“Kya Bharat jaise bade desh ke liye qurbani dene waalon ko yahi milta hai?” (Is this what lies in store for people who sacrifice their lives for a big country like India?)
These words of anguish were penned by late Ravindra Kaushik, arguably the country’s most prominent undercover spy, in a letter to his family from Central Jail Mianwali jail in Punjab, Pakistan, where he spent a majority of the last 16 years of his life.
Ravindra, who began his association with India’s foreign intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) when he was only 23 years old, went on to become a Major in the Pakistani Army. Sensitive information relayed by him from beyond the borders eventually earned him the title ‘Black Tiger’, a term coined by then prime minister Indira Gandhi in recognition of his valuable contributions during the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971.
Now, Bollywood actor Salman Khan has reportedly been roped in to portray Ravindra in an upcoming biopic by filmmaker Raj Kumar Gupta, whose critically acclaimed works include Aamir (2008) and No One Killed Jessica (2011).
“Shri Ravinder Kaushik was India’s greatest spy. [His] is an emotional and remarkable story. I am humbled and thankful to his family who trusted me and gave me the rights to turn this unbelievable story into a film,” he was quoted as saying.
So how did the undercover spy’s remarkable life meet a tragic end?
Grooming a ‘resident agent’
Born on April 11, 1952 in Sriganganagar, a Rajasthani town close to the India-Pakistan border, Ravindra grew up in the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. Remembered as a charismatic student during his days at S D Bihani College, he picked up an interest in dramatics and mimicry. At 21, he performed at a national theatrical festival in Lucknow.
“It was probably his mono-act in college, in which he played an Indian Army officer who refused to divulge information to China, that caught the attention of intelligence officers,” recalled Rajeshwarnath Kaushik, Ravindra’s younger brother.
After completing his BCom degree in 1973, Ravindra told his father that he was heading to Delhi to start a new job. In actuality, he was about to commence his two-year training period with RAW.
While Ravindra was already fluent in Punjabi, officials taught him Urdu, familiarised him with Islamic scriptures and gave him detailed lessons on Pakistan’s topography to aid an authentic transition into a “resident agent”. He reportedly also underwent a circumcision, a commonly recommended practice for males in the religious community.
All of his official Indian records were destroyed by 1975, when he headed to Pakistan and assumed the alias ‘Nabi Ahmed Shakir’, a resident of Islamabad. After completing an LLB degree from Karachi University, he joined the Pakistani Army as a commissioned officer in its Military Accounts Department. He was later promoted to the rank of a Major.
Having secured a well-respected position in Pakistan, Ravindra passed on confidential information to Indian defence officials between 1979 and 1983, offering the country a critical advantage in times of growing conflict.
He also married a local woman by the name of Amanat, the daughter of a tailor in an Army unit, who is said to have not known his real identity. While some publications say they had a son, other reports say that Ravindra fathered a daughter. Quora users, meanwhile, have also speculated on their current whereabouts.
Tortured for two years, in jail for 16
In September 1983, Ravindra’s secret identity of eight years fell apart. Inyat Masiha, another undercover agent sent by RAW to get in touch with Ravindra, revealed the true nature of his work during an interrogation by the Pakistani forces.
On the instructions of Pakistani intelligence officials, Masiha had asked to meet Ravindra, then 29, in a park where he was arrested on charges of espionage. For the next two years, he was tortured for information at an interrogation centre in Sialkot.
In 1985, the Pakistani Supreme Court sentenced Ravindra to death, but his punishment was later altered to life imprisonment. He was kept in multiple jails including Sialkot, Kot Lakhpat and Mianwali. Even so, he managed to secretly write at least half a dozen letters to his family, detailing the traumatic events he encountered while serving his time.
“Had I been an American, I would have been out of this jail in three days,” he wrote just three days before dying of pulmonary tuberculosis and heart disease in November, 2001. He was buried at the New Central Multan Jail.
‘We don’t want money, we want recognition’
Ravindra’s family in Jaipur was informed of his death in a letter sent by the Kot Lakhpat Superintendent, following which his father, a retired Indian Air Force officer, died of heart failure.
According to a report by The Telegraph, Ravindra’s brother Rajeshwarnath and mother Amladevi had written several letters to the Indian government to aid his release. However, they all went unanswered, with the exception of a monotone response by the Foreign Ministry — “His case has been taken up with Pakistan”.
In a letter to then Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, Amladevi wrote, “Had he not been exposed, Kaushik would have been a senior army officer of the Pakistan government by now and (continued in) the coming years (serving India secretly).”
Another read, “The government never…sent medicines on time when Kaushik was dying, though a spy sitting in the right place…saves the life of at least 20,000 soldiers of his nation.”
Despite spending 26 years away from his homeland, Ravindra never received an official acknowledgement for his sacrifices. “What we want from the government is recognition of the contribution by agents as they are the real foundation of the security system,” said Rajeshwarnath, adding that the family initially received Rs 500 a month, then Rs 2,000 a month until 2006, when Amladevi passed away.
“He will always remain important for me. But for the country, he was just another agent,” he added.
While there is ambiguity surrounding how his brother feels about the upcoming biopic, Ravindra’s sister Shashi Vashisth said, “Many people have approached us to make a film, but it never felt right because it is very personal for us. When Raj Kumar Gupta approached us, we felt confident since…he is a sensible filmmaker, and the right person to tell my brother’s story for the first time.”
Notably, her son and Ravindra’s nephew Vikram, in 2015, had alleged similarities between his late uncle’s life and the plot of Salman Khan-starrer Ek Tha Tiger, seeking credit from the film’s producers.