A mystique continues to surround Rameshwar Nath Kao or Ramji Kao as he was better known during his lifetime and as he is remembered now almost two decades after his passing away in 2002. During the years of his active service, and later too, he inspired respect in India’s political and security classes as well as in his peers in the global intelligence community. His colleagues in the country’s external intelligence service, which he was tasked to establish and which he nourished and consolidated, venerated him. That emotion has not dimmed as Nitin Gokhale chronicles in his interesting and insightful book.
Gokhale notes in the preface that the book is “neither history nor a detective thriller. It is by no means a comprehensive chronicle of the R&AW either”. It is “a short glimpse into how organisations tasked to protect India’s national interests took shape”. This book, actually more than a “short glimpse” relating to institution’s building and an account of Kao, the man, and the security and intelligence official, is based in part on some of the Kao papers that are open to researchers and on the “memories” of some people who knew him and on publicly available material covering the era in which he worked — the 1950s to the mid-1980s. Despite the constraints, Gokhale succeeds in giving the reader a feel of both Kao’s persona and the events which he witnessed, investigated or helped shape and the institutions he set up.
Gokhale goes into the factors that shaped Kao, the spymaster — the difficult circumstances of his childhood and youth because of the early death of his father, his university years when he honed his skills in verbal and written articulation, achieved academic success, displayed a capacity for hard work and prepared for the competitive examinations. He succeeded in getting through into the Indian Police — the imperial police cadre — in 1940. He spent seven years in the then United Provinces and joined the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in 1947.
Kao’s duties in the IB related to the overseeing the Prime Minister’s security as well as those of visiting foreign leaders. His first major assignment was to participate in the investigation of the crash of the Air India aircraft Kashmir Princess, chartered to take the Chinese delegation to Bandung from Hong Kong in 1955. The aircraft crashed because the Taiwanese intelligence thought that Zhou Enlie would be on board and wanted to assassinate him. Gokhale brings this long forgotten episode vividly alive with its Chinese, British and Indian dimensions as well as Kao’s role in getting to the bottom of the terrorist act. Kao’s interactions with the Chinese premier are particularly revealing.
In 1963, Kao set up and served as the first head of the Aviation Research Centre with US assistance. Gokhale gives a detailed and useful account of the defence and intelligence cooperation between India and the US after 1962. The lapses on the intelligence front during the 1965 Indo-Pak War had demonstrated the need for an organisation dedicated exclusively to external intelligence.
Kao, who was the head of the IB’s external intelligence, was tasked to examine the rationale for such an organisation. Once the decision was taken to establish an external intelligence organisation named the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Kao was appointed as its chief. It is in founding and leading R&AW that Kao made as Gokhale notes “a lasting impact on many aspects of Indian security and intelligence”. (p. 113)
Indira Gandhi had specified that R&AW should be a “multidisciplinary” organisation and “should not draw its higher personnel exclusively from the IPS”. This was a sound instruction but has not been followed for till today the IPS has completely dominated R&AW. Some analysts believe that this has been to the organisation’s detriment. It is pity that Gokhale has not examined this aspect to ascertain if Kao failed to shape the organisation as Indira Gandhi wisely wanted him to do.
The full measure of the significant role played by R&AW under Kao’s stewardship in the merger of Sikkim and the break-up of Pakistan would be known only when his record of the events is opened in 2025. However, Gokhale has woven a fascinating tale of the machinations of the Indian state through R&AW to ensure its security through making Sikkim a part of India but it is also a fact that the majority of the Sikkim’s people wanted it too. Gokhale has also covered well the various aspects of Kao’s work during the extreme challenge of 1971 which led to the creation of Bangladesh.
Kao had warned Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman against conspiracies against him and had advised precautions to be taken for Indira Gandhi’s security, the latter in his avatar as security adviser after 1980. Both leaders did not heed his cautions. How should a security and intelligence official ensure that his words are taken seriously and followed? That is a theme which Gokhale could have explored. More careful editing would have avoided some factual errors as placing Queen Elizabeth’s visit to India in 1950. She became queen in 1952 and her first visit to India was in 1961.
All in all, while this work enriches our understanding of many crucial phases of India’s recent history, it also profiles well the role of a reticent man and official of whom a legendary French spymaster said, “What a fascinating mix of physical and mental elegance! What accomplishments! What friendships! And yet so shy of talking about himself, his accomplishments and his friends”.
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