Touching a raw nerve
Vijay Mohan

The Kaoboys of R&AW : Down Memory Lane
by B. Raman. Lancer Publishers. Pages 294. Rs 795

The Kaoboys of R&AW : Down Memory LaneAn intelligence agency is the custodian of a nationís secrets, most of which remain buried in its closely guarded archives or in the minds of a few who deal with information largely denied to others.

In India, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), tasked with collecting and collating external intelligence, is the agency holding such secrets. Tid-bits about its functioning and past operations have been written about, a lot has been speculated upon and even more remains hidden.

For the first time, a book that provides useful insights about the role and functioning of R&AW has been brought out by an insider. The author, B. Raman, spent 26 years with R&AW, from the agencyís inception in September 1968 till he retired as Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat in 1994. Hence he had a deep insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the R&AW and was privy to its innermost secrets, some of which he has chosen to share here.

The book traverses through Indiaís contemporary history and covers important milestones like the 1971 Indo-Pak war, insurgency in the North-East, problems in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, Emergency, the Bofors scandal, the war in Afghanistan, Indira Gandhiís assassination and so on. The book also details the intelligence imperatives and dispensation under various prime ministers.

Few would know that there were prior indications about the Chinese intention to attack in 1962, which had badly shaken the Indian establishment. In 1961, the Intelligence Bureauís (IB) trans-border sources in the North-East were repeatedly reporting a tremendous increase in the number of mules and Chinese muleteers in the Kachin State of the Burma Naga Hills. The Chinese had entered Arunachal Pradesh not from the north, but from Yunnan in the east, after clandestinely moving across Kachin in Burma.

The then officers of the IB had given a wake-up call by drawing the attention of the policy makers to the national security implications of this development, but they were ridiculed and accused of nursing imaginary fears. It was realised only belatedly that the muleteers were actually Chinese army and intelligence officers based in Yunan who had taken up position across our border in Burmese territory in the months before the invasion. After the war was over, there was a steep decline in the number of muleteers.

Another little-known fact brought out by the book is that R&AW played a major role in the independence of African nations. It played a very active role in helping the South Africaís ANC in its anti-apartheid struggle and the SWAPO in its struggle for the independence of Namibia. Many of their cadres were trained in India or Zambia. Uganda, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Malawi were other such nations.

It is but obvious after going through the book that while R&AW was able to establish a liaison with a number of foreign intelligence agencies, the coordination and networking among intelligence agencies within the country remains a lot to be desired. A prime example was the handling of Sri Lankan Tamil organisations, that received money from R&AW, IB, Military Intelligence and other government agencies with each being unaware about the role and support provided by others.

Interestingly, the book belies the popular impression that the Indian heads of government, largely preoccupied with domestic politics, are ignorant of happenings around unless they are briefed about them. Indira Gandhi, the author says, was better informed about Sri Lanka than the R&AW or the IB. In the1980s, she knew before the intelligence agencies about the plan of the Sri Lankan government and Sinhalese extremists to secretly burn the bodies of a large number of Tamils in Colombo who were killed by extremists. When the Secretary General of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov died in 1984, she knew about it even before an official announcement had been made in Moscow. In August 1988, Rajiv Gandhi knew before the R&AW that a Pakistani aircraft carrying the Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haque was missing. In August 1990, V P Singh knew before before the R&AW about the impending dismissal of Benazir Bhutto at the instigation of the then Pak army chief, Mirza Aslam Beg. Chandra Shekhar was better informed about Nepal than the R&AW. So, too, was Narasimha Rao about Pakistan and Iran.

The author also looks upon the attitude of successive prime ministers towards the intelligence agencies, particularly R&AW. Some like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao understood and supported the role as well as covert operations of the agency in contrast to Morarji Desai and I K Gujral.

Khalistani terrorism is examined in detail and the active support of the Pakistanís ISI and the role played by the US Central Intelligence Agency in the issue gives a great deal of insight into the happenings at that time. Some hitherto unknown incidents, both in India and abroad, the thinking and planning in the uppermost echelons of the government and the implications of various actions and counter-actions by the government as well as other agencies are discussed.

It is interesting to note the manner in which several aircraft hijackings were successfully handled by R&AW with active cooperation of the governments of the country in which the aircraft had been landed. In some cases, the hijackers were handed over to the Indian security agencies on the spot. A sharp contrast is drawn here with the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, which eventually landed in Kandahar.

Instances of moles, activities during the Emergency, situation in the North-East and the assassination of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi are among other landmarks in the Indian history which are lucidly discussed. Some funny anecdotes from the world intelligence, attitude of external ministry officers towards R&AW functionaries and the risks and problems faced by them also find a mention. The book also provides an insight into the character and personalities of some of its top leaders who were at the helm of affairs during testing times.

The book underlines the fact that an emerging power aspiring to take its place by 2020 among the leading powers of the world has to have an external intelligence agency which has the ability to see, hear, smell and feel far and near. Such an agency has to have the ability to operate imaginatively and daringly, analyse lucidly, anticipate unfailingly and manage unanticipated crises effectively. Above all the agency needs to be professionally staffed and should have the courage to tell the truth as it needs to be told without worrying about the consequences.

R&AW, as the book brings out, is strong in its capability for covert action, gathering low and medium-grade intelligence, collation, investigation, crisis management and its capability for technical intelligence. On the other hand, it remains weak in intelligence assessment and analysis, cultivating human intelligence and crisis prevention.

The conclusion is that while R&AW has had its spells of glory as well as utter failures, it has still not fully evolved into an organisation the country can bank upon its future national security requirements and has only partially fulfilled the purposes for which it was set up by Indira Gandhi and its founding director, the legendary R.N. Kao, after whom the book is titled.