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By By Jyoti Malhotra
  • Published 15.08.07

In an unusual display of openness early this year, the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, invited Shashi Tharoor, a much-publicized face of India abroad and a rank outsider, to deliver the first R.N. Kao memorial lecture in Delhi.

It was an impressive gathering for which a variety of former spymasters had flown in from across the country. It was presided over by the national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan. Tharoor spoke about “India and global security: leveraging soft power’’, arguing that the culture of debate and discussion that comes naturally to Indians should be extended to the intelligence agencies, even if secrecy is their preferred weapon of action.

By all accounts, Kao would have liked the idea. India’s top spymaster was made the first head of R&AW by Indira Gandhi after it was separated from the Intelligence Bureau in 1968. In his time, spies did not merely collect and analyse information, they had a chameleon-like ability to identify with both the oppressor and the oppressed. They spoke multiple languages. They built relations with the CIA and the KGB and the Afghan mujahedin, all at the same time. Spying didn’t take place at the speed of 24-hour news channels, nor were spy stories grist for the media’s mill.

Instead, spying was an intimate, time-consuming process, where the spy staked out his potential victim or source with the patience of someone in love. If you were collating information and analysing it, you pursued the maze and didn’t rest until it cleared. You had a sense of history. You couldn’t be a good spy if you didn’t know your weaknesses.

Most Indians, among them former cabinet secretary, Naresh Chandra, believe that R&AW’s finest hour was the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 and the liberation of Bangladesh. Considering this happened a mere three years after Kao’s creation of R&AW and allowed Mrs Gandhi to emerge as one of the most powerful leaders in the world, the event also set the stage for a muscular foreign policy.

The liberation of Bangladesh was clearly Mrs Gandhi’s finest hour. The manner in which Bangladeshis rose to take charge of their country — albeit with the help R&AW provided to their Mukti Bahini — has no parallel in world history.

Back home, the 1971 events allowed Kao to create the psychological warfare (Psywar) division, which kept the international spotlight on brutalities committed by the West Pakistanis. Indira Gandhi’s tour of the major nations, including the US, to sensitize them about the situation in the subcontinent — millions of refugees from East Bengal were pouring into India — was a perfect prequel to the brahmastra that followed. Pakistan cracked up like a brittle pancake. It continues to vent much of its angst by unleashing terror in Punjab, Kashmir and now, in the rest of India.

Even as it covertly aided the Mukti Bahini, R&AW raids into the Chittagong Hill Tract in the Northeast simultaneously destroyed sanctuaries and training camps of the Mizo National Front as well as the Nagas. Phizo had, in fact, been in touch with the ISI since 1956, and later leaders like Isaac Swu, Muivah and Mowu Angami (who was later killed) had travelled via the Kachin state of Burma to Yunnan, a southern Chinese province for arms training. Mizo leaders like Laldenga, too, were in touch both with the ISI and the Chinese, seeking arms training and financial assistance. The Chinese agreed to train the MNF if they could reach Yunnan on their own.

R&AW’s decision to smash insurgent sanctuaries in the CHT, killing both Nagas and Mizos, played a big role in partially ending the Naga insurgency. As for Laldenga, he fled to West Pakistan, via Rangoon, but later got fed up with his ISI handlers. He escaped from Pakistan and reached Geneva in 1975, where a joint R&AW-IB team began talks with him. But Mrs Gandhi was soon to impose Emergency, and to lose power in 1977. The Mizos had to wait for her to return in 1980 before Kao — and the next R&AW chief, Gary Saxena, as well as the late G. Parthasarathi, Mrs Gandhi’s trusted adviser — could pick up the threads. Peace returned to Mizoram only in 1985, when Laldenga became its chief minister.

B. Raman, a former R&AW spy, who has just written a book about his former organization called the Kaoboys of R&AW, points out that one of R&AW’s major drawbacks has been “a lack of man management…especially in the later years, where R&AW should have been blended into a team, there’s a clear absence of an esprit de corps.’’

One clear example of the lack of coordination between R&AW, IB and the West Bengal state police occurred during the Purulia arms drop in 1998. Peter Bleach, an ex-pilot of the Royal Air Force who was hired to fly the plane to Purulia, is supposed to have gone to the headquarters in the UK and told them what he was going to do. Subsequently, clear and pointed intelligence was given to R&AW, but it didn’t pass it on.

The failure to detect the Pakistani incursion into Kargil until May 1999, when one IB alert a year before had picked up unusual activity across the border in Baltistan, must count for another failure of the R&AW’s high-profile Aviation Research Centre. It was left to the nomadic Gujjar shepherds, who roam the hills, to pick out the aliens in the Kargil hills.

However, Naresh Chandra feels that R&AW’s picking up of the conversation between General Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad and his colleague General Muhammad Aziz Khan, in Beijing during the Kargil war (when Aziz said to Musharraf in crude Urdu, “Uski (India) tooti mere haath main hai’’), was one of R&AW’s best moments. Asked if the release of the conversation transcript did not compromise both technical and human intelligence, Chandra said, “Releasing the transcript was a political decision, R&AW did a very good job.” That transcript was one element in the diplomatic battle that finally persuaded Bill Clinton to force Nawaz Sharif to order his forces back behind the LoC.

India’s intelligence-gathering efforts have largely focussed on Pakistan, the US, China and the neighbourhood. Through the Eighties and the Nineties, including after the Mumbai blasts in 1993, Delhi tried hard to get the US to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism with little success. Delhi argued that a lot of CIA arms were being siphoned off by the ISI to be used in Punjab and Kashmir — but the argument fell on deaf ears.

Under Rajiv Gandhi, Delhi sought to pursue a multi-dimensional strategy on Pakistan. That is, cooperation with its people, covert action where possible (as in Sind, which provoked Benazir Bhutto to tell her ISI chief, “Give up your Sikh card and India will give up its Sind card”) and maintaining good relations with both the pro-Pakistan Afghan mujahedin as well as with the Tajik opposition-leader, Ahmad Shah Masood. With the fall of the taliban after 9/11, Delhi moved quickly to establish consulates in Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar in order to prevent Pakistan from regaining strategic depth in southern Afghanistan.

Unlike Bangladesh, though, India’s Sri Lanka intervention has been a mixed bag. Covert assistance for the LTTE in the early Eighties ordered by Indira Gandhi enabled the government to meet aspirations of the Sri Lanka Tamils, but by the time Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka accord, the tables had been turned completely. Once again, different agencies of the government didn’t know what the other was doing. General Sundarji is said to have promised Rajiv Gandhi that it would take a month to accomplish his mission to disarm the LTTE. Ultimately, V.P. Singh ordered the IPKF back after three years, without completing the job it had set out to do.

Still, as Shashi Tharoor put it at the R&AW tea-party in January, the Eighties were a grand decade, with Delhi helping a large num-ber of African countries like Uganda (Milton Obote invited R&AW in after Idi Amin chased the Indians out) and Ghana set up intelligence agencies, besides providing key support to the African National Congress in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia.

Analysts like B. Raman point out that for an argumentative society, Indians have largely refused to ask questions or debate failures. Lieutenant General Henderson-Brooks and Brigadier Baghat wrote a report on the failure of the Sino-Indian war in 1962, while the Subrahmanyam committee went into a detailed look at the Kargil conflict, but Parliament has either not been shown the reports or allowed to discuss it.

Meanwhile, there remains the question of a cover-up in the Rabinder Singh affair, the R&AW double agent who escaped, via Kathmandu, to the US in 2004. The matter shook the agency as well as India, but an investigation into the counter-insurgency failure doesn’t seem to have cleaned out the cobwebs, especially since a number of those allegedly involved in the fiasco are posted in key countries today.

So what’s the score on India’s covert operations in these 60 years? Johnnie Walker, the ultimate Bollywood comedian, has a memorable line in one of his films: “Fifty-fifty”, he says, with regard to the happiness-ever-after formula. It could easily apply to Delhi’s report card since independence.