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The invisible man of Government of India


Fifty-two years ago, on 21 September 1968, R.N. Kao founded R&AW, the External Intelligence Department of the Government of India that was cleverly concealed in the labyrinth of the Cabinet Secretariat. A tribute to the perfect spymaster.

Bhuvan Lall





21 September 1968 was a regular day in Lutyens’ Delhi. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on her way to Latin America on an official visit. The government offices working six days a week were busy as usual. Every part of Central Vista looked normal. Traffic moved slowly and the media reported nothing unusual. Yet that date will remain one of the more significant days in the history of post- Independence India.

On that morning, a pale, serious-looking bespectacled man, about six feet tall with a prominent Roman nose and elegantly dressed in a well-tailored spotless white outfit, stepped out of the South Block on Raisina Hill in Lutyens’ Delhi. He had long-fingered hands of an artist and the penetrating eyes of a thinker. In his front pocket was a top-secret executive order. It specified that the PM had created a new department with a nonde-script name. And from that date onwards, this fifty-year-old fiercely reserved gentleman held an innocuous post, equivalent to an Additional Secretary. No outsider comprehended what his responsibilities were, where his offices were located, or what his subordinates’ real names or job profiles were. The existence of this undercover government unit was never admitted officially. Even his identity as chief was not disclosed publicly. He unswervingly reported only to the Indian Prime Minister. 

He was the invisible man of the Government of India.

Today we can reveal his name — Rameshwar Nath Kao. His colleagues called him Ramji or RNK and he identified himself over the four-digit secure telephones as “Aaar En Kao”. Those who served the nation under his leadership deferentially titled him “Kao Sa’ab”. Fifty-two years ago on 21 September 1968 Kao founded R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing), the External Intelligence Department of the Government of India that was cleverly concealed in the labyrinth of the Cabinet Secretariat.

Kao, the Benaras born exceptionally brilliant son of a Deputy Collector, qualified for the renowned Indian Police in 1940. Within a few years of service, he began to be identified for his razor- sharp mind and became the first Indian to enter the inner sanctum of the intelligence department that was staffed only by British policemen since its formation. Senior officers warned the young Kao that a member of his clan, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a dangerous revolutionary. Kao as a student leader at the Allahabad University in 1938 had encountered Nehru. Now he intercepted the Indian leader’s correspondence. In June 1947, Kao was promoted as Assistant Director in the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and posted to Delhi. At the historic midnight hour of 15 August, he witnessed Nehru’s famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. He would continue to see history being made in front of his eyes for the rest of his career.

After Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, he was handed the charge of the Prime Minister’s security. On the morning of 19 March 1952, in a closed-door meeting, Nehru delivered a scintillating speech to an exclusive set of senior police officials about the significance of internal and external espionage for India. Amongst the select group of officers in the inaccessible room was the thirty-three-year-old Kao. He later recalled that in the mid-1950s, at a similar annual meeting with police chiefs, “Nehru made a prophetic observation by saying that although our problems with Pakistan were acute and menacing, the problems with China would be stub- born. India-China problems, he thought, would remain with us for years. This was a remarkable observation at a time when there was euphoria about Hindi-Chini, Bhai-Bhai.”

During the 1950s, Kao’s career graph soared as he set up an efficient cryptography branch at IB using computers and performed exceedingly well in top-secret assignments overseas. The reticent Chinese PM Chou En-Lai praised his rare skill set in investigating an assassination plot and Ghanaian President Dr Kwame Nkrumah was overwhelmed by his tradecraft in setting up the nation’s espionage agency. During Queen Elizabeth’s first tour of India in February 1961, Bhola Nath Mullick, the legendary chief of IB, assigned Kao to head her security detail. Kao as usual wearing dark glasses sat in the front seat of the convertible limousine flying the Royal pennant as the Queen and the Duke waved at thou- sands of people in Bombay (Mumbai now). On the Pedder Road, Kao saw a suspicious object hurtling down towards them. In a lightning- quick move, he snatched the object in mid-air. It was not a bomb but a harmless bouquet. Kao then felt a tap on his shoulder from behind. He turned around and the Queen leaned over to compliment him, “Well caught. Excellent cricket, sir.” The royal protection force named the immensely refined man “Victor Ludorum”.

After the debacle in the Himalayas in 1962, Kao as the new Deputy Director in charge of foreign espionage was instrumental in forming a secret bureau for counter- surveillance, a para-military force of Tibetan refugees, and a specialised air reconnaissance unit in association with the American intelligence agency. He also dispatched teams of mountaineers to the Himalayan peaks to monitor the Chinese nuclear programme. In the late 1960s, Kao conceptualised the visionary idea of a world-class external intelligence agency that could “win a war for India even before it actually started”. A powerful lobby within the Indian security establishment was bitterly opposed to his plans. But Parmeshwar Narain Haksar, the powerful Principal Secretary to the PM, re-inforced his vision. Kao ultimately gained the confidence and approval of PM Indira Gandhi. In September 1968, Kao, the Joint Director of IB, was elevated and appointed the first Director (R) of the extra-special department called R&AW that was dis- tinct from all other Central Police organisations. Over- night he was tasked with the sensitive job of protecting the national security of the largest democracy in the history of humankind at any cost.

Kao employed his unique talents to serve the strategic interests of his motherland. With traces of John Le Carré, the first-rate intelligence man shaped the government department with an esprit de corps, intellectualism, and certain idiosyncrasies. He handpicked his team of mavericks who gave him great loyalty and were branded as “Kao Boys”. The actual strength of his multi- specialty workforce was a state secret and its staffers were rarely seen in public. Even the budget outlay of R&AW was beyond scrutiny. Its undetectable offices conducted surveillance, apprehended rival spies, broke cipher codes, mastered foreign tongues, directed furtive undertakings, and produced farsighted strategies.

R&AW gave nightmares to India’s deadliest adversaries while its sleeper spies were dangerously embedded deep in enemy territories and its HUMINT assets surviving by their wits remained enigmatic legends. Kao’s proactive spying network stretched across the world and his contacts were on the first-name basis among the higher echelons of international espionage organisations. Precipitously the Urdu-speaking Kao was dreaded by India’s neighbours, as he knew more about their secrets than the heads of the states of those nations. Constantly staying in the shadows, Kao gradually became the eyes and the ears of Indira Gandhi. She met him daily, once in the morning and then at the end of the day. She also read his briefs and sought his advice on all matters of national security.

During the conflict to free Bangladesh, the covert operations steered by Kao’s band of spies are still classified. Nonetheless, it was R&AW’s stealth, infiltration, and delivery of inside intelligence that fortified the overall war strategy. Consequently, India emerged victorious after the bloody fighting and on 16 December 1971 Bangladesh was born. It was R&AW’s finest achievement. Later one of the ‘Kao Boys’ divulged that at an event on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, a few members of the audience spotted a striking personality sitting unassumingly at the end of the hall. He was requested to take his rightful place on the stage with the other dramatis personae. Disconcerted at be- ing identified, the undisputed czar of Indian intelligence modestly stated, “I did nothing. The people on the stage deserve all the praise”, and gently left the hall.

Kao was a man of such secrecy that it was years before other foreign spying outfits figured out R&AW’s existence. Even after functioning for a decade a media report concerning R&AW was quickly rejected as a figment of journalistic imagination. An irate reader even wrote that a developing country like India could not possibly create a mysterious spying organisation with the sophistication of MI6, CIA, Mossad and KGB.

Today historians broadly agree that Kao who headed R&AW since its inception was one of the main archi- tects of the 1971 victory and also deserved substantial credit for Sikkim’s merger with India. Under Kao’s watch, R&AW was undoubtedly the most formidable foreign intelligence service globally and tempered by many hard-won battles Kao was recognised among the finest spymasters in the world. Given his stellar performance in revolutionising Indian intelligence, Kao’s tenure was extended and he was promoted to the rank of a Secretary to the Government of India, a post conventionally reserved just for the Indian Civil Service and not typically attained by an officer from the Indian Police cadre.

Then with the change in government, the fifty-eight- year-old Kao faced accusations that he had transgressed his jurisdiction. On 7 April 1977, after formally thanking the newly elected PM Morarji Desai, the honourable Director of R&AW abruptly proceeded on a four-month leave preparatory to his retirement. At that juncture the morale of Kao’s protégés suffered. Soon thereafter all charges against him were found to be unsubstantiated and there was an official acknowledgment that, “Kao was a thorough professional to his fingertips.” Four years later in August 1981 on the recommendation of Subhas Chandra Bose’s comrade, A.C.N. Nambiar, the Government of India invited the former R&AW strongman to function as the éminence grise of the security establishment. In those challenging times, Kao, one of India’s top police officers, was resurrected as the de facto National Security Adviser on a token monthly salary of Re 1. The government benefited from his extraordinary domain expertise as well as international contacts. His long-standing time-honoured channels were advantageous in organising PM Indira Gandhi’s state visit to the US and PM Rajiv Gandhi’s breakthrough visit to China. Under his direction, high-definition satellite photography and global telecommunication interception technologies secured India and an elite commando unit was created to neutralise terror situations. However, his sagacious advice on matters of critical importance was not accepted and the nation ended up paying a huge price.

On a March day in 1986, Kao with his salt-and-pepper-hair intact carried his immaculately dressed frame out of the Cabinet Secretariat and finally relinquished his official position. Thus ended the professional career of this noteworthy patriot who left an incontrovertible impact on India’s history and geography. Many felt that Kao rightfully deserved the highest national civilian honour. But the inherently modest Kao had no interest in personal glory and after superannuating he lived anonymously in a South Delhi neighbourhood rekindling his love for sculpture. Even in his years of seclusion Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee and key civil servants sought the counsel of the one-man think tank on delicate intelligence matters and nuclear issues. Yet he successfully kept himself out of the news and deliberately avoided a memoir. Therefore all his biographies are inadequate and lack specifics. Perhaps a comprehensive account will be achievable in 2025 when the nuanced recordings made by him are in the public domain. In January 1997 Kao reluctantly granted just one interview to a journalist and when asked about realism as portrayed in the novels of John le Carre, after a long pause he stated with a smile, “He has verisimilitude”.

Five years later on a cold January morning in 2002, the life of the awe-inspiring yet little-known Indian came to an end. Due to Kao’s faith in the official secrets act the eminent spymaster carried all the confidential matters with him to his funeral pyre.

At a memorial lecture, former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra, called him “a father figure and role model for all officers” and Kao’s subordinate M.K. Narayanan, the former National Security Advisor, in a moving tribute recorded, “For nearly half a century, Kao straddled the world of intelligence like a colossus, casting a benign shadow on more than two generations of intelligence officers of this country. Kao was much more than an icon.”


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