India expels two Pakistani officials for spying: Islamabad unlikely to wait long before hitting back at New Delhi

FP Staff

News of the Government of India on Sunday expelling two Pakistani diplomats for espionage is likely to provoke a similar and speedy response from the other side of the border, if history, both recent and distant, is anything to go by.  A senior Indian diplomat has already been summoned for a "strong demarche" to convey its condemnation of the decision it described as "baseless."

Hardly anyone should be surprised.  The two nuclear-armed neighbours that have been at loggerheads for decades, have a long record of indulging in such tit-for-tat measures.

The diplomatic game

The uninitiated wondering how this diplomatic chess game works need look no further.

As this Firstpost piece explained:"The Vienna Convention that regulates the diplomatic interaction between countries prescribes that diplomats and staff working in diplomatic missions should adhere to the laws of the receiving State. Obviously, this rules out espionage."

But almost countries send intelligence officers to work in their diplomatic mission, who, despite having a diplomatic or administrative title, are tasked with obtaining sensitive information through clandestine human and technical means, the piece explains.

"Diplomatic missions are kept under surveillance by the counter-intelligence agencies of host countries. A game of shadows goes on all the time. As and when a country catches a diplomat blatantly and unacceptably indulging in the spy game, he is either caught in the act and is ordered to leave or, at times, even without being physically caught is asked to leave."

Sometimes this process is undertaken discreetly and is not made public and on other occasions, the diplomat is publicly declared 'persona non grat' and is sent home, the piece concluded.

Although there have been numerous such tit-for-tats between the countries, especially during the 1990s, an examination of the three most serious incidents since the turn of this century should prove most illuminating.

After Jammu and Kashmir's special status was revoked

The most recent such incident occurred in August 2019 in the aftermath of New Delhi deciding to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcate it into two Union Territories, when Pakistan responded by downgraded diplomatic ties with India and then, just minutes later, expelled then-Indian high commissioner Ajay Bisaria .

Islamabad, in a seething statement issued by Prime Minister Imran Khan, directed that "all diplomatic channels be activated to brutal racist Indian regime, design and human rights violation [sic]."

Bisaria, a seasoned diplomat, was in January appointed High Commissioner to Canada.

After 2016 Uri attack

In late 2016, as simmering tensions between the two countries came to a boil in the aftermath of September's Uri attack, following which India hit terror launchpads in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and the two countries engaged in spate of cross-border firings that resulted in casualties on both sides, the Delhi Police in October arrested Mehmood Akhtar, then a Pakistan High Commission staffer and two others allegedly working as spies in India for over a year and a half.

Akhtar, who identified himself as Mehmood Rajput from Chandni Chowk and even presented a fake Aadhaar card to the police, later invoked diplomatic immunity during his interrogation. Akhtar was released, but declared 'persona non grata' and told to leave India within 48 hours.

Pakistan responded that very same day by summoning the Indian High Commissioner and conveying its decision to expel Surjeet Singh, then an official of the Indian High Commission, and declare him 'persona non grata.'

Nuclear tests, nuclear threats

In January 2003, the countries expelled each other's diplomats after exchanging barbs over their nuclear weapons: then defence minister George Fernandes warned Islamabad not to toy with the idea of using nuclear weapons and musing that Pakistan would be 'wiped out' if India decided to retaliate and Pakistan denounced India's firing of a medium-range version of its nuclear-capable long-range Agni missile.

India on 23 January accused two high-ranking diplomats and and two officials at the Pakistan High Commission of "activities incompatible with their diplomatic status" and ordered them out of the country. This came after days of New Delhi complaining of its high commissioner being intimidated and his car being followed and Pakistan alleging harassment of its diplomats by Indian intel agencies.