The Pakistani announcement that Indian national, Kulbhushan Jadhav alleged to be an Indian spy was sentenced to death is a serious provocation in the current state of India-Pakistan relations. Denying the charges, India said that if any execution were to actually take place it would amount to “premeditated murder”.
The press release from the Pakistani Army’s public relations wing – ISPR stated that a military court had sentenced Jadhav to death for “espionage and sabotage activities. The surprise development comes when there were signs that the bilateral temperature, which had been tense ever since the Uri terror attack in September 2016, was being lowered.
Islamabad has shown no credible evidence to prove its charges; the video of a so-called confession by Jadhav is clearly edited and makes contradictory statements. Addressing Parliament, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described the charges against Jadhav as concocted and his trial as farcical, adding that he was in Iran on business when he was kidnapped and taken to Pakistan.
There is outrage and anger in India; all political parties have demanded tough action from the government. It is likely to increase the tensions between the two countries, adding to the already strained relations. As the rhetoric between New Delhi and Islamabad mounted, the UN Secretary General’s spokesperson stressed the need for both parties to find a peaceful solution through engagement and dialogue.
There are several curious aspects to the Jadhav case. In March 2016, shortly after Islamabad claimed to have apprehended Jadhav, the issue caused some embarrassment for Islamabad after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to Pakistan. Pakistan’s Interior Ministry claimed that the Jadhav issue had been taken up with the visiting Iranians to seek information about his activities in Iran. The Iranians responded with a terse statement that any linking of the Indian case with Tehran would have negative implications on Iran-Pakistan relations.
What adds to the different strands that have emerged regarding the Jadhav case is advisor on foreign affairs to the Pakistani Prime Minister, Sartaj Aziz’s reported comment to a Pakistan senate committee in December 2016 that there was insufficient evidence on Jadhav to prepare a dossier for presenting to the international community. The Pakistani foreign office had later denied the reported statement as a “misquote”.
Unusually for a foreign national in its custody, Pakistan has not responded to India’s repeated requests for consular access to Jadhav, which is a legal requirement.
India made 13 formal requests for consular access in the past year between March 2016 and March 2017. Recently there has been speculation in the Pakistani media linking Jadhav’s death sentence to the disappearance of a retired Pakistani army official from Lumbini, Nepal in early April. The Pakistani official, Lt Col Muhammad Habib Zahir travelled to Lumbini town near the India-Nepal border for a job interview arranged through the social networking site LinkedIn. Some Pakistani media outlets have said that the disappearance was caused by Indian security agencies seeking “leverage” to negotiate the release of Jadhav.
The Jadhav development has come up when there is uncertainty in global politics over US President Donald Trump’s policies towards China and Russia with the missile attack in Syria and the American strike force movement towards North Korea. A heated spat between India and Pakistan at this stage is likely to draw more international attention towards the sub-continent. At the same time, the new US administration has indicated a willingness to mediate between India and Pakistan. United States permanent representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley has said that the US was concerned about India-Pakistan relations, adding that President Trump could be willing to get involved in a peace process between them.
Haley is considered the most influential American official on foreign policy issues at present, articulating the American position on various issues while the state department under secretary of state Rex Tillerman is still to settle in. There is a lobby in Washington that wants the US to mediate even though it goes against the official American position of non-interference in India-Pakistan matters.
India responded by ruling out third party mediation and reiterating its position on bilateral redressal of India-Pakistan issues in an atmosphere free of terror and violence. But, in a recent interview, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed the hope of a proactive engagement by the Trump administration to help resolve the India-Pakistan dispute.
The Indian government is currently assessing the various legal options as well as other channels available to deal with the situation. The issue is unlikely to die down soon; a death sentence is not necessarily implemented within a short period. The issue could get dragged along through the appeal process and can be raised at different periods. It has jumped to top priority in India-Pakistan issues, eclipsing all other pending matters and will continue to bedevil relations for some time.