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BOOK REVIEW: India's silent warriors

The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane by B Raman

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Secrecy and intelligence agencies are synonymous. Very rarely does the general public get a peek into the shadowy world of spooks and their death-defying deeds shrouded behind the iron curtain of state secrets.

In a new offering from India's premier publishing house on strategic affairs, B Raman, the former head of the Counter-Terrorism Division of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), pries open the black box with hard-hitting scrutiny. The Kaoboys of R&AW is at once a nostalgic tribute to India's silent warriors and an inquisition into what is wrong with their legendary organization.

Raman's opening salvo is fired at the US State Department, which was much hated in R&AW during his 26-year tenure. One State Department official may have passed on to Pakistan Indian intelligence reports on Khalistani terrorists that New Delhi had shared with Washington. In 1992, the State Department threatened to impose economic sanctions on India after it refused permission for US sleuths to go on an aerial-photography mission along the Sino-Indian border. In 1994, it warned New Delhi that if R&AW did not halt covert missions in Pakistan, the United States would "act against India" (p 5).

Moving back to 1971, Raman chronicles the decision of India's then-prime minister Indira Gandhi to deploy the two-and-half-year-old R&AW into action as the East Pakistan crisis deepened. R&AW trained Bengali guerrillas and organized a psychological-warfare campaign against Pakistani rulers. Almost every day, Indira had at her disposal bugged extracts from telephonic conversations of the Pakistani top brass on the evolving situation. She did not make a single decision on the Bangladesh issue without consulting the R&AW chief, R N Kao.

Between 1969 and 1971, clandestine units of R&AW disrupted Chinese-backed Naga and Mizo insurgent traffic, sanctuaries and infrastructure in Myanmar and East Pakistan. The Richard Nixon administration in Washington initiated a joint program with Islamabad to hit back at India by encouraging a separatist movement among the Sikhs of Punjab. The US National Security Council, led by Henry Kissinger, sponsored allegations in the press and public forums of violations of Sikhs' human rights. US interest in the Khalistan insurgency remained firm up to 1984.

Intriguingly, R&AW and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) simultaneously colluded to prevent a possible Chinese takeover of northern Burma. George H W Bush, the director of the CIA from 1975-77, became a personal friend of Kao. Later, when Bush was US vice president, Kao succeeded in persuading him to turn off the aid tap to Khalistani terrorists. Raman comments here that "benevolence and malevolence go side by side in relations between intelligence agencies" (p 42).

In the mid-1970s, Kao sensed the urgency of enabling R&AW to collect intelligence about US movements in the Indian Ocean region. He cobbled together a liaison relationship with the French and Iranian intelligence agencies to monitor the Americans, an oddity given that the shah of Iran was among the closest allies of the United States. To Raman, R&AW's present capacity to stalk the US remains weak. He chides the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for "not seeming to be unduly concerned about it" (p 48).

Shortly after R&AW's creation in 1968, Kao arranged a secret liaison relationship with Israel's Mossad to "learn from its counter-terrorism techniques" (p 127). In the early 1980s, Pakistan was genuinely worried about the chances of a joint Indo-Israeli operation to destroy its uranium-enrichment plant at Kahuta. For 12 years, Mossad officers were posted in New Delhi under the cover of South American businessmen.

An interesting development Raman mentions is secret meetings in the late 1980s between the chiefs of R&AW and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) that were facilitated by Prince Talal of Jordan. The ISI denied harboring Khalistani terrorists but, outside media glare, it did hand over to R&AW some Sikh deserters of the Indian Army.

Raman favors exchanges of this sort over inane joint counter-terrorism mechanisms, so that the top spooks of both countries meet each other periodically without a formal agenda and "compare notes on developments of common interest" (p 234).

Raman partially blames the lack of objectivity of R&AW's branch dealing with Bangladesh for the decline in its performance in India's eastern frontier after 1975. Witchhunts by politicians, nepotism, discriminatory internal security checks, minimal interaction between senior and junior officers, permissiveness and trade unionism have added to R&AW's woes over the years. Persisting frictions over recruitment and inter-service seniority "come in the way of R&AW officers developing an esprit de corps even 39 years after formation of the organization" (p 133).

K Santanam of R&AW's science and technology division was the first to assess that Pakistan was covertly constructing a uranium-enrichment plant. He systematically monitored developments relating to Pakistan's nuclear program, including the procurement racket of Abdul Qadeer Khan. Raman reveals that, in an unguarded moment, Indian prime minister Morarji Desai indiscreetly told Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq that he was aware of Islamabad's nuclear schemes.

R&AW trained the intelligence officers of many independent African countries and assisted the anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and Namibia. Retired R&AW officers were deputed to work in training institutes of intelligence agencies of some African states. Raman terms it a pity that R&AW frittered away its goodwill in Africa through subsequent negligence, ceding ground to China. In 1971, R&AW counterinsurgency specialists also empowered the Sri Lankan government to crush the uprising of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

In the context of some R&AW reports on Khalistani terrorists

proving wrong, Raman avers that "lack of coordination in trans-border operations, often resulting in inaccurate, misleading and alarming reporting, continues to be the bane of our intelligence community" (p 97). Kao was crestfallen at the negligence and lax supervision of senior staffers of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) that allowed Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984.

Likewise, Raman's cautions about a threat to the life of Rajiv Gandhi from Sri Lankan Tamil extremists "were treated with skepticism" by the intelligence community with fatal consequences. "Everybody in Delhi" was convinced that they "would never harm Rajiv because he and his mother had helped them more than any other Indian leader" (p 236).

Raman bluntly notes that Indian security agencies "rarely admit their deficiencies. That is why we keep moving from one tragedy to another" (p 244). The IB's jealousies, reservations and prejudices against R&AW leave much to be desired and fragment India's intelligence faculties. Two parallel setups in the IB and R&AW are a duplicating luxury that the Indian taxpayer is burdened with.

Raman devotes many words to weaknesses in R&AW's counterintelligence capability that came to the fore in the 1980s. The French intelligence agency penetrated the Indian Prime Minister's Office, and the CIA was found to be collecting documents in R&AW's Chennai office. The recent defection of R&AW's Rabinder Singh to the US after years of undetected service as a CIA mole reflects the sorry state of affairs. Last year, the CIA was reported to have infiltrated India's National Security Council Secretariat. Raman envisages a day when "the sensitive establishments of this country have been badly penetrated under the guise of intelligence cooperation" (p 255).

Linguistic weaknesses of R&AW staff often come in the way of analytical and operational work in India's surroundings, thanks to a "needless fascination for west European languages" (p 130). MI5, now known as the British Security Service, had "more Punjabi-Gurumukhi-knowing experts than the IB and the R&AW put together" (p 152). Raman also finds fault with the structure of India's national-security management under the governments of Atal Bihair Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, wherein the chief of R&AW has been reduced to a subordinate of the national security adviser with little direct access to the prime minister.

Though Raman exonerates R&AW from the charge of politicization in comparison with the IB and the Central Bureau of Investigation, he admits that R&AW officials gave "ideas" to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to cover up the controversial Bofors kickback scandal. Bofors "brought out some of the worst traits in our intelligence and investigative agencies" (p 177). Yet it was during Rajiv's reign that R&AW, particularly its Pakistan division, regained strong covert-action capacity that could "bite again".

It was in the Rajiv era that R&AW played a key behind-the-scenes role in normalization of New Delhi-Beijing relations and launched a hotline between its chief and his Chinese counterpart. The political leaders of the two countries could also use it to avoid the normal diplomatic channel. During the first Gulf War of 1991, Chinese intelligence offered oil supplies to India to overcome any shortages that might crop up. Overall, Raman considers R&AW to be inadequate in analyzing data on China.

At the end of the Cold War, R&AW harnessed its closeness to Russian intelligence to secure assurances that whatever the changes in political dispensation in Moscow, there would be no wavering in its friendly stance toward India.

On India's fiasco in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1989, Raman terms it Rajiv's folly and not R&AW's. However, he does take many senior officers of security agencies, including R&AW, to task for "egging him on into more and more unwise actions" (p 208). R&AW was outstanding in the 1990s in intercepting communications and naval arms smuggling of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

When the insurgency began in Indian Kashmir in 1987, R&AW jammed Pakistani broadcasts and telecasts and reverse-broadcast Indian propaganda in Pakistani Kashmir. It mobilized anti-Pakistan elements in the Muslim community in India as well as the subcontinental Muslim diaspora in Europe. It strengthened networking with various segments of Pakistan's political class and civil society that were "well disposed towards India" (p 227). R&AW also began building contacts with mujahideen leaders in Afghanistan who were unhappy with the insidious role of the ISI in their country.

After the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts, the first act of mass-casualty terrorism on the ground in India, R&AW pieced together credible evidence of the direct hand of the ISI. Kao remarked at that time in disgust that, in spite of solid proof, "the US will never act against Pakistan for anything it does to India". Raman adds wryly that "this is as valid today as it was in the past" (p 277).

Raman concludes that R&AW is like "the proverbial curate's egg, good in parts" and requiring genuine improvements in crisis prevention, intelligence analysis, and coordination with fellow agencies in India.

A treasure trove of unknown information and incidents that mark a much misunderstood and maligned agency, this book is a frank account of cloak-and-dagger agents who defend Indian interests through deniable acts.

The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane by B Raman. Lancer Publishers, New Delhi, August 2007. ISBN: 0-9796174-3-X. Price: US$27, 294 pages.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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