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    South Asia
     Jun 18, 2005
BOOK REVIEW
Spymaster's Pandora's box
Open Secrets. India's Intelligence Unveiled
by M K Dhar

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Released when intelligence agencies of major global powers are facing flak for incompetence and fabrication, Open Secrets is the first attempt to break the taboo of shielding the Indian intelligence fraternity under a permanent veil. "As powerful a weapon as a fusion bomb", (p 8) India's intelligence infrastructure has been weaponized by the governing class to hit the governed. Like the police, civil administration and judiciary, it has been used as a handmaiden to suit petty political ends and crush constitutional liberties. Dhar, an operative in India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) for three decades, has a muckraking tale to tell.

Since Indira Gandhi's time in the 1960s, the IB director has answered solely to the prime minister and home minister. The refusal of political masters to allow induction of expert staff from lateral fields has perpetuated a servile "police culture" in the bureau. "An average IB officer is not oriented with the techniques of war pursued by mujahideen and fidayeen fanatics." (p13) Non-productive human assets clutter the bureau. Lack of in-service checks fosters a "breeding ground for Goerings and Himmlers in the backyard of constitutional democracy". (p 18)

No meaningful cooperation between state and central intelligence entities exists, especially when different political parties rule at the center and in the states. Coordination among the three prime central agencies, IB, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) and CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), is non-existent. The Kargil and Surankote intelligence failures are two glaring illustrations of a divided house of Indian spooks (see Kashmir's snake in the grass June 7, 2003).

Dhar gives a clarion call for freeing intelligence organizations from the machinations of the executive. Legislation to make the agencies accountable to parliamentary committees is a crying necessity. Election prospecting, verifying credentials of ruling party candidates, researching the weaknesses of opposition candidates, toppling and interfering with elected governments and other dirty operations victimizing the innocent are shameful tasks assigned to agencies that should be protecting national security.

As a budding officer of the Indian Police Service in 1965, Dhar learned the nitty-gritty of grassroots intelligence collection in Darjeeling, Siliguri and Naksalbari (northern Bengal). His unusual techniques of raising human assets were encouraged with subventions from the police Secret Service Fund. Meetings with Charu Majumdar and Jangal Santhal, forefathers of India's extreme Maoist movement, convinced Dhar that violent agrarian revolution was not far off. However, politicians from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Delhi showed no intentions of addressing the economic woes of the rural populace. "Indian rulers blindly follow the firefighting ideology in dealing with great social and economic fault lines." (p 71)

In 1968, as a bolt from the blue, Dhar was advised to join the IB in Delhi. The intelligence technocrats he met there were "cast iron cookies" who swore by regimentation and loyalty. The abject submissiveness of officers robbed them of initiative and measured aggression. The IB reeked of factionalism, corruption and nepotism. Trainers treated the ruling Congress Party as Caesar's wife in the political analysis classes. They totally neglected "economic intelligence" and its relevance to unrest in society. Coastal security was unheard of as a concept. The curricula had a myopic strategic view and general officers were anomalously segregated from technical officers.

Posted to Manipur after training, Dhar was released "into troubled water like a scared fry". (p 95) Battered by Naga-Mizo rebellions and Meitei agitation for statehood, Manipur was in coma. Dhar raised very sensitive human assets and gained access to inner cores of the Imphal valley. Wanting political and bureaucratic support to survive, he cultivated assets inside the Manipur administration. His reports that Meitei ultras were being taken to Sylhet in East Pakistan for military training were treated as overreactions by the IB headquarters. "They thought that a greenhorn with only about four years experience was trying to act smart." (p 107)

On prime minister Indira Gandhi's visit to the region in 1969, Dhar's "humint" (human intelligence) inputs on armed disturbances saved the day and exposed the pathetic state of VIP security arrangements. His top-secret negotiations with insurgents succeeded in the conclusive eradication of Mizo militancy from Manipur in 1970. Stalking Naga gangs from hilltop to hilltop on their way to and from East Pakistan was not the only kind of action Dhar took. In 1972, Gandhi's point persons asked him to topple the Manipur state government. It was the first of many instances of "bleeding in silence at the rape of my conscience". (p 148)

Transferred to neighboring Nagaland when underground armies were escalating jungle warfare with Chinese support, Dhar thwarted and neutralized several militant posses. Since Nagas value the family as an institution, his strategy of involving family in work paid dividends. His personal friendships with key rebel leaders such as K Yallay, Z Ramyo and B M Keyho aided the Indian government's peace talks in 1974-75. His second tryst with unlawful acts came when Delhi called on him to subvert the loyalty of a section of Nagaland's elected legislature.

In 1975, Dhar was moved to the just-annexed state of Sikkim. He became the first Indian official to fraternize with the deposed king (Chogyal) and bring his sulking loyalists into the mainstream. To observe Chinese posts along the disputed border, he won over numerous transborder agents who made forays deep into Tibet. During Gandhi's emergency (a sort of martial rule declared in 1975), he was asked to frame the Chogyal and persuade local politicians to back the bullying Sanjay Gandhi, Indira's younger son. In 1977, the Janata Party government ordered Dhar to perform a converse action of political prostitution. Such immoral compulsions drove him into mental depression.

In 1979, Dhar was brought back to Delhi to head the IB's "Election Cell". Prime minister Charan Singh ordered him to assess "what was required in each constituency to influence the electorate". (p 233) When Gandhi rode back to power, she asked him to assist the Puri Committee, a tool of political vendetta, to blacken the faces of her opponents.

In 1980, Dhar was placed at the USSR counter-intelligence desk of the IB. He identified four central ministers, more than two dozen ministers of parliament, and layers of the armed forces to be on the payrolls of the KGB. His penchant for digging out skeletons forced a hurried shift to the subsidiary bureau in Delhi, practically the "special branch of the Prime Minister's Office". (p 252) From the perch, he espied the astonishing influence of Indian Rasputins like Dhirendra Brahmachari, "Mamaji" and Chandraswami. Indian industry bigwig, Dhirubhai Ambani, and other wheeler-dealers approached him for illegal favors.

After Sanjay Gandhi's death, Dhar was commissioned to shadow his widow Maneka and her associates. He was even asked to record the conversation of home minister Zail Singh with a Sikh militant on Indira Gandhi's instructions. The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) pressed him to sabotage Devi Lal's Haryana state government. The entire field machinery of the Delhi IB was mobilized to help the Congress Party win the Delhi municipal elections in 1983. In conspiracy and thuggery, "there was hardly any difference between the durbars of Jahangir and the viceroys and those of Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi". (p 284)

Dhar was next posted to the Indian mission in Canada with the brief of penetrating the transcontinental Khalistan separatist network. The RAW representatives in Ottawa resented his presence and raked up a turf battle. Dhar accessed extremist Sikh Gurdwaras and sections of the vocal Sikh community. Diplomatic assets ferreted out useful information on Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) links with Sikh secessionists. Dhar 's uncorroborated information about a terrorist attack involving an Indian aircraft was not taken seriously by Canadian authorities, leading to the Air India Kanishka bombing in 1985.

Returning home in 1987, Dhar joined the Punjab cell of the IB. He vehemently opposed the government policy of "filling up the follies of fault lines with dead bodies". (p 320) Unlike his colleagues, Dhar's operations avoided mindless killings of civilians. He drove wedges between feuding Sikh terrorist leaders and outfits and facilitated two secret peace initiatives of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Home minister Buta Singh's own underground group spoilt one demarche. Singh, the Punjab governor, state police and a jealous section of IB officers stonewalled the second plan. One IB faction opposed to Dhar leaked out the identity of a valuable asset and sacrificed him to the bullets of a Khalistani hit squad. Be it Punjab or Nepal, "agent safety was not a part of IB's professional ethics". (p 491)

Promoted to the Pakistan Counter-Intelligence Unit (PCIU) in 1988, Dhar launched transborder agents to penetrate Pakistani posts on the Punjab and Rajasthan borders. Rajiv Gandhi's lackey, Mani Shankar Aiyar (presently a central minister), instigated a crude incident of arresting a Pakistani "cover diplomat" against the counsel of Dhar. The prime minister's troubleshooters and some of their IB acolytes naively propped up the Bodoland and Gorkhaland agitations in Assam and Bengal.

At PCIU, Dhar discovered that Mulayam Singh Yadav (later defense minister) was in clandestine contact with the ISI. Sincere IB efforts to nab mujahideen and Pakistani agents were frustrated by key Indian politicians in Delhi, Bihar and Bengal. Undeterred, Dhar helped the IB regain a toehold in the Kashmir Valley and penetrated some jihadi training camps in Pakistan.

In 1989, Dhar aided the Assam operations of the IB. The collaboration of politicians and bureaucrats had whetted sub-nationalist aspirations in Assam. After creating Frankensteins, the state government was incapable of planned military action against the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam). Infected layers within the Assamese regime divulged advance information about Indian army plans and allowed insurgents to cross over into friendly Bangladesh. Fat amounts from the Secret Service Fund of the IB for "missions" in Assam were never utilized for the putative purpose.

In 1991, Dhar was posted a chief of the IB's secret technical wing. Groupism and favoritism ruled in this "breeding ground of inefficiency". (p 423) Policing mentality occluded opening the doors of intelligence to scientific specialists. The abject condition of Indian intelligence's cipher breaking cost the life of Rajiv Gandhi. Ministry mandarins and greasy alley manipulators defeated Dhar's reform proposals. Apart from diplomatic constraints on aggressive intelligence collection, he was enjoined by diehard Gandhi family hangers-on to record exotic audio and videotapes about a romantic liaison of P V Narasimha Rao, just before his confirmation as prime minister in 1992.

Back at PCIU, Dhar busted many ISI networks across India and tapped "fountain organizations" that hovered over the peripheries of Islamist outfits. Frustrated by red tape, he took unapproved measures to raise "talents" inside Nepal and Bangladesh for mapping ISI fields. Certain "special projects" penetrated targets in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar.

In November 1992, prime minister Rao ordered Dhar to arrange a discreet meeting with the supremo of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the fountainhead of Hindutva. The wily Congressman actually had "old linkages with the Sangh as a student". (p 466) Reminded that the stability of Rao's job depended on subordination, the PMO tried to force Dhar to "cooperate" with the Ambanis by implicating their corporate rivals.


Dhar's final struggle was against the erroneous persecution of fellow IB officers who honestly investigated the infamous ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) espionage case of 1994. Mention of the prime minister's son as a suspect rushed Rao to prevail upon the Kerala state government and the CBI director to "go slow" and bury the trail. The accused were exonerated without due process. Indian rocket/missile security was compromised. Dhar's efforts after retirement to get the case reopened invited death threats and assassination attempts.

Open Secrets is a depressing hidden camera fixed on the systemic failures of Indian polity and intelligence. It illuminates the weaknesses of India's national security setup and exhorts urgent patchwork.

Open Secrets. India's Intelligence Unveiled by M K Dhar. Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2005. ISBN: 81-7049-240-8. Price: US$11.50, 552 pages.

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