After 27 years in Pakistan prisons, Gopal Dass got a hero’s welcome when he returned last week to his village in Punjab. He was on a spying mission for India when he was arrested near Sialkot in 1984. Hard as they come, Gopal Dass tells his story.
After 27 years in Pakistan prisons, Gopal Dass got a hero’s welcome in Punjab. He was on a spying mission for India when he was arrested near Sialkot in 1984.
GURDASPUR, PUNJAB I was 18 years old when a man from my village told me that I should work for my country. There were no jobs here at the time. My brothers were in the Army and my mother insisted I stay away. I had dreams. But I could not reach for them. When I was still in school, there was an opportunity to join the Navy. But my mother wasn’t willing to send me. Had I left then, my life may have been very different.
My guide took me to the RAW [Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency] head office in Pathankot. He gave me information about RAW. There was a lot of hype then about Intelligence, what it does and so on. It was only later that I realised this was not a job, but a game of betrayal. I started working for them in 1977.
They told me that I would have to go to Pakistan and bring back information. Those were the early days.
I was given small tasks. And so I started making trips across the border. I travelled around making notes about army unit locations, truck numbers and sundry information signage. I was given camera training. For bigger tasks, such as information on ammunition dumps and tanks that supply petrol, I had to bring back photo evidence.
They wanted information on the movement of army units. Civilian information too. My most difficult assignment was to the Panjnad Barrage (Panjnad is a river in Punjab province formed by the successive confluence of the Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). I was asked to gather information about the barrage. My predecessors had failed because it is very hard to get there.
My field officer was not a straightforward man. He started meddling with my work. For tasks I did, credit would go to someone else. The report would have someone else’s name and the money would go into his pocket.
For big jobs, we were paid Rs 2,000, sometimes Rs 1,000. We were given two to three days to finish a task. If I had to go to Multan, I had to be there before sunrise. And then finish the task by noon. Night spent in Lahore. Back across the border into India the next day. Coming back without the dope was not an option.
I was nervous while crossing the border the first time. The first three times, there were two of us—my guide and I. After that, I was doing it alone. You are afraid only until you’ve crossed the international border. And about 1–1.5 km from the border. Once you enter the village, you are alright.
Some things I’d write down, others I’d memorise. God gave me the brains to record information like a computer. Things that had to be written down, measurements etcetera, I’d write down.
I had told my father I was working for the Intelligence; my mother knew. Some people in the village also knew I was regularly crossing the border.
From 1977 to 1984, no one would have accomplished as many tasks as I did. In my area of operation, I was an acknowledged hero. I never came back without finishing my task, I never left it half done.
The officers don’t know the ground situation; they learn from us. For instance, they don’t know that every 20 or so kilometres, the dialect changes. We have to pay close attention to how the language is spoken in a particular region and learn to speak the same way. On the field, you have to use your head. It is all about presence of mind.
My efficiency on the job didn’t make my senior happy. He grew jealous of me. My pay had now overtaken his, though he was an officer and I only a spy. The pay of an inspector was Rs 1,100 (this was still the late 70s, early 80s). Mine was Rs 1,500. When I entered the office, he had to leave his chair.
I had no respect for him. Even in jail, I respected only those officers who were good at their jobs. I had even complained to the additional director that I was worried my field officer would get me arrested.
And it happened. On the night of 26 July 1984, I was caught. My assignment was to cover the Chenab River bridge in Gujrat (reference here to Pakistan’s Gujrat district in the Punjab province). And I had to get information about the air force base in Lahore. I had to bring photos.
I was arrested near Sialkot, across the border from Ranbir Singh Pura (RS Pura) in Jammu. I had spent the night at Budhwar border post. I was woken up at three in the morning and at 4 am it was time to leave. I crossed the border and got on my way. I couldn’t see anyone. But I was being watched. As I walked on, it was 5 by now, I found myself ambushed by a dozen or so people. If I had a weapon, I might have tried to fight. But there was nothing I could do then. I kept insisting that I was a local. But it didn’t wash. I had been caught and it was all over.
I was then taken for interrogation. I wasn’t sure if I would live or die. That is how interrogations are. It depends on the person, how much he can take. For three years, I was interrogated in Sialkot’s Gora jail.
One of our men had been caught earlier. He had leaked information about me. I denied everything, of course. That’s what you do there: you lie and hope you will be let off. They showed me the photo of the person who had tipped them off about me. He was from Sunder Nagar in Pathankot. He was a rickshawallah working for the Intelligence. I knew then I had no hope.
I got the third degree. I was starved for 15 days with nothing more than two drops of water a day. It was God that saved me. I steeled myself mentally; I would have gone mad otherwise. I didn’t contact anyone during the time because that’s what they want you to do. They can arrest more people that way.
The verdict came on 20 June 1987: 25 years in jail.
I steeled myself, thinking whatever happens will happen, I have faith in God. And today I am sitting in front of you.
After a month in the district jail, I was sent to Central Jail in Multan. I was worried about my family. When I told the superintendent at the district jail that I wanted to write a letter, he asked me where I was from. I said, India. No letters for Indians, he said.
After I was moved to Multan, I posted a letter to my father. I wrote to him that I was in jail in Pakistan and that they should not worry about me. I said I would return (laughs) when I complete my sentence.
The environment in jails was oppressive in those days. Even when we managed to send letters, they would get stolen. They would disappear from the post office. We wouldn’t get any replies. In all these years, I received all of three letters.
They cut off all my correspondence after I reported against the jail authorities. Since I was court martialled and was a convict of the army, whenever there was a problem, I would complain to the GHQ (general headquarters).
I wrote to GHQ to be excused from prison work. The five-day waiver from the sentence for every month of work did not apply to us. So I decided I wouldn’t work. It meant long hours of physical labour. I got three other Indians to sign that letter.
I handed over the letter to a boy from Punjab [in Pakistan] who was going to be released. We hid the letter inside a tandoori roti, so he wouldn’t get caught. I am a spy, you see (laughs). He then handed over the letter-roti to embassy officials, who sent it on to the GHQ.
In jails, it is sometimes strict and sometimes easygoing. It depends on the superintendent. Convicts with some influence manage to get things done. Others have to take whatever is dished out.
The ration in my first jail was inedible. It was the same for Pakistani convicts. The superintendent would remind us it didn’t get better for convicts. Some people would get visitors.
Sometimes I ate to my stomach’s capacity, cooked a tasty meal with vegetables. Some days, there was no time to cook or there was no money in our pockets.
You also need distractions in jail. So, I learnt to make decorative stuff with beads. This I learnt in Multan jail (fishes out a keychain he made). This work goes on in every jail in Pakistan. Convicts would buy these items for their families. With the money I earned, I’d buy toothpaste, soap, razors. Some sold for Rs 400, some for Rs 600, some for even Rs 1,000. In some jails, the money is good. Even expensive things get sold.
I had Rs 30,000 in my pocket the day I arrived here. I bought this watch there (shows a gold-plated Seiko) and some clothes. I couldn’t return to India dressed in a salwar kameez, could I? (laughs).
I did time in four different jails in Pakistan. After three years of interrogation in Sialkot, I was moved to the district jail for a month. Then to Multan Central Jail for four years. From there to Mianwali, where I spent nearly 18 years. In November 2007, I was shifted to Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail.
Mianwali jail was the hardest. It was under one of Pakistan’s famous police officers. He was brutal. He made sure the food was not fit to eat. Almost half the prisoners fell ill. For the first three years, I couldn’t eat the food. Whatever I ate or drank, I would throw up. I had lost a lot of weight. When he heard that I was ill, he came up to my cell and asked if I was unwell, and ordered a medical check-up. Then slowly with medication, I recovered.
There was no fixed time to sleep or wake up. Food was brought to the cell. In Lahore jail, we got three rotis. It was phulka and chai for breakfast. Chicken was also served on some days.
The cell was 8×10 ft. The toilet and bathing areas were inside. There was open space in front of every barrack. Convicts could move around within the premises, and sit and chat with other convicts; they were not confined to their cells. There was prison work till 2 pm, after which convicts were ‘free’ to socialise. Some of us would cook. And so the day would pass. We kept ourselves busy.
I wanted to stay fit, so I’d do weights regularly. It’s a habit I picked up when I was at home.
I learnt to read Urdu. A Christian boy from Dhariwal (a city in Gurdaspur district, in India) was with me in prison. He knew Urdu. So I asked him to teach me. I had tried to learn the language when I was here but didn’t manage. But there, I picked it up in three days. I studied all day.
We had a TV in our cell. DD News was available. And there were three Pakistani channels: ATV, PTV Home and PTV News. The TV was bought in 1990 for Rs 4,000. There were four of us—a boy from Uttar Pradesh and two Bangladeshis and I—and we pooled money.
On days there was cricket, the TV would be on from morning to night. The government was paying the electricity bill, so why not? (laughs)
In 2006, I received a letter, for the first time in more than 10 years, from my brother in Chandigarh. He had sent me his mobile number. After 15 days of trying to reach him, I finally got through. It had been 22 years since we had spoken.
He said he was meeting politicians for my release. I told him to not waste his time with them. My brother then filed a case in the Supreme Court for my release. The court battle went on for four years.
On the evening of 27 March 2011, I got news of my release. It was announced on the 3 pm news. I called my brother immediately. The President of Pakistan remitted my sentence after the Supreme Court requested the Pakistan government to consider my case on humanitarian grounds.
When I was arrested, India had just won the World Cup. And now I’ve brought the World Cup back to India (laughs).
I expected my release to happen in the next couple of days. A whole week passed and nothing happened. After 10 days, the jail authorities asked me to fill out some forms. The next evening, I read a newspaper report that I would be handed over to India on Thursday. I called my brother to tell him to come to Wagah Border. I was mentally ready. I packed my clothes. It was only the next morning that the jail authorities informed me that it was my release day. Finally they came. I bid my goodbyes. We reached Wagah Border by 9.45 am. I still wasn’t sure if I would make it across the border. There have been cases when people have been sent back from here. At 10 am, the embassy official arrived, and gave orders to take me out.
My government has refused to accept me as an Indian citizen. They send people, but they refuse to acknowledge them. They say he is not ours. They should then also disown Bhagat Singh and all the other martyrs. We worked for the sake of our country. I didn’t go there to sell peanuts. I went to work for this government, for this nation. Why do they deny that I am an Indian?
The strongest proof of my nationality is my passport. I will go to the Supreme Court and ask them to summon those who contest my Indian citizenship. The agency is not willing to accept me. Three days have passed and no one has come to see me. If I had not gone to court, who knows, I might have had to spend the rest of my life in prison.
I’m grateful to my brother who kept fighting this case for me.
I will go to court. I spent 27 years of my life in jail. I deserve my due.