Indian diplomat arrested on charges of spying for Pakistan

An Indian diplomat was arrested by her government on charges of spying for Pakistan, officials said Tuesday, a development that could hurt relations between the wary nuclear neighbors and almost certainly leave New Delhi red-faced.

Madhuri Gupta, 53, a second secretary for the Indian Embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, was reportedly lured back to India on the pretext that her help was needed to prepare for an upcoming regional meeting in Bhutan.

She was detained as soon as she landed at the airport several days ago and was found in possession of seven sensitive documents, according to reports in Indian media.

“We have reason to believe that an official in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad had been passing information to Pakistani intelligence agencies,” said Vishnu Prakash, spokesperson with the Ministry of External Affairs. “The official is cooperating with our investigation and enquiries.”

Gupta has worked in the embassy’s press and information department for 2 1/2 years as an Urdu translator, Indian media reported, citing police sources. She had been under suspicion for a few months.

As a second secretary, Gupta probably would not have had much access to sensitive information, said B. Raman, a security analyst and former Pakistan desk head with India’s Research and Analysis Wing, India’s equivalent of the CIA. But she still could have caused significant damage if she had planted electronic listening devices, he added.

In the 1970s, he said, India caught and fired a British telephone operator in its Paris Embassy taping conversations and feeding them to British intelligence services.

Red flags reportedly went up after Gupta, who is unmarried, started asking questions outside her area of responsibility and was found with funds in a Pakistani account, according to the Times Now news network. She has since confessed to being lured by the money and unhappiness over not being promoted, the network added.

Analysts said cellphone intercepts also may have played a role along with suspicions raised by embassy colleagues.

A picture obtained by news networks of Gupta showed a round-faced woman with glasses and shoulder-length dark hair.

While many questions about the alleged intelligence gathering remain unanswered, analysts said, the news will almost certainly lead to soul searching at India’s Foreign Ministry and among counter-intelligence officials responsible for screening embassy staff.

“Any disclosure of intelligence activities involving Indian diplomats is embarrassing,” said Raman, now director of the Institute for Topical Studies in the Indian city of Chennai.

Some expressed outrage at the news, especially in light of attempts to revive talks between the longtime enemies.

“Even as Pakistan talks about having prime minister-level talks, they go ahead with intelligence activities,” said Ajit Doval, former head of the Intelligence Bureau, India’s equivalent of the FBI. “It doesn’t send the right signal.”

Others said there were no angels in this game. “This is standard practice worldwide,” said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies. “America, Britain, India or Pakistan, they all do it. It obviously comes to a halt once discovered.”

It’s not clear that Gupta will face prosecution, analysts said, given the high bar required to prove a legal case and reluctance to disclose secrets in court.

In the 1980s, Pakistani intelligence allegedly recruited a senior Indian military attache using a “honey trap” involving an attractive woman in Karachi who reportedly seduced and blackmailed him. When India found out, it returned him to India and fired him but never prosecuted him. “It’s sometimes very difficult to prove,” said Raman. “You need evidence from people in Pakistan, which is difficult to get.”

Details of Gupta’s career track were not immediately available, but her age and low-level position suggest she is not a career foreign service officer.

A properly trained Indian civil service official might be less “susceptible to foreign inducements,” Kapil Sibal, India’s human resources minister, said outside parliament. “That they were able to penetrate the embassy is shocking.”

Anshul Rana in the Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.