About three years ago, I asked for permission from the Government of India to write an authorised history of its Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), or its external espionage agency. Over the years, I have known many an officer of this organisation – largely a fine and polished bunch of people - and appreciated their work. Approval, though, was not granted.
In recent years, distinguished histories on Britain’s MI6 (which equates to RAW) and MI5 (which corresponds to India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) by eminent scholars have hit the market. While I don’t consider myself to be either eminent or a scholar, my effort would at least have officially put on record a chronological catalogue of RAW’s activities to mark the 50th anniversary of its formation, notwithstanding the insightful books penned by insiders like B Raman and Major General V K Singh, among others.
As is well known, in 1962, Chinese soldiers overran Indian troops in what is now Arunachal Pradesh, then the North East Frontier Agency, before they withdrew. It was an utter humiliation for India. A post-mortem of the fiasco unearthed that the IB’s antenna had failed to detect Chinese preparations for the invasion. It became imperative, there and then, that a solution was needed. Another war – this time with Pakistan – was thrust upon India in 1965. India saw this coming and was therefore in readiness to meet the challenge – which it did with aplomb, thanks to the mature handling by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, General Jayanto Chaudhuri and Air Marshall Arjan Singh. But the concern about the inadequacy of India’s external intelligence-gathering festered. Finally in 1968, under Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, came into existence RAW, headed by Rameshwar Nath Kao, who stewarded the outfit for the next nine years.
It was founded to concentrate on the pressing objective of ferreting information out of China and Pakistan. Subsequently, it expanded its remit and spread its wings to other countries and regions. Among the feathers in its cap is its behind-the-scenes role in liberating East Pakistan from the hands of the West Pakistan-based military dictators and giving birth to Bangladesh in 1971, not to mention its influence in Afghanistan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Less advertised is its covert assistance to the African National Congress’ anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
After the 1962 debacle, India turned to the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for help. China was then the common enemy of the two. The CIA trained Tibetan refugees who had come to India to carry out strikes inside China. But the CIA’s overt and increasing intimacy with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) over the decades since has distressed RAW and caused it to be cautious about the American agency. Of course, with relations deteriorating between the US and Pakistan, the CIA has been more forthcoming about its intelligence on Pakistan to RAW. Previously, it expected RAW to keep it elaborately posted, while being reluctant to part with insights on Pakistan.
RAW reports directly to the prime minister; but senior cabinet ministers who are members of the committee on security, have generally been kept in the loop on key issues. Inder Kumar Gujral, as External Affairs Minister and then Prime Minister, is blamed by a section of Indian civil servants and politicians for loosening India’s ground level grip in Pakistan, cutting back on human assets. While there could be some truth in the allegation - for peace with Pakistan was a priority for Gujral – my experience was intriguing.
I knew Gujral well and one day, when he was Prime Minister, I phoned him from London, as I used to from time to time. Our conversations were always free and frank and often useful for me as background knowledge. On this occasion, he surprised me by saying that a coup in Pakistan was imminent and Benazir Bhutto would be overthrown. Gujral’s assessment was obviously based on the input he had received from RAW. I immediately alerted my news desk and, after a customary crosscheck, aired the story on CNN International. Bhutto was ousted the next day.
RAW reportedly launched with 250 personnel and a budget of Rs three crore. Now, it is said to employ over 10,000 people, with its financial outlay a closely guarded secret. Indeed, this leads to charges of a lack of accountability and transparency. In 1999, when Pakistani forces intruded into the heights of Kargil, there was an attempt to make RAW the scapegoat for the infiltration. RAW rejected this by revealing it had provided the intelligence, but the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had ignored it. Co-ordination between the agencies and intra-government was certainly imperfect at the time. It is a moot point as to what extent the establishment of a National Security Council has corrected this. Also, is encroachment into RAW’s domain by other agencies a good idea?
RAW, in tandem with the Indian Army, sharpened the skills of the Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan, paved the way for Sikkim’s accession to India and assisted the Kachin rebels in Myanmar, when the government there was giving India a hard time.
But its support for, supplies to and training of the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the 1970s and 1980s clearly went awry. The LTTE evolved into a rogue, terrorist group, with even a fissiparous design in Tamil Nadu. The Indian peacekeeping force sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 ended up being bloodily resisted by the LTTE. An LTTE suicide bomber then assassinated Rajiv Gandhi.
RAW did well to retain Afghanistan’s historical proximity to India during the dark days of the Pakistan-installed Taliban regime in Kabul; and this resulted in an outpouring of goodwill towards Delhi, after the notorious authority was deposed in 2001. The close ties between Afghanistan and India give Pakistan’s army and ISI sleepless nights. RAW, from the outset, forged and has maintained close co-operation with Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, known as KHAD, which kept India up-to-date on Pakistan diverting money and munitions received from the United States and Saudi Arabia to Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists. RAW retaliated with serial bomb explosions in Karachi and Lahore. At one point, it was sympathetic towards Sindhi nationalists in Pakistan. But their potency petered out and so apparently did India’s interest.