March 23, 2009

There's A Spy In My Soup


The new RAW chief takes over at a time when morale is at an all-time low and 'recall' cases are rising by the day ...

Saikat Datta

Foreign Locales, Phoren Attitudes

* Berlin: RAW officer asked to return due to poor quality of intelligence and differences with his Intelligence Bureau counterpart.
* Colombo: Ambassador wants officer out for breach of protocol and meeting senior Sri Lankan officials/leaders.
* Brussels: Officer recalled after allegations of financial bungling and misappropriation of funds. Inquiry pending.
* Beijing: RAW operative recalled for allegedly "mishandling" her junior and compromising security by using the office computer to surf the Net.

In February this year, K.C. Verma, a 1971 batch police officer from the Jharkhand cadre, took over as chief of India's external intelligence agency, Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), and with it inherited the problems that have plagued the organisation for years.

In the last year or so, RAW has seen some of the highest recall rates of its officers from foreign postings, causing much embarrassment. Now a few more Indian ambassadors/high commissioners have written to the government complaining about RAW officers posted at their embassies/high commissions and seeking their recall. Last year saw the return of P. Hanniman, a joint secretary-level officer, from Brussels after allegations of financial bunglings and siphoning of secret funds surfaced.

This year there are pending requests from the Indian ambassador to Germany, Meera Shankar, requesting that a RAW officer, K. Jha, be recalled. Similarly, the Indian high commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad, has complained about P. Rao, a woman officer posted in Colombo. Prasad feels that Rao's meetings with senior Sri Lankan dignitaries were an embarrassment. A similar request has been received from the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan.

Last year saw the sudden return of two RAW officers from Sri Lanka and China. Ravi Nair came back home from Colombo under a cloud, while Uma Mishra, a director-level officer posted in Beijing, was recalled after allegations of an affair between her subordinate and a Chinese interpreter surfaced. Mishra was accused of mishandling the entire affair as well as compromising security with a senior visiting IB officer accusing her of using his computer to surf the Net.

For Verma, these are issues he'll have to resolve quickly. His appointment comes after a three-year hiatus for him: he spent it outside the Indian intelligence community for health reasons. In between, he had bypass surgery and had taken over as Narcotics Control Bureau chief where he worked with P. Chidambaram, then the finance minister.

The P. Hanniman case will now be top priority. Hanniman is currently posted in Delhi and the inquiry against him for siphoning off secret funds in Brussels has been completed. Strangely enough, Hanniman seems to have survived till now because the inquiry report was kept pending by Gurinder Singh, a special secretary with RAW who has been sent abroad now as special security advisor to the government of Mauritius. Singh sat on the inquiry file for almost a year before sending it back without taking any decision, days before he left for Mauritius. RAW officers allege that Singh did it to protect a fellow IPS officer.

Meanwhile, the Indian high commissioner to Lanka has demanded that the lady officer posted in Colombo be recalled immediately. According to several officers familiar with the case, the high commissioner took umbrage on protocol issues saying the lady officer was overstepping her brief by independently meeting senior Sri Lankan officials.

In Germany, differences between an IB and RAW officer have led to the latter facing the prospect of being sent home in the next few weeks.

A similar fate awaits the RAW officer in Kabul with the Indian ambassador there reportedly unhappy with his performance. Incidentally, this isn't the first time that India's RAW station in Germany has come under a cloud. Another IPS cadre officer was accused of forging the letterhead of the Pakistani ambassador to Germany a few years ago and passing fake letters/memos as intelligence gathered. When detected, he was immediately repatriated to his parent cadre state, Uttarakhand. He is currently facing a cbi inquiry in a corruption case.

What irks officers within RAW is the way these "requests" for withdrawal are treated by the government.

K.C. Verma is in a piquant situation— experienced officers are quitting and no new talent is coming in.

Last year, when Ravi Nair was pulled out of Colombo, there were allegations of him being associated with a "Chinese spy". However, a subsequent inquiry revealed that the charges were blatantly false. Instead, it came to light that Sri Lankan foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama had orchestrated the whole episode.
Apparently, Nair was Bogollagama's tenant in Colombo and had refused to pay for expensive furniture that the minister had ordered for the house. This dispute became a full-blown crisis when Bogollagama's daughter's continuance in AIIMS, Delhi, was threatened due to her dismal academic performance. (RAW had organised her admission but couldn't ensure the medical degree.) As differences came out into the open, Nair was immediately recalled, only to be proved innocent of the charges later. A similar dispute between the RAW officer in Germany and his IB counterpart led to the present impasse. The Indian ambassador, unimpressed with the quality of reports the officer was generating, raised the issue with the MEA, leading to the officer's imminent recall.

For Verma, these are tricky issues since a similar episode last year led to the resignation of RAW's China expert, Jaidev Ranade. A career intelligence officer, he was literally hounded out by the earlier secretary, Ashok Chaturvedi, on grounds that Ranade had not sought permission for his wife's employment with the World Bank. Embarrassed by Ranade's resignation, the pmo stepped in and issued orders to promote him to the post of additional secretary even though his resignation had been accepted.

RAW has always been bogged down by experienced officers leaving, citing harassment and nepotism. Sandip Joshi, who had done extensive work to break up the Khalistan movement, quit two years ago, while Vijay Tewatia, a joint secretary, was forced to take voluntary retirement after his wife, a doctor, took up an assignment with the UN.

Simultaneously, RAW has failed to attract new talent. It has recruited only six officers in the last eight years and continues to depend on officers on deputation who leave soon after completing a lucrative foreign posting. This has led to a severe drought of expertise and has left the ras cadre, raised specially to man the agency in the 1970s, demoralised and languishing in ignominy.

(Some names have been changed to keep identities secret)

1 comment:

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