The spy who spooked India
By M J Akbar
You don’t have to be beautiful to be Mata Hari; you merely have to be available. Margaretha Zelle, the Dutch-born, Paris-based, World War 1 German agent who made spying synonymous with sexual frisson, was actually a bit of a podge who couldn’t get a job in a vaudeville chorus line because she wasn’t “cute” and became a circus horse-rider.
One pithy observer thought she was as attractive with clothes as without them, which may or may not have been a compliment. She was driven to striptease by despair: she fled her husband, an officer in the Dutch colonial army, posted to Indonesia, and an alcoholic who beat her regularly and mercilessly.
But she had an extraordinary talent, the ability to trump the real with the surreal. She reinvented herself as an expert in the secret and mysterious arts of “Indian” erotica (hence the name ‘Mata Hari’), learnt during her interlude in Java, and became a sensation. She was not much of a spy actually; she did more spending than spying. The Germans, cold to a fault, betrayed her, and she ended up before a French firing squad in 1917.
It is not, presumably, compulsory, but it is clearly useful for a potential spy to have a split personality. The pain of the tragedy, or failure, is subsumed by the surreal. But a fevered imagination also weakens or even erases the constraints of duty and morality that bind real life.
There is an obvious problem in the analogy with Mata Hari. The honey in the Madhuri Gupta trap came from Mudassar Rana, and we have no confirmation yet about his expertise in the seductive arts. But gender is not the issue. Men are far more vulnerable to the inflammable concoction of ego and libido. In the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, an armed forces attache in our mission in Karachi was lured by a woman operative of Pakistani intelligence. But the principle of a spy’s mentality holds. Since there is never sufficient justification for the betrayal of a country, and the greed (whether for money or sex) involved must be rationalized by layers of self-deceit, the spy converts a complex, tortured fiction into his or her version of that malleable commodity called truth.
Moreover the Fifties are a dangerous decade in the age of professionals. They mark the intersection between ebb of career and flow of frustrations. Gupta, an IFS B-cadre officer, was second secretary at an age when a regular IFS officer would already have been ambassador. The caste-and-cocoon world of an embassy like Islamabad could only have heated her fantasies to an unbearable conflagration. You can see that she had lost any mooring with reality in the taunt after her arrest — “What took you guys so long to get it?” It would not even occur to her that institutions are reluctant to condemn their own, particularly when the final responsibility with those who decided to send her to a mission like Islamabad.
It is foolish to blame Pakistan for this squalid episode. Posting a 54-year-old with a chip factory, rather than a mere chip, on her shoulder is akin to an open-ended invitation to ISI and its carefully groomed stable of studs. The ISI response was well crafted. Rana was of a similar age, and wooed Madhuri at the “Iffy” cafe (you couldn’t have invented such a name for an “iffy” operation, could you?) even as he distilled her grievances into information for Pakistan’s intelligence services.
Gupta’s interrogation by the Delhi police is essential, of course; but a second interrogation, within the grand portals of the offices of the external affairs ministry, is equally necessary. Who decided to send Gupta to Pakistan? A simple psychographic analysis would have thrown up the obvious; Gupta was entirely unsuitable for a hostile environment, prone to blandishment and subversion, like Islamabad. Paradoxically, and this can only be a surmise, she might have got the Islamabad job precisely because someone thought she would be less vulnerable than say an equally Urdu-qualified Indian Muslim option. This is not an allegation of bias against Delhi, although prejudice still lurks, albeit less flagrantly. But the dark services of the Pakistani establishment, imbued with hostility as they are to India, find the Indian Muslim an even more difficult entity to come to terms with, for Indian Muslims challenge the very foundations of their nation by rejecting the two-nation theory.
Madhuri Gupta may be a marginal Pakistani success, for she knew less than her bravado believes, and might even have been turned into a conduit of misinformation, without her knowledge, after she was uncovered. But she does constitute a gigantic Indian failure. Only saps get sucked into such soft snares, and an Indian diplomat, and an Indian mission, leapt at the bait hook, line and sinker.
As appeared in The Times of India