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Madhya Pradesh ‘ISI espionage racket’ was discovered during surveillance after Uri attack

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Agencies stumbled upon the case after they found suspicious calls being made to military facilities in Kashmir seeking sensitive info after Uri terror attack.

Bhopal: Security agencies stumbled upon the suspected ISI espionage network in Madhya Pradesh following heightened surveillance in Jammu and Kashmir in the aftermath of the Uri attack and the surgical strikes last September, investigators have told ThePrint.

Although it is not yet clear if the 11 men arrested by the MP Police Anti-Terror Squad earlier this month were directly spying for Pakistan’s ISI or were only technical facilitators, the suspected kingpin of the racket, Balram Singh, is believed to have come in contact with ISI when he was in Dubai looking for job opportunities, the investigators said.

The 9 February announcement of the arrests raised eyebrows as at least two of the 11 men – Balram Singh and Dhruv Saxena – were said to have links with the ruling BJP in Madhya Pradesh.

Top ATS officials who spoke to ThePrint for this report said Military Intelligence learnt about the suspected espionage racket when its surveillance tracked calls being made to military facilities in Jammu and Kashmir seeking sensitive information. Around the same time, security agencies also arrested two alleged ISI operatives, Satwinder Singh and Dadu, from the RS Pura area of Jammu last November.

The interrogation of the two men, accused of gathering information about troops in Jammu and Kashmir, and the surveillance of the phone calls led them to the suspected espionage racket in Madhya Pradesh and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh as well as Delhi, and more than two dozen men have been arrested in all, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The racket, the investigators alleged, involved ISI operatives in India and outside pretending to be Indian military officers and making calls to military facilities in Jammu and Kashmir and seeking sensitive information. These calls were routed through illegal, parallel telephone exchanges operated by the men arrested in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

These exchanges, which used Chinese telecommunication equipment, changed the identification of international calls or even domestic calls through the use of local mobile SIM cards acquired by the operators. Caller IDs of phones receiving these calls would get the number of the SIM card from cities such as Gwalior, Bhopal or Jabalpur which are home to military facilities and give the impression that calls seeking sensitive defence information such as troop movements originated there.

The men who operated these parallel exchanges were allegedly paid by Balram Singh who was in turn paid by his ISI handlers. These exchanges were also allegedly used to operate lottery rackets that duped people and earned money. Following the raids in connection with the arrest of the 11, the ATS recovered more than 3,000 SIM cards, 50 mobile phones, documents related to more than 100 bank accounts with debit cards and 36 SIM boxes, the officials said.

They said Balram Singh is suspected to have used fake documents to obtain SIM cards and that each member in his team earned up to Rs 2 lakh per month.

Investigators said that most of the 11 were educated, belonged to well-off families and operated from upmarket localities. Balram Singh though came from Suhas village in Satna district and dropped out of school in class 11 and moved to Satna to look for a job and a good life, they said. But he and his 10 alleged accomplices had one thing in common – they wanted to make money and have a good lifestyle, the investigators claimed. This search is said to have taken Balram Singh to Dubai where he lived for eight months and allegedly came in touch with ISI operatives.

In a Facebook post, Balram Singh claims to have joined the BJP in 2014. He is also said to be active in social programmes of the VHP in Satna district, which ATS officers suspect was an attempt to mask his illegal activities.

Dhruv Saxena, another of the 11 arrested, is said to be IT cell coordinator of the youth wing of BJP, Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), in Bhopal. Shivraj Dabi, head of the IT Cell of BJP in Madhya Pradesh, however, denies this. “No Dhruv Saxena has ever been a coordinator of BJYM in Bhopal. It is a conspiracy theory popularised by the opposition to gain some political brownie points,” Dabi told ThePrint and produced a press statement of September 2013 listing names of the organisational committee of the BJP in Bhopal when it was last constituted, to back his claim.

This is, however, contradicted by a Google archive page of BJYM Bhopal – removed on 16 February – which has an entry showing Saxena as the coordinator of IT cell of BJYM in Bhopal. The page also shows its creator as Vocal Heart Infotech Pvt. Ltd., a Bhopal company owned by Saxena. Besides, there are photographs showing Dhruv with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya.

Besides Saxena, two others arrested from Bhopal – Mohit Aggarwal and Manish Gandhi – are engineers. The ATS suspects that Gandhi, who is in the SIM card business, may have used his contacts to obtain SIM cards in such large numbers. Aggarwal is said to be a friend of Saxena. Aggarwal’s sister told ThePrint that all they knew was Mohit was working with the Skill India programme of the central government.

ATS officials suspect that a man arrested in Delhi, Gulshan Sen, headed the technical team of this alleged inter-state spy racket. Sen was the technical head of a top engineering coaching centre at the time of his arrest. He had worked as a telecom professional with American forces in Afghanistan and had applied for a licence to start an ISP in India.

Investigators said that Jabbar, a man arrested from Delhi’s Jama Masjid area after the arrest of the 11 in MP, could be the kingpin of this alleged espionage racket and consider his arrest key to unravelling the network they suspect also extends to Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Bihar.

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