My heart flutters with excitement while voraciously reading through the pages of a thrilling spy novel or while binge-watching a gripping political-spy drama series. The anticipating of what comes next, the cloak-and-dagger scenarios, and the art of spycraft has always fascinated me. But at the end of the day, it's still fiction, or even if they are based on true stories, we are viewing them through the arbitration of the writer’s artistic freedom or the director’s cinematic lens. Today, Homegrown brings to you the action-packed riveting real-life story of India’s first spy — Ravindra Kaushik, an unsung hero.
Ravindra Kaushik was born on April 11, 1952, in Sriganganagar, a Rajasthani town adjacent to the Indo-Pakistan border. His childhood was set against the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971. He was a charismatic student of S. D. Bihani P. G. College, Sri Ganganagar, where he graduated with a B.Com degree. At the age of 21, he excelled in theatre and was famous in the youth circuit for his mimicry skills. He also performed at a national theatrical festival in Lucknow.
Rajeshwarnath Kaushik, Ravindra’s younger brother
In 1973, after his graduation, Ravindra told his father that he was going to the capital city of Delhi to start a new job. In truth, he was about to begin his two-year arduous training period with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). RAW is India’s foreign intelligence agency much like America’s CIA or UK’s MI5. RAW was formed in 1968 to gather foreign intel, counter-terrorism, advise Indian policymakers, and promote India's foreign strategic interests. It also played a major role in making India a nuclear power.
Ravindra’s training included teaching him to speak fluent Urdu, converting him to Islam, and familiarizing him with Pakistan’s geography. Being a resident of a Rajasthani town that shared a border with Punjab, he was already fluent in Punjabi. He was being trained to become a resident agent. To play the part convincingly, he also underwent circumcision, a common practice for Muslim men. By 1975, all of his official Indian records were wiped out, He then headed to Pakistan as a renewed man under the alias Nabi Ahmed Shakir, a resident of Islamabad.
In Pakistan, he got enrolled at Karachi University, where he completed an LLB degree. After that, he joined the Pakistani Army as a commissioned officer in its Military Accounts Department. He was later promoted to the rank of Major. Years of preparation, diligence, and hard work had finally paid off. His important position within the Pakistani army made him a valuable asset for the Indian army. Using the art of stealth, manipulation, and guise — skills, which he had mastered as a RAW trainee, Ravindra was able to pass on pass on confidential information to Indian defense officials between 1979 and 1983, giving the country a much-needed advantage in a tumultuous and tense time.
To further maintain his cover, he also married a local woman called Amanat, the daughter of a tailor in an army unit. Ravindra was so talented that he was able to conceal his real identity even from his wife. Some publications say they had a son, while other reports claim that Ravindra fathered a daughter. Ravindra’s contributions undoubtedly made him one of RAW’s most prolific agents, earning him the title of 'The Black Tiger', which was bestowed by then-PM Indira Gandhi.
Tragedy befell the Indian hero in September 1983 when Ravindra’s secret identity of eight years came to light. Inyat Masih, another RAW undercover agent sent to get in touch with Ravindra, got caught by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Inyat broke under their interrogation and gave up Ravindra’s identity.
ISI agents set up a meeting between Inyat and an unaware Ravindra. ISI officers arrested Ravindra in a park on charges of espionage. He was brutally tortured for information at an interrogation center in Sialkot. In 1985, the Pakistani Supreme Court sentenced Ravindra to death, but his punishment was later changed to life imprisonment. He was a prisoner in multiple Pakistani jails including Sialkot, Kot Lakhpat, and Mianwali. Even then, he managed to secretly write at least half a dozen letters to his family, detailing the traumatic events he underwent while serving his time. In November 2001 he died of pulmonary tuberculosis and heart disease.
Ravindra Kaushik, in a letter written three days before his death
When Ravindra’s family in Jaipur heard the news of his death, his father, a retired Indian Air Force officer, died of heart failure. The Indian government never acknowledged Ravindra as one of its own. According to a report by The Telegraph, Ravindra’s brother Rajeshwarnath and mother Amladevi had written several letters to the Indian government to expedite his release but in vain. The Indian Government either gave vague or diplomatic answers or no replies at all. Rajeshwarnath said that the family initially received Rs 500 a month, and then Rs 2,000 a month until 2006 when Amladevi passed away. But what the family wanted was not monetary compensation but recognition. A pecuniary compensation can never be enough for the 26 years of Ravindra’s service to the nation.
From a nation's strategic perspective, it is the correct diplomatic decision to wash its hands off a compromised agent. If not, that raises too many questions. For RAW, Ravindra was just another agent, but for his family, he was the world. His last known words about how his fate might have been different if he was an American agent are still haunting. Intelligence officers are the foundation of the nation’s security system and are responsible for saving thousands of lives. But when it came to saving the savior’s life, the nation failed to act.
Ravindra's family claimed that the storyline of the famous Bollywood film Ek Tha Tiger (2012) was based on the legacy of Ravindra. However, the director of the film, Kabir Khan denied such claims and gave no credit to Ravindra’s family. Romeo Akbar Walter (2019), another Indian film written and directed by Robbie Grewal is loosely based on Ravindra’s life in Pakistan. John Abraham plays the role of Ravindra Kaushik in the film, but they named the character, Rehamatullah Khan. While Bollywood grows richer and more popular from his story, few know about the actual hero behind it. But, the world is rarely fair. There will always be unsung heroes. Maybe it is through these little efforts that we can keep the memory of the lionheart, Ravindra Kaushik, alive in the public memory.