Spy on thy neighbours

Nepal’s geostrategic position makes it the perfect place for clandestine diplomatic consultations. Located at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, Vienna is still considered to be the spy capital of the world. Hong Kong has maintained its reputation of being the spy hub of East Asia. Dubai is an ideal place for investment, exchange […]

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An Indian man holds a placard depicting Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian national convicted of spying in Pakistan, in the neighborhood where he grew up, in Mumbai on July 17, 2019. - The International Court of Justice will decide on July 17 on India's bid to remove an alleged spy from death row in Pakistan, in a case that has stoked tensions between the South Asian rivals. (Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP)

August 8, 2019

Nepal’s geostrategic position makes it the perfect place for clandestine diplomatic consultations.

Located at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, Vienna is still considered to be the spy capital of the world. Hong Kong has maintained its reputation of being the spy hub of East Asia. Dubai is an ideal place for investment, exchange and operations of all kinds between Central Asia, South Asia and Northern Africa. Singapore is an ideally situated city-state to partner with the Five Eyes—an intelligence alliance that includes Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—in Asia.

It is possible to posit that Nepal’s geostrategic position makes Kathmandu the perfect place to be the centre of hush-hush consultations. The argument isn’t as speculative as it appears. It is practical for all of the 10 most powerful intelligence agencies in the world to have diplomatic cover should they need to talk shop over a beer or coffee in Thamel, Jhamsikhel or Dhulikhel. Counterintelligence isn’t the forte of Nepal’s security agencies. Some officers are actually happy to act as fixers to facilitate informal conversations between sleuths for a consideration.

Kathmandu’s comparative advantage in this regard is unmistakable. It has a considerable tourist population at all times of the year. That’s not so in New Delhi, Dhaka, Islamabad or Colombo where cabbies and hoteliers often volunteer as the eyes and ears of their defence establishments. Unless there is a tip-off in advance, immigration authorities at the Tribhuvan International Airport aren’t exactly famous for detecting visitors with clandestine intentions. Charles Shobhraj’s claim that he could pass an elephant through Nepal’s customs isn’t without basis.

Moving money—the grease that keeps the wheel of undercover deals from squeaking—in and out of Kathmandu has never been an issue. Although hawala and hundi are common all over South Asia, nowhere do law enforcement agencies take such a lenient view of the unauthorised transfer of funds through informal channels as here.

Then there are perfectly legitimate activities that can facilitate important operations on the side. Nepal is dotted with Hindu and Buddhist shrines for pilgrimage. From trekking, jungle safari, bungee jumping and paragliding to bar hopping, Nepal has everything on offer to engage sleuths waiting to rendezvous somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It’s easy to pass in a trench coat and felt hat at the height of summer without being noticed in the streets of Patan or Pokhara if one doesn’t mind being pursued by peddlers of genuine trinkets and forged antiques.

Useful fixers

Due to the stigma attached to being an informant, no scholar worth her graduation gown will agree to be associated with knowledge production with even a patina of partisanship. However, academics are more than willing to engage with intellectually stimulating investigations. And the USA has discovered the utility of scholars as spies. Other powers have followed suit.

It’s an accepted practice to write commissioned papers and offer sponsored lectures that make or contradict a certain point of view. In the marketplace of ideas, consultancy too is an honourable profession that offers gainful opportunities to former bureaucrats, retired or aspiring diplomats, ambitious academics and freewheeling scholars. There have been several disclosures about CIA providing funding to foundations acting as useful fronts. It’s almost certain that other agencies too spread similar slush funds in client countries.

Journalists the world over make some of the best informers, fixers and dealmakers. In recognition of the utility of scholars and scribes, the CIA includes them in a template of regime change. It has developed a remuneration package that has since been improved upon by other players in the game.

In journalistic circles, it is common knowledge that resourceful reporters, influential news coordinators and powerful editors regularly stay in touch with the ‘p5’—permanent member countries to the UN Security Council—embassies among a host of other diplomatic and development missions. Sometimes, the compensation package is direct and may consist of salary, retainer, remuneration and gifts. More common are nonmonetary rewards such as ideological gratification, useful tip-offs, the status of hobnobbing with the high and mighty, and network expansion through junkets abroad. There must be a reason that an increasing number of journos keep visiting Beijing on a regular basis.

Nepal shares an open border—longer than 1750 kilometres—with five Indian states. Such a situation necessitates that intelligence agencies of all these governments keep their eyes open towards and within Nepali territory. The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the Vigilance Department of Bihar Police, the West Bengal Police and the Crime Control Investigation Department of Uttar Pradesh often act independently of the central Indian government to avoid diplomatic channels.

For some inexplicable reason, the station chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) in the Indian Embassy maintains a public presence. Even though tasked with internal responsibilities, it’s quite likely that the ultra-secretive Intelligence Bureau (IB) also maintains some kind of presence in Nepal. As for the Chinese, it’s impossible to differentiate between lay tourists, ordinary business persons and security officials.

Analogous to alumni associations of British, US and Japanese universities and scholarship programs, returnees from what was once the Soviet Union have their Mitra Kunj for socialisation. Camaraderie and conviviality don’t require overt exchanges.

Pointless preoccupations

Throughout the colonial era, Nepal remained one of the most loyal defenders of the British Crown. It changed its allegiance soon after the Second World War and enlisted to become an outpost of the new American empire. King Birendra’s ‘zone of peace’ proposition was meant to extricate the country out of the treaty of 1950, probably at the behest of Washington or Beijing. The plan turned out to be counterproductive for the future of the monarchy.

Nepal’s support for Venezuela is extremely unlikely to have been on its own accord. It’s even more unlikely that the son of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro came to Kathmandu with a retinue of three ministers to meet Pushpa Kamal Dahal, loiter in Labim Mall and then fly out to North Korea via China. The ruling party appears to remain committed to the Beijing Consensus.

When the newly appointed chief of R&AW Samant Kumar Goel came to Kathmandu, ostensibly for Pashupati Darshan, his engagements with political honchos of the host country were carefully leaked to the press. Soon after the much-publicised trip of the Indian super sleuth, Dahal rushed to Dubai on a family tour while Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli flew to Singapore for a health check-up, rest, and relaxation.

Coincidences do raise eyebrows in international diplomacy. However, it’s equally likely that Modi’s spymaster was meeting his counterparts from p5 and i7 ( the ‘influential five’ outside of p5 that comprises Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Switzerland, Norway and Canada) countries to sound them out about Amit Shah’s adventures in India-administered Kashmir and all his other tête-à-tête with Kathmandu bigwigs were mere diversions.

Rudyard Kipling was correct in his assessment—the ‘wildest dreams of Kew’ are indeed ‘the facts of Khatmandu’. The only problem is such ‘facts’ are impossible to ascertain.

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