50 Years of R&AW - Is India's Foreign Spy Agency Dreaded or Dreadful?

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 21, 2018 09:21 hrs
R&AW

In an article hatefully titled How RAW extends India’s evil agenda?, S Qamar Afzal Rizvi credited as an ‘an independent ‘IR’ researcher based in Karachi’ writes this about India’s foreign spy agency Research and Analysis Wing, (R&AW): “To create a powerful tool within the organisation which could undertake covert operations in neighbouring countries, RAW became a blue eyed policy narrative of all the past governments in India. It has been in this background that RAW became an international actor by assuring its proxy role in collaboration with CIA, MI-6, BND, and the Mossad via Christo-Judo-Hindu alliance against Muslims.”

Your friends will always praise you but if you want a true indication of your successes, you must listen to the curses your enemies hurl at you. If you go by what analysts in Pakistan, like the one above, write about R&AW, you would think of the organisation in the same way cinema lovers think of USA’s CIA – omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient.

But consider what one of our own writer Aakar Patel has to say: “Unlike the ISI, many know little about RAW, which is secretive and low-profile. For this reason, it is also assumed to be competent, or at least effective… To Indians I will say this: There are other things to be justifiably proud of as an Indian. Having a brutally effective spy agency should not be among them.”

He is not the only one. Intelligence analysts, journalists and even former spies have written disparagingly of R&AW and its capabilities.

What is the truth then? Is R&AW dreaded or dreadful, effective or affectlessly irrelevant, a proactive shaper of India’s history and foreign policy or a bumbling reactionary force? As R&AW turns 50 today, it is worth investigating its past in search of an answer.

Like everything else about it, R&AW’s origin is shrouded in mystery. When articles first began appearing in 1972 about R&AW, readers found it hard to believe that India had an agency in the footsteps of the infamous CIA. And would you blame them. Research and Analysis Wing sounds like the research division of some corporate and not the name of a secret service. Indeed, one of its first spies, K Sankaran Nair, in his memoir states that this was deliberately so.

The name has to do with the agency beginning as an organ of Intelligence Bureau (IB). It is commonly believed that its creation was necessitated by India’s intelligence failure in 1962 war with China and again the 1965 war with Pakistan where India barely survived. However, like everything to do with R&AW, this version has been contested by many analysts and spies.

However, it would take the will of a ‘goongi gudiya’, Indira Gandhi, to bring the agency to life from a blueprint prepared by a man who would, on 21st September 1968, become R&AW’s first head - the tall, deceptively soft-spoken, Rameshwar Nath Kao (whose 100th birthday the nation conveniently forgot in May this year). Barely two and half years after its formation (which the IB begrudged and refused to part with what they needed), they would do something unprecedented in world history and whose details perhaps we will never really learn.

On the second anniversary of his ascent to power i.e. March 25, 1971, Yahya Khan unleashed a brutal crackdown on the population of East Pakistan, a sort of genocide and ‘final solution’ never before or later witnessed in the world (who could dare target 75 million people and kill up to 3 million of them). Launching the military immediately wasn’t possible for India not just because we were unprepared for warfare in swampy, wet condition that characterised East Pakistan, but also because the Pakistani’s were well supplied with the latest armament from the USA and had political backing from most of the powerful nations of the world.

It was then that R&AW rose to the occasion. First, it coordinated the training of the many rebel groups – Mukti Bahini being the most famous one trained by BSF and Indian Army, while the others like Kader Bahini and Mujib Bahini were trained by R&AW’s own military wing the Special Frontier Force (SFF) comprising Tibetan refugees which remains a well-trained and secretive commando force to this day. While the Mukti Bahini with nearly 100,000 recruits, would have numbers on their side, the most spectacular successes would be seen by the other groups (Kader Bahini is credited with killing 3000 Pakistani soldiers) who’d become the nemesis for the Pakistani army, forcing them to retreat into their barracks thus perhaps saving thousands of Bengali lives, especially minorities like Hindus and Christians who became the main target of the Pakistani army as the months progressed.

Thus, when the Indian army rolled in post December 3, it managed a blitzkrieg attack that would baffle the world for the Pakistani army, living under a government run by the military, was one of the most well trained, maintained and equipped forces in the world.

Yet R&AWs most crucial role in Bangladesh was the intelligence network it had cultivated in both the wings of Pakistan and which it used to the hilt between April and December 1971. Sun Tzu, recognising the importance of espionage in 700 BC had written in The Art of War: “Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men, is foreknowledge.” R&AW provided foreknowledge and ensured that the Indian Army stomped through to victory in barely 14 days and led to the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers who had been responsible for the genocide of up to 3 million East Pakistanis in the preceding 9 months.

R&AW was able to provide the intel leading to key interventions in the war that turned the tides in India’s favour. Though most of it remains shrouded in mystery (perhaps when Kao’s memoirs are declassified by R&AW we’ll come to know a bit about it). But rumours have abound and provide some insight into the same.

It is believed that while Pakistan attacked 12 air bases on the evening of December 3, it could hardly do any damage to the Indian Air Force because they knew about the attack, thanks to R&AW.

R&AW is also said to have provided the intel on Karachi harbour to the Indian Navy allowing it to target it on the first day of battle literally crippling the Pakistani Navy.

When the Indian Army moved into East Pakistan, their speed was courtesy the network of spies believed to be spread till the village level, who provided precise intel about the Pakistani army, it’s formations and location.

R&AW is also credited with an alleged false flag operation relating to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane by Kashmiri separatists in January 1971 which gave India the reason to ban Pakistani flights over its airspace. This would prove crucial since travelling between the East and West wings of Pakistan via Sri Lanka became a longer and painful affair for its armed forces, ensuring blockage of crucial reinforcements during war.

What is however lost in the jingoism surrounding the 1971 war victory is that India was fighting that war not just with Pakistan, but almost the whole of the rest of the world. Pakistan was actively supported by the USA – whose president Nixon provided them weapons in contravention of its own treaty with India and Pakistan – and China, who 9 years ago had humiliated India. Most of the western world and the middle eastern nations (except Palestine that rooted for India), were on Pakistan’s side.

Indeed, when it seemed that the Pakistani army was being routed, USA deployed its Task Force 74, a deadly naval armada led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal. This move was countered only by the USSR deploying its own naval vessels and a nuclear submarine in India’s defence. The friendship treaty with Russia that led them to rush to our defence when the rest of the world did not, was aided by R&AW and its chief Kao’s friendship with the KGB.

By the looks of it if the 1971 war had gone on longer, it could have led to a serious cold war crisis and a World War III situation. R&AW’s intel and the resultant rapid movement of the Indian army aided by Indian Air Force and Indian Navy (the three have never before or hence worked in such harmony), prevented that and after the Pakistani defeat of December 16, the world came around to accept the new order and a new nation – Bangladesh. India’s prestige in the eyes of the world had never been higher before or since.

Ironically thus, in 1971 – which was R&AW’s crowning glory, very few Indian’s knew of its existence and stories of this shadowy organisation would start appearing in the press only since 1972.

Post 1971 the agency has had other successes. The most prominent being the peaceful merger (some would say annexation) of Sikkim into India. It is also believed that LTTE was first trained and armed by R&AW in an attempt to do a Bangladesh in Sri Lanka. This, however, backfired miserably for India as Prabhakaran – supposed to be one of the first to be trained, bit hard the very hand that fed it leading to decades of retaliatory bloodshed and violence not just in Sri Lanka but also India.

It is also believed that from time to time, especially after Pakistan’s massive support of the Khalistan movement and the separatist movement in Kashmir (which was in retaliation to India’s assistance of Mukti Bahini), R&AW decided to do a tit for tat and supported Balochi and Sindhi rebels in Pakistan resulting in death, destruction and destabilization of our neighbouring country. In this light it is interesting to read what analysts in Pakistan write about R&AW, blaming almost every ill in the country on the agency. While it is a convenient exaggeration, it’s not necessarily fully false either.

There are other tales of R&AW, and many dangerous and silly defections including many into the USA, some of which have come to light thanks to the many books written by former agents and office bearers of the agency. The number of publications on R&AW and its frequency have increased in the last two decades allowing the general public some view into the agency and it’s working. Yet, a lot about it lurks in the shadow world.

Take for example its budget (alleged to be unlimited) or number of personnel. No one seems to know them. And no one really knows what the extent of its operational mandate is? And what does its military force SFF do? Is it involved in covert military operations across the world and if yes of what sort? Despite the antagonistic past with IB, what all do the two intelligence agencies cooperate on? Is it like FBI and CIA? The truth is most Indians know more about FBI and CIA than we do about IB and R&AW. If R&AW is answerable only to the PM (unlike even CIA and Mossad who have to answer to their nations parliaments), what are the types of operations various PMs have used it for? The opposition in the 70s called RAW the mafia of the then PM Indira Gandhi (some claim files were burned in the R&AW headquarters on the day Indira Gandhi lost) and considering how she misused her powers in that decade, what are the details of the same? Is it misusing its power now against political dissidents? Or is it a sloppy organisation riddled with corruption and nepotism as a few former spies have alleged?

Like it is with most spy agencies, there’s no way to tell the truth from fiction. However, there is one truth we can lay out with certainty: whether good, bad or ugly, in the last 50 years of its existence, R&AW has emerged as a type of quasi-governmental organisation that has had one of the biggest influences on the geopolitical affairs not just of India, but the whole of South and South East Asia. And the fact that we still know very little about R&AW attests to the agency’s true prowess.

Perhaps the Pakistani analysts cursing R&AW aren’t too off the mark either.

(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a screenwriter, researcher, journalist based in Mumbai. He writes mostly on cinema and politics. He is currently writing a spec script on R&AWs 1971 exploits.)