A couple of weeks after 25 March 1971 when the Pakistani army began their genocide of Bengalis in East Pakistan, the influx of refugees into India put Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a perilous position.
A poor country, we struggled to feed our own people, how could we feed the lakhs - soon to cross over a million - refugees pouring in? Besides it was clear now that a belligerent Pakistan under Yahaya Khan could be made to listen to only one argument – war.
But the Army chief put his foot down. He couldn’t guarantee a win if they went to war immediately. He needed months to prepare. This was a unique conundrum because retaliation was needed immediately. The fear was that acting too late would wipe out the entire Bengali - Muslim and Hindu - population. No one seemed to have a solution.
No one except one man.
The man, Rameshwar Nath Kao, was the head of the newly formed Research and Analysis Wing, carved out from a begrudging Intelligence Bureau (they even refused to part with due furniture) – on the lines of CIA of the USA. Barely two and a half years old, no one took the agency seriously and its reports were routinely ignored by Indian bureaucrats.
But all that was to change with the solution that Kao proposed. Use the angry and disgruntled East Pakistani refugees to wage a guerrilla war. Harass the 'mighty' Pakistani army (mighty because they had the direct backing of US ammunitions and the indirect backing of China) so much that when the Indian forces finally rolled in, they would find the Pakistani army on crutches.
What transpired next was unprecedented in the history of the world.
Never before or after have such a huge national population – men, women and in some alleged cases even children – indulged in such widespread guerrilla warfare, covertly aided by R&AW and trained by BSF, Indian Army and R&AWs paramilitary wing the SFF – Special Frontier Force made mostly of Tibetan refugees and so deadly that it’s alleged they were the only force in the world the belligerent Chinese army was afraid of (watch documentary here
On December 3 when the war officially began between India and Pakistan, the ease with which the Indian army won it in 13 days, made such a big mockery of the Pakistani army and intelligence, that they have not dared to fight a full scale war ever again, resorting to low intensity, guerrilla wars of their own, be it in Siachen, Punjab, Kashmir or the Kargil sector.
The Indian army is hailed for this victory. But what has been lost in the shadows of history is the exemplary courage, single minded dedication and devotion to an idea higher that simple nationalism - that of our shared humanity – that R N Kao, his men of R&AW – affectionately called Kaoboys, the Special Frontier Force and many others gave to this war.
The world watched wide eyed as India faced off Pakistan at the face of it, but behind the surface America and China. America even sent Task Force 74, a deadly armada with nuclear capabilities, to threaten India. They failed, thanks to Russia springing to India’s support.
It was the finest moment for India who for once did not cower down to international pressure, a moment orchestrated and guided every second by Rameshwar Nath Kao under the full support and patronage of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
So exemplary was Kao’s work in 1971 that the world of espionage launched into an unprecedented applause.
The head of the French intelligence agency Count Alexandre de Marenches, not only named Kao one of the ‘five great intelligence chiefs of the 1970s’ but also 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." George Bush – future president of USA but then in the CIA, became Kao’s good friend.
May 10, 2018, is Rameshwar Nath Kao’s 100th birth anniversary. And in what seems to be a coup orchestrated by Kao from beyond his grave, there perhaps isn’t a single function to commemorate this. A grateful nation should have launched into homage, critics lambasting him for his share of failures. Instead, what we have is a cacophony of silence. On the 100th birthday of India’s most influential non-politician post-independence, we remember by forgetting him.
One of the best ways to know yourself, especially if you are a spy, is to listen to your enemy’s gossip. The kind of exploits Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI has attributed to Kao (including being responsible for a false-flag operation that resulted in closing the airspace over India crippling Pakistan during war), and the kind of abuses heaped upon him (mostly about his sexual orientation, how original!) that unwittingly they have accorded him a cult persona. After all isn’t an enemy’s curse, his filthiest abuse, the proof of one’s greatest success.
This column is not to recount R N Kao’s successes or failures; he saw both in good measures. For despite the paucity, there have been some books both by his colleagues and some by later spies, one of whom had the good sense of recording him for posterity. A consolation is that in the world of the web, his reference is slowly gaining currency. Few years ago there was even a petition to award him a Bharat Ratna.
Instead, this column is just to inspire us Indians – in a world where history is being slaughtered daily - to study our gradually eroding past. As for Rameshwar Nath Kao, in an ironic way it is befitting that a man who did his work in the shadows, remains as much a mystery in death as he was in life.
There is, however, one consolation that we can take on behalf of R N Kao – that even as his friends forget him, those who shouldn’t – his and India’s enemies – continue to shudder at the memory of his exploits.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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