The inside story of the Pakistani pigeon spy arrested in India

A deadly spy?
A deadly spy?
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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Last week, Indian authorities “arrested” a pigeon on charges of spying for Pakistan. The bird was spotted by a teenage boy in an Indian village close to the border. Since it had a message written in Urdu on its feathers, the pigeon was detained by the police and X-rayed. While nothing suspicious turned up, the bird was reportedly registered as a “suspected spy” in police logs.

From Pakistan, here’s a caricature of what was truly a ridiculous episode of law enforcement. 

Last week, border tensions between two South Asian countries flared up once again as a Pakistani spy pigeon was apprehended in Indian territory. Police immediately sent the avian agent to a polyclinic. “To test for wires, transmitters, maybe a spy camera,” explained deputy superintendent of police (DSP), Hans Raj Hans.

They conducted numerous X-rays but found nothing broken. “The pigeon is in excellent physical condition and is happily pecking away at the sunflower seeds our nursing staff is throwing it,” said Dr. Koyal Kaur.

From there, the flying felon was taken to Bamiyal police station where it’s currently under interrogation by a parrot. “We checked for cyanide under its beak. It’s alive but uncooperative,” continued Hans. When asked whether it was a cock or a hen, he added, “I don’t know if it’s a cock but it’s definitely not polite.”

The pigeon has refused to answer any questions or disclose the names of its handlers in Pakistan. In fact, the only word to have come out of its mouth so far is “coo.” Police aren’t sure if this refers to a plot to overthrow the civilian government or if it’s just code for something more mundane. They’ve asked Javed Akhtar to come down and see if it isn’t something in Urdu.

From the other Punjab

The luckless loafer landed on the roof of one Ghuggi Chandra in the Pathankot district, about four kilometres from the India-Pakistan border. Chandra said his son alerted him after he saw that it was trying to communicate with their chickens. So far, none of the chickens have been arrested for possible collaboration. “If one of these chickens is a traitor we’ll find it and eat it,” assured DSP Hans.

Spies don’t come cheap.
Image: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The villager was told by his son that there was a Pakistani spy on the roof but Chandra, who had gone deaf from cross-border shelling a decade ago, couldn’t understand a word.

“He kept signalling to the roof and I thought one of the chickens had flown up there. When the shelling starts, they panic and often do stupid things. I’ve lost most of my chickens to Pakistani artillery. They also do most of the heavy tilling on my lands with their 155mm rounds.”

Chandra says he would move away but he prefers the quiet rural life. “Once the firing starts you can hardly hear anything. It’s very peaceful,” he explained with a toothless smile where two bullets have lodged in to help him eat. His son alerted the police soon after.

The boy became suspicious when he noted a small script marking its feathers, with a phone number and an address that read Shakargarh, Narowal, a place in the “other” Punjab.

“We’re checking for circumcision.”

“We suspect the pigeon was carrying contact information for another spy that has already infiltrated Pathankot. For now, we’ve put it in a cage,” senior superintendent of police (SSP), Ram Chirya Chauhan, chimes in.

Pathankot is where most state secrets are hidden in underground compounds that stretch for miles in no direction. The concern from the top is understandable. But how will they prove that the bird is in fact from Pakistan?

“We’re checking for circumcision,” a top Indian intelligence official, Garud Sharma, told us on the condition of anonymity. No Pakistani passport was found among the pigeon’s belongings, which included one small twig and four peanuts.

When informed that pigeon racing is a popular pastime in Pakistani Punjab and that the phone numbers and addresses stamped on the birds might act as a “return to owner” in case they get lost, Sharma’s reply was straightforward: “Get lost!”

“We are now investigating everything that has ever had anything to do with pigeons,” writes Sharma in a correspondence to central command.

He’s also asked police to issue warrants for the arrests of Salman Khan, Bhagyashree and Lata Mangeshkar for taking part in the hit Bollywood song, ‘Kabootar ja ja ja,’ in which a pigeon is visibly seen hitching a ride on a car to deliver secret messages. “We think this might have been where they got the idea,” says Sharma.

A fowl affair

A senior Pakistani diplomat called the entire thing a fowl affair and was also quick to affirm that Pakistan would not be negotiating for the bird’s release.

The use of animals to conduct cross-border espionage isn’t new. Some years ago, an Indian monkey was apprehended by Pakistani authorities after illegally crossing the border.

The monkey, nicknamed Bobby—and likely a distraction for other infiltrators —casually walked into the Cholistan desert in 2011 and resisted arrest until police managed to lure him out of a tree with bananas. He is now detained in a Bahawalpur zoo, together with visitor attraction and distant cousin, Raju, part of the family that had migrated back in 1947. Things are acrimonious in the shared cage; Raju won’t pick Bobby’s fleas because of their differing faiths.

But training animals for international espionage isn’t a sure fire thing, said the diplomat.

“Pigeons don’t make good spies, they can be distracted by little things like a parked car or a clean windshield. They don’t always come back either. Imagine putting in all those years of hard work only to find out it was mating season when you let it go. It’s probably half way to Australia with its new family by the time you find out,”

Enough to start a war?

“This is just another attempt by Pakistan to flip India the bird,” says an angry commentator on Twitter, referring to an incident in 2010, when another pigeon was caught trespassing Indian air space over Amritsar. It was guided to a forced landing by Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKIs and taken captive. Former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh did not decide to make an international issue out of it, but it remains to be seen whether the incumbent, Narendra Modi, will take a similar stance.

Spies everywhere?
Image: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

“I don’t think it’s enough to start a war, you’d need at least a couple of camels sent to eat classified documents for that. But who knows, we’ve gone to war over less,” says a concerned citizen. “I’m more concerned about the pigeon’s safety.”

The Geneva Convention is unspecific over the treatment of spy birds. Last year, the Chinese put 10,000 local pigeons through anal inspections to make sure they weren’t carrying explosives.

Although the only thing explosive this pigeon seems to be carrying is diarrhoea. “We’ve had to wash the cage twice I don’t know what they fed it before it flew off,” said SSP Chauhan.

Indian officials say they know the ISI has been training migratory birds to use as proxies in Kashmir and hope that Pakistan will revise this policy soon. It will leave the avian population of the both countries impoverished and they’ll be forced to enter into expensive military contracts with American zoos.

ISI hand

The ISI, meanwhile, entirely dismissed these accusations. “Trust me. The only proxies we’re using these days are to access YouTube,” one official claims.

Another dismissal comes from Pakistani security expert, culture critic and political scientist, Shaheen Hamid, who says the Indians are just being salty because Pakistan is hosting cricket again.

Hamid also says that Sunday’s final one-day international cricket match between Pakistan and Mugabwe was washed away not by natural rain but by artificial precipitation that the Indians engineered in a lab. “They have the technology, this is what’s been causing unprecedented flooding in Pakistan.”

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