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May 13, 2013 at 12:20pm IST

Meet India's forgotten spies who've spent decades in Pakistani jails

Gurdaspur: India's forgotten spies are back in focus after the tragic death of Indian prisoner Sarbajit Singh, but Delhi never accepted that he was a spy. Recruited from India's border villages by intelligence agencies, spies often spend decades in Pakistani jails, but are hardly ever acknowledged.

Former spy Surjit Singh, who spent 31 years in Pakistani jails, says he was lucky not to suffer Sarabjit's fate. "I was lucky to have returned or else I could have suffered the same fate," Surjit said.

A former BSF sub-inspector, Surjit made 85 trips into Pakistan, smuggling out files on Pakistani troop movements. He was captured and jailed in 1981. Three decades later, when he returned to freedom at Wagah, it was to a nation that had forgotten him. "No one remembered me in my village, every one knew me as a Pakistani prisoner," Surjit said.

The 3,000-km border that India shares with Pakistan, is dotted with villages that grow spies. Some like Dadwan in Gurdaspur have been tagged as 'Spy Villages' for providing a regular supply of recruits to the shadowy world of intelligence agencies like the RAW. In most cases, it's not a sense of patriotism that drives the bravado, but it's poverty.

Sixteen years in Lahore's Kot Lakhpat Jail have taken their toll on Ashok. He says he's lost his mental balance. "A Pakistani ranger apprehended me and they interrogated me for one and a half years. The beating I suffered has made me physically weak," Ashok said.

Once a strapping young man, Ashok is a shadow of his former self, fighting demons, within and outside, reflecting the fate that could await 'spies' like him when they come back, if they come back.