The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- Spying is objectionable only when it benefits the adversary

A Marxist mayor of Calcutta once suggested to the American consul-general that the city should be twinned with San Francisco. When the surprised American replied that Calcutta already had a twin in Odessa in what was still the Soviet Union, the mayor explained that he needed an official reason to visit his son in California.

That episode, which the consul general himself recounted to me at the time, comes to mind in the context of the recent espionage revelations. It is especially relevant in view of the claim by the authors of The Mitrokhin Archive II, 'It seemed like the entire country was for sale; the KGB ' and the CIA ' had penetrated the Indian government.' Apparently, 'neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realising their enemy would know all about it the next day'. That character judgment possibly still holds true because of the social dynamics at work among educated, urban, aspiring and even intellectual Indians. Their British or American equivalent, for instance, is content with only domestic symbols of success.

That India was awash with spies in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies ' and perhaps still is ' is established fact. Perhaps interest began even earlier. Allen Dulles, head of the American Central Intelligence Agency and brother of the egregious John Foster, visited India before independence, stayed with the Nehrus in Allahabad, and was much taken with Vijayalakshmi Pandit. In 1967, the Communist Party of India published a book titled I Was a CIA Agent in India, supposedly by a John D. Smith, an American who had defected from the CIA and was writing a series of articles in Moscow's Literaturnaya Gazeta. It is up to the individual reader to decide whether Smith ever actually existed and whether this was a piece of Soviet or American disinformation. The Soviets rarely admit anything but an American, Duane R. Clarridge, did describe his work in New Delhi and Madras in A Spy for All Seasons: My Life in the CIA.

More than ten years after he left Calcutta, an American diplomat with whom I and my family became extremely friendly wrote to us to say that, now that he had retired, his conscience obliged him to come clean about his past: he had always been employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. However, he assured us, in no way were his activities in Calcutta prejudicial to India or Indian interests. His mandate was only to keep a watch on the 200 or so Soviet diplomats in this city, many, if not most, of them in the employ of the KGB or GRU, the Soviet military intelligence.

It was not difficult to identify Soviet spies, or, at least, the more prominent members of the team. Unlike the general run of Soviet diplomats, they were trusted by their masters to live outside the protective enclave. They socialized with Indians ' particularly in Bengali intellectual circles where it was fashionable to be 'progressive' ' and were often seen in public places of entertainment. The belief was that their task was to establish preliminary contacts.

Such stories can be multiplied. But some caveats have to be entered. First, suspicions and conspiracy theories run riot in the subcontinent. The fevered Indian, especially Bengali, imagination branded any American diplomat who spoke a smattering of Bengali (or any other Indian language) a CIA agent. Second, we must admit that while many decisions that the government in New Delhi took obviously appealed to the authorities in Moscow or Washington, they were not necessarily taken at the behest of either. In the early years, Indira Gandhi listened to her mentor, P.N. Haksar, whose views were those of the British Fabian intellectuals of the Thirties. They '- and he ' needed no urging by the KGB.

At the same time, it is ridiculous to rubbish allegations on the ground that someone like Promode Dasgupta led such an austere life that he could not have been bribed or that he was too patriotic to align himself with foreign interests. First, personal simplicity has nothing to do with it, for the money is needed for party political purposes. Daniel Patrick Moynihan tells us, for instance, that American funds were twice made available to Indira Gandhi so that the Congress could fight the communists in West Bengal and Kerala. Second, no one should be surprised if in those days of the raging Cold War an ideologue identified the Soviet or American governments with his own national interest. Such alliances did not conflict with patriotism of the highest order.

Indians who belonged to the Congress for Cultural Freedom saw no harm in accepting American funds to keep communism at bay. The only difference with their rivals on the other side of the political fence was that the latter were less frank about their purpose, objective and methods. But it was no secret that the Soviet Union despatched large and continuous consignments of English children books ' usually innocuous nursery tales 'to satellite communist organizations to sell and make money from the proceeds.

But why blame parties and people alone' Even while the government was crying itself hoarse about 'the foreign hand', it was cooperating with the hand. When a CIA executive came to a seminar at the East-West Center in Honolulu, I said jokingly that it was the first time I had shaken 'the foreign hand'. The centre's president, Mike Oxenburg, at once corrected me. 'It's the first time you have been aware of shaking 'the foreign hand,' he said. True enough, given the proven duplicity ' naturally in the national interest ' of all political leaders.

The CIA helped to set up RAW, the Centre's Research and Analysis Wing, and especially its Aviation Research Centre. New Delhi also cooperated with the CIA in Project Star Sapphire which set up radar defences along the Himalayas and planted sensor devices in the snows, on Nanda Kot mountain among others. That was how China's Lop Nor nuclear explosion became known to the world.

When Richard G. Heggie confessed to Morarji Desai, then Indira Gandhi's deputy prime minister, that the Asia Foundation, which he represented in India, had taken CIA funds, Desai's immediate rejoinder was to regret the public admission. Apparently, New Delhi had known all about the linkage and was prepared to overlook it, but that would become difficult after Heggie's announcement. Though Asia Foundation was ordered to quit, even Indira Gandhi regretted the exit when Heggie called on her to say goodbye.

Spying becomes objectionable only when it benefits the adversary. Otherwise, everyone does it. Journals like Thought and Pratap in New Delhi and People in Bombay were closed down because of their CIA connections, but no action was taken against far better known publications with a Moscow link because New Delhi then needed the Soviet Union. Expediency apart, there's another factor and that is our social frailty ' the combination of garrulousness and ambition. Obviously, money and ideology do play a part; but in many instances, Indians will just pour out all they know ' and some more ' to a white foreigner who takes a kindly interest in them. This is especially true of progressive intellectuals whose craving for recognition (and admiration) knows no bounds.

Their attitude recalls for me that old English verse ' 'You do not have to bribe or twist,/ Thank god, the British journalist./ But seeing what the man will do/ Unbribed, there's no reason to.' India will remain dangerously porous so long as its middle class hankers so desperately for life or, at least, recognition abroad.

Email This Page