A spy that can fly

A pigeon arrested in India on suspicion of espionage has a rather bizarre ring to it

A spy that can fly

The arrest of a Pakistani pigeon in an Indian village has created a storm in the media. Every other person is making fun of those involved in the episode or questioning the logic behind suspecting a harmless bird for espionage in an era of technological advancement.

It all started when a young boy spotted a white pigeon in Pathankot area in Indian Punjab. As he got closer, he got suspicious about a message on its feathers. Police was informed; the arm of law came immediately into action.

As the language used was mostly Urdu, the pigeon was kept under observation and thoroughly inspected to establish espionage charges. Though nothing could be substantiated, the pigeon was detained by police and later handed over to a pet lover who rears pigeons for sport.

The very fact that the bird was carrying a stamped message on its feathers and a tag on its leg was enough for the Indian security agencies to suspect its presence across the border.

Alarm bells rang as the said venue is quite close to Jammu, where India claims infiltration is common.

Besides the intended pun, certain quarters see the episode in the light of the Indo-Pak relations over the decades. The history, they claim, is replete with endless examples where both the countries have tried to put each other on defensive by whatever means possible.

Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, a retired Pakistani diplomat who remained Pakistani High Commissioner in India from 1997 to 2002, believes both the countries have always remained involved in accusing each other. Sometimes, he says, the allegations are based on facts, other times are totally baseless -- but their aim is always to malign each other.

Qazi recalls a similar incident from the past, much before his stint as high commissioner, when the response was not as strong as it is today, because, the "social media hadn’t evolved by then".

He thinks India is a big country, and it diverts public attention from major issues by coming up with such ridiculous allegations. "No doubt, Pakistan suffers far more than India from such stand-offs and confrontations, and foreign investors feel insecure here," he adds.

In the past mares have been used to smuggle gold and children’s clothing to smuggle contrabands between the two countries, says I. A. Rehman. 

He says the situation will remain the same till the time there is genuine leadership in the country that can redefine relations with India. "The policies of the current government are being pursued at an elitist level which can never deliver."

He sums up his argument with the quote of American investigative journalist I.F. Stone, who said: All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.

Lt Gen (retired) J.S. Bajwa, editor of India’s largest online military newspaper -- Indian Defence Review - in comments sent via email says that in the age of tanks and tracked/wheeled armoured troop carriers, if there can exist a horsed cavalry unit, then, in the era of electronic detection systems of all imaginable hues, employing spy pigeons cannot be a cognizable offence.

"Has the episode of the ‘spy pigeon’ altered the Indo-Pak relations? It reminds me of when a local in Chennai advised me that the weather there had three categories -- hot, hotter, and hottest. It’s a similar analogy that relates to Indo-Pak relations -- bad, worse, worst. So the pigeon incident can only notch it from bad to worse or from worst back to bad. This cycle is unalterable," he comments.

Bajwa questions if it isn’t ironical that the ‘spy pigeon’ was white coloured? White pigeons (doves) are often released to commemorate important milestones of life and offerings of hope at weddings and birthdays and as representing the soul’s final journey at funerals, he says, adding: "You may take your pick as to what this pigeon commemorated."

While there is a general perception that the allegations of spying through pigeons are unfounded, I.A. Rehman, Director, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) thinks there are reasons why the two countries behave like this. He says India and Pakistan have used myriad means to carry out spying activities against each other; hence the response of Indian security agencies in this episode is quite understandable. It’s common knowledge, he says, that in the past mares have been used to smuggle gold and children’s clothing to smuggle contrabands between the two countries.

Rehman suggests that as animals and birds are not aware of the acts they are made to do, they have a criminal immunity and must be spared punishment.

To Ajai Shukla, a defence analyst and Consulting Editor (Strategic Affairs) at Business Standard in India, says this pigeon episode brings to mind Saadat Hasan Manto’s brilliant short story Tetwal Ka Kutta. In a brief comment, he states, while that story was written as satire, the current incident goes to show that policymakers in India and Pakistan are apparently willing to look completely ridiculous in order to damage the other side in some way.

Tetwal Ka Kutta is a tale of a dog set in Tetwal village of Kashmir during a stand-off between India and Pakistan. A dog which strays from one side to the other is petted by the soldiers from both sides and at the same time suspected to be an informer of the other. Ultimately, the dog becomes an object of contention between the soldiers and they fire at the dog for different reasons. The poor animal dies a ‘dog’s death’ on neither side without an identity.

Mudassar Chaudhry, a Lahore-based pigeon trainer and organiser of racing contests, terms the arrested pigeon a mere competitor in a race. He says in these contests, pigeons are released to fly in the air and the award goes to the one that is the last to return. The birds are constantly followed through binoculars to ensure that they are flying all the time.

He says stamps, tags etc. are used to identify the owners in case the pigeons get unwell during the flight and land somewhere or abandon flight due to inclement weather or some other reason. In this particular case, the markings on the pigeon are simply for identification purposes, he adds.

Chaudhry clarifies that pigeons cannot be sent to unknown locations just like that. In fact, they have a base location -- the place where they are fed and kept for some time -- and they return from wherever they are taken. This poor pigeon may have been flying back to its base location when it descended on the rooftop of the village on Indian side, he observes.

A spy that can fly