Assessing a secretive organisation is never easy; outsiders are often left with little more than conjecture drawn together from disparate pieces of information that become available at various times. An insider's account, therefore, is a rare window into this world; B Raman's fascinating account of his two and a half decades' long experience in the Research and Analysis Wing, The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane is the kind of light that needs to be shed more frequently upon all of the country's intelligence services.
From 1947 to 1968, the Intelligence Bureau alone was responsible for the collection of both internal and external intelligence. In 1968, against strong internal opposition from the IB, the organisation was bifurcated to create the RAW as the external intelligence agency. Ramji Nath Kao, an officer of the 1940 batch of the colonial Indian Police (IP) with over 20 years' experience in the IB, was chosen by Indira Gandhi to head the new organisation. Raman joined the new organisation at its inception in 1968, and served it till the end of his career in 1994. Besides important postings in Paris and Geneva, he served at the RAW headquarters in New Delhi, eventually rising to be the right hand man of the RAW chief R N Kao, from whose name the book takes its title.
The book records the RAW's role in the major events from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, and gives fascinating insights into the working styles of former prime ministers and RAW chiefs. Raman concludes with a scintillating assessment of the strengths and a weakness of the RAW.
An interesting pen portrait of Kao, the ever secretive RAW chief, is accompanied by a rapid review of many important developments in India and abroad: the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh; the insurgency in the northeast; the contributions of successive Prime Ministers and RAW chiefs; the Khalistani terrorism; the role of Kao as senior advisor to Indira Gandhi; the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi; the Bofors scandal; the demolition of the Babri Masjid and its terrorist outcome in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. The author also provides a detailed account of the role of the CIA in the resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, which led to the emergence of the Al Qaeda besides the role of the ISI in fomenting terrorism in the Indian states of Punjab and J&K.
To more informed readers, however, these 'secrets that can now be told', would no doubt appear to mere sidelights. What makes Kaoboys more compelling - and discouraging - reading is the larger narrative, of an organisation in long and deplorable decline. In this, Raman's book on the RAW invites comparison with M K Dhar's book on the Intelligence Bureau, India's internal intelligence agency, published in 2005. Both books are equally devastating in their exposure of the internal fissures in the two secret service organisations.
There is considerable finger-pointing over particular events in history, which when read together reads like one long decline. The author throws light on the failure of intelligence and shocking laxity on the part of senior officers supervising security arrangements at the residence of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which led to her assassination; the neglect of the available intelligence provided by the RAW to the IB, the politicisation of security and the negligence and weak supervision by the IB and the Tamilnadu police, which led to the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; the IB's indifference to instructions given by former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with regard to intelligence liaison with foreign agencies; IB officers' violations of their own guidelines for the prevention of penetration by foreign agencies, which facilitated CIA penetration of the organisation at a high level in the 1990s; the persisting dilution of the effectiveness of counter-penetration measures; and the many cases of lack of centralised control, supervision and record keeping in the area of counter-intelligence and counter-penetration.
The author shows that the loosening of control in these vital areas facilitated foreign penetration of many Indian agencies in the guise of intelligence cooperation: one instance of major penetration of the PM's Office by the French intelligence detected during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi; two instances of penetration of the RAW by the CIA during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi and Vajpayee; one instance of penetration of the IB by the CIA during Narasimha Rao's term as PM; and one instance of CIA penetration of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), a part of the PMO, during the term of the current Prime Minister.
The author notes a deplorable tendency on the part of India's intelligence and investigative agencies to dance to the tunes of the political leadership. The very agencies, which lent their services to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in his unwise attempts to cover up the Bofors scandal, subsequently hastened to provide their services to the next Prime Minister V P Singh who attempted to frame his predecessor in false cases by hiring foreign detective agencies! He further reveals that the CBI officials visiting Geneva for investigations into the role of the Hindujas in the Bofors scandal were often at luncheon meetings with the Hindujas!
This is a theme that runs through much of the book; democratic societies are always keen that secret service organisations should not become a law unto themselves, and thus, accountability has become one measure of their work everywhere. India is one of the very few democratic countries in the world in which the chief executive continues to be exclusively responsible for the functioning of the intelligence agencies, with no powers of oversight given to the Parliament. Former Prime Minister V P Singh is said to have tried to set up a Parliamentary Oversight Committee to monitor the functioning of the intelligence agencies. Raman writes that Singh failed mainly on account of opposition from the major political parties.
The L P Singh Committee was established after the revocation of the Emergency in 1977 to look into the affairs of the IB and the CBI (but not the RAW). It framed a legal framework and a charter of duties for the IB, which was still functioning as if nothing had changed after the departure of the British. Indira Gandhi, on returning to power in 1980, buried the recommendations of the Committee since she felt that the Committee had been set up to target her politically. The RAW as well as the IB have thus remained without a legal framework or a charter of duties. The RAW is accountable to the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister.
B. Raman, "The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane", Lancer Publishers, 2007, New Delhi, 293 pages, Rs. 795, ISBN: 0-9796174-3.
In truth, however, such provisions are no guarantee of accountable or independent conduct by agencies. British intelligence, for example managed to produce politically convenient reports for the government of the day on the issue of weapons of mass destructions in Iraq. And American agencies have routinely conducted operations beyond the knowledge of the US Congress, which occassionally are brought to light, to great public and legislative outrage. Almost certainly, in the Indian scenario, the absence of even the few legal constraints present elsewhere is only more deleterious. Raman himself admits to several complaints against RAW officers leading lavish lives in their foreign postings.
The book is replete with material that should force a re-assessment of the operations of intelligence services by our policy-makers and political leaders. Whether that will happen is difficult to tell. While many would like to see the deficiencies noted in the book disappear, still others would merely like to see them disappear from the public discourse. Raman's anguish, so evident in the book, appears partly the despair of one who holds very little hope that things will change, even while arguing that much is needed.