a free man, he was detained again on Punjab Province Home Department’s request. “They kept me like that till March 1988,” Sahani said.

It was only after Indian government intervened that Sahani was set free on health grounds. “It was a sign of good will gesture between two neighbours,” said Sahani.

On 23rd March, 1988 Sahani was sent back home through Wagah border. He was frail and barely able to walk, but it was the feeling of returning home after 11 years that kept him going.

“I expected a hero’s welcome but everything had changed in last 11 years, people had moved on,” Sahani said. “Nobody cared what we did or what we suffered for our nation.”

After nursing his injuries, Sahani set out to trace Mr Dhan. “All I wanted to know from him was as to why I was abandoned like an unwanted child. Why nobody cared for my family. Why I was forgotten,” Sahani said.

Sahani approached Prime Minister’s Officer, seeking rehabilitation as he was sure his ‘sacrifices’ will be appreciated. “All I wanted was some source of livelihood for myself,” said Sahani. He was disappointed when nobody paid any heed to his pleas. But he didn’t give up. Sahani started contacting other amateur spies who like him were first used and then forgotten by the system. “After sacrificing our lives for our country we deserve respect and a decent life. I am fighting for our honour now,” said Sahani.

In 1990, Sahnai formed Jammu & Kashmir Ex-Sleuths Association (JKESA), which now has around 60 ex-spies as its members. Sahani, who is president of the JKESA, keeps track of spies released from different jails in Pakistan. “It is like a family now. We help each other in small ways while fighting for our rights,” said Sahani.

In order to sustain himself and his struggle, Sahani runs a small tea-stall in Jammu. “Irony is that I am not even allowed to run my tea stall by the municipality. They treat me like an illegal migrant,” said Sahani.

Knowing the system he once was part of and served dedicatedly is not moved by his pleas, Sahani has penned down his memories in Pakistani prison. “I want to warn youngsters who get thrilled by the idea of spying. I know what it means to lose 11 years of your youth in a foreign jail. Nobody helps you. It is just you and the walls of your narrow cell,” said Sahani painfully.

Given his limited resources, Sahani is looking for a publisher to get his memoire published. “I have put my heart into this book. Hope it gets published so that people will know how spies are really treated,” said Sahani.

After his release Sahani was in touch with most of the spies lodged in Pakistani jails. He would write to them to know about their condition. “I was in touch with Sarabjit’s family and vouched for his release,” said Sahani.

Sahani was saddened by Sarabjit’s death in a Pakistani jail. But at the same time is upset the way he was treated after his body was brought home. “He was made a martyr and his family was showered with money. He was not the only spy who sacrificed his life for the country. There are thousands like him who have lost everything,” said Sahani.

Sahani says that it took Chamel Singh’s family around a month to get his body back from Pakistan after he was allegedly beaten to death in a prison there, while Sarabjit’s body was brought back within two days. “Chamel too was arrested on spying charges like Sarabjit, why didn’t government of India intervene on his family’s behalf like they did in Sarabjit’s case,” questions Sahani.

“We don’t want awards or rewards. We just want to be respected for what we did for our country,” said Sahani emotionally and then adds in the same breath, “But who cares what we did.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Speaking Mind

    (True incident shared by Mr Maqsood Shahdad )

    Government of India is giving a state funeral to the Indian spy Sarabjit Singh who was facing death penalty in Pakistan and passed away in a Pakistani hospital. What double standards does India practice? I will relate a true story, an eye opener to all, particularly the Kashmiri Muslims working for Indian agencies.

    Some 18 years back I was approached by a Tehsildar in Jammu who asked me to accompany him to a place in Sunjwani, where a Kashmiri Muslim migrant family was residing. The man and his family had run away from Islamabad town (in District Anantnag) Kashmir, they were now residing in Sunjwani after reportedly being ‘harassed’ by Mujahideen there. The Tehsildar briefed me before meeting the person; here is what he told me, what he wanted me to convey and get an answer from that Kashmiri person.

    “Mr Shahdad, this person’s brother was working for Indian intelligence agencies in Pakistan and was arrested there and after some years in jail has died there. We have been informed through foreign office to find out from his close relatives (and family) whether they would be interested in getting him buried there in Pakistan or bring him to India. In the latter case the family will have to bear the expenses. Please ask him in Kashmiri as he does not understand my language. I would also prefer you to explain him in Kashmiri and get his answer just now, as I have to inform my bosses. It is an urgent matter”.

    When I met that person and told him everything in Kashmiri, he replied “Sir, we have worked for the Indian government and faced so many hardships, even fled from home and (his) brother had died for India, yet see what they are telling me. We would surely like to get his dead body back here, but we are poor people and cannot afford the cost. Isn’t it their responsibility to get his dead body here?” He paused and implored “By the way how much will it cost?”

    In the heart of my heart I felt so bad. Then I asked the Tehsildar who was accompanying me “how much will it (getting the corpse back for burial) cost?”

    The Tehsildar replied “40,000/- approximately”

    I adequately informed the man. He was stunned, stood mute like a stone and collapsed on the floor. I then told the Tehsildar, “it was very unfortunate that the man has worked for Indian intelligence against all odds and had to migrate from Kashmir valley along with all his close relatives and then his brother (who worked for India as a spy) dies in Pakistan for the sake of India. It is not the moral responsibility of Indian government to bring his dead body back here? He has given his life for India and this family is poor, cannot afford the cost of getting his dead body. Please inform your bosses accordingly”.

    The Tehsildar adamantly replied “No ! I have been asked to find out the answer in simple Yes or No. Nothing more”

    After this indifference by the Indian government and their denial of bringing back the corpse, the man was buried in Pakistan and his family denied even a dead body (leave alone any recognition or sympathy by India). There was no media coverage to declare him a hero, no politicians buzzing around to offer condolences, nobody to grieve with them, no India to outrage.

    This is the difference in the attitude, treatment and behavior of Indians towards Hindus and Muslims (even if they serve India to any limits) and that is why I say it is Hindus’Tan.

    P.S : We should not also forget the fate of those renegades who killed innocents in Kashmir for the sake of India and then were erased by Indian forces without a trace. Remember how Major Avtar Singh is known to have killed and disposed off the renegades who had earlier carried his orders for murdering innocents in Kashmir (and how India helped Avtar Singh flee later on). Remember how Kashmiri Muslims will never be treated as one of their own by India, not even the staunchest pro New Delhi politicians here.

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