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