The RAW office in New Delhi

Without humint assets, it will gradually become only a collection agency and not an anticipatory agency

by Anand Arni

The Research & Analysis Wing, the department I served in for 37 years, is 50. It came into being on September 21, 1968, following a realisation that intelligence had been inadequate during the 1962 Indo-China conflict. This year is also the 100th year of the birth of its first chief, the legendary R N Kao.

It was one of the first such post-Independence structures created for a specific need, much like the nuclear establishment and ISRO. It owes much to the vision of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who recognised that a modern state needed an agency for external intelligence.

Indira Gandhi chose Kao, then in the Intelligence Bureau (IB), to set up a specialised and independent organisation. V Balachandran, in his excellent commentary on the R&AW on its 50th anniversary (‘Struggling to preserve ‘Kaoboys’ legacy’, The Tribune, September 30, 2018), writes ‘Kao told me that the only advice Indira Gandhi gave him in 1968 was not to structure the new organisation as a Central Police Organisation (CPO). In this she did not mean to deride police work but that foreign intelligence needed something more than police skills. Police is a hierarchical and transparent organisation, accountable to law and society for their actions’..….whereas foreign intelligence often operates outside the law.

RAW's first chief the legenday Rameshwar Nath Kao
This new organisation, hived off from the IB, was called the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and for the first decade of its existence was mostly shrouded in secrecy. The early days were heady for it was an amalgam of those who came from the IB, mostly police officers; a sizeable contingent from the Armed Forces; some from the IAS and from the IFS and more than a few representatives from other civil services. Scientists were brought in to keep an eye on Pakistan’s efforts to go nuclear as also analysts from ‘civil street’. Burying service rivalries, Kao crafted an organisation with new ideas, professionalism, a certain intellectualism where even eccentricities were not frowned upon, an esprit de corps and a sense of belonging — with a hint of Le CarrĂ© in it.

The founders then created something next to impossible in a country which sets much store by rules, regulations and quotas — an idea of a cadre vastly different from anything in existence in the country or since. Its initial composition was to be from those who were serving in the department with future entrants to be from the open market — recruitment of the sort undertaken by the MI-6 but, instead of using university dons to talent spot, it chose to ask around from those within, and trusted others, to make recommendations. From these, 13 were recruited initially, in four batches, over alternate years. The new entrants had to overcome many hurdles — charges of nepotism and of being ‘back-door’ entrants because they were not selected by the UPSC (it is another matter that most, if not all, would have qualified had they taken the exams. In fact, some did and qualified).

All these were the original ‘Kao-boys’ — the name for those who constituted the new department and those subsequently recruited by Kao. They have faded out, under various circumstances, with the last retiring five years ago.

R&AW’s early leadership recognised that it was not just our western neighbour that we needed to be on guard against but, more prudently, the giant to our north. Language skills were stressed and with that came area specialisation. That is, someone who had learnt Chinese could expect to be mostly posted in China-watching stations. It also recognised that issues in neighbouring countries could have a domestic fallout – as happened some years later when the dynamics of Sri Lanka had an impact in Tamil Nadu.

While its failures, which are many as intelligence is not an exact science but more of an art, are spoken of, its many successes are not. In the public domain is its contribution to the creation of Bangladesh; its singular contribution to the merger of Sikkim into the Indian Union; its prevention of a coup in a friendly country; its part in helping keep friendly forces in Afghanistan afloat; its role in the accord with the Mizo National Front (MNF); its inputs in containing many of the Northeast’s insurgencies and many, many more. Today, its main successes are little known – countering terror; something that is not even in its charter but in which it has achieved enormous successes thanks to some pioneering work done over the last decade or so.

It has been a long and difficult journey but nonetheless a journey where it has done much to earn its spurs. That it has survived is itself a testimony to its utility to the governance of the state. If its existence can be broadly divided into periods of 10 years each, its first decade, or thereabouts, was a period of consolidation and, led by its founding fathers, a period of remarkable successes viz., Bangladesh and Sikkim.

Nevertheless, it was dealt a body-blow as it entered its second decade. It barely survived an attempt by a prime minister, who considered intelligence unholy, to close it down. Kao left and the next chief K Sankaran Nair put in his papers after less than two months. Given good advice, accompanied by some subtle pressure from within his cabinet, Morarji Desai kept the department in place but ordered an overnight slashing of its budget and personnel by a fourth, something any bureaucrat or corporate honcho would deem impossible to implement.

However, the next chief N. F. Suntook, one of only two non-police chiefs the department has had, steered the department through its roughest period in a remarkable fashion. It was during this time that he not only lost experienced officers and suffered a loss of resources but had also to curtail operations under awkward and unpleasant circumstances. Suntook managed to retain the directly recruited officers who had been told that they may have to look for other avenues. He also saw through a debilitating strike — a delayed consequence of the 25 per cent cut.

The next ten years saw consolidation and in fact considerable growth. In-house changes were brought in. The department expanded and regained much of the ground that it had lost in the previous decade. The cadre, after nearly 20 years, was formally constituted with lateral entrants drawn from the IAS, IPS and other services including the armed forces. The lateral entrants resigned from their parent services and were notified as members of the Research and Analysis Service (RAS).

The end of the third decade and the first years of the fourth saw it serve under many Prime Ministers, one of whom, in an attempt to chart a new course in foreign policy, ordered a closure of some aspects of its functioning, something that it has yet to fully recover from. The fourth decade also saw it getting blamed, much of it unwarranted, for intelligence failures in the Kargil war. It was hurt grievously when a post-Kargil review by people unschooled in intelligence recommended the creation of new structures by cutting into the department rather than fortify it.

The last decade has witnessed the pursuit of a policy that disregards Indira Gandhi’s advice. Rules have been amended to benefit deputation. Whereas, earlier, the ratio of cadre to deputation was 70:30, it has now been altered to 50:50. Unrelated personnel issues were used to undermine the cadre and minor infractions and missteps by cadre officers were deliberately portrayed as grave misdemeanours. The cadre is undersubscribed as recruitment has been at a standstill for the last decade.

Another move has been the induction of officers, at very senior levels, with little or no external intelligence background. Importing chiefs has not necessarily been a good idea as it builds resentment and affects morale especially when capable persons await in the wings. An outsider would find it difficult, in the time available, to understand the personnel, the workings of external intelligence and master nuances of China-watching or Pakistan operations to be effective.

There was even a recommendation, by people in high places, to fold it back into the Intelligence Bureau. The period also saw six senior cadre officers going on leave over an instance where rules were sidestepped. It was only after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to personally go into the matter, rather than go by what was given to him, was the decision partially reversed.

The Future

In this, its sixth decade of existence, the task for the leadership is to look at a world outside terrorism and to take stock of new and emerging threats. Already, its counterparts in other parts of the world have begun looking at new frontiers.

It is also an opportune moment for its present leadership to chart the course of the way the agency should now move — towards a specialised agency manned by professionals equipped with language skills and domain expertise and to give the department direction for the next couple of decades as the country seeks to give its citizens a better deal.

It must be honest with itself and take stock of personnel issues — whether it should have a specialised cadre or look at the old ‘ear-marking scheme’ which was prevalent in the IB with police officers being inducted in their fourth year with little option of going back to their parent cadre. Either system would work if inductions are at an early stage when languages can be learnt but it has to be one of the two, not both.

The present hotch-potch of doing both — of having a cadre and yet bringing in deputationists on extended tenures — is simply not working. The average age of inductions into the civil service is close to 30 and this, given that a police officer is eligible for deputation after five to eight years of service, would mean entry into R&AW at an age which makes it difficult to learn languages. There is urgency in taking a decision as new threats loom and the agency must equip itself.

Professionally, the leadership needs to focus on what is slowly being lost sight of, not just in India – to go back to its roots and recognise the need to focus on humint, for, without humint assets, R&AW will gradually become only a collection agency and not an anticipatory agency. Corrective steps are already being taken in other parts. The current leadership has in its ranks accomplished practitioners in the art of humint and it will, doubtless, take the right decision for it is always better to anticipate what our adversaries are upto rather than pick up hostile intent off the air-waves (or its modern-day equivalents).

Again, raising humint overseas requires language skills and domain knowledge, something the department must not lose sight of. The idea of compensating for the lack of language expertise by having a cadre of linguists is simply not adequate. Posting an officer overseas without a command over the language is a waste of time, effort and money. Liaison and assistance from friendly foreign agencies are all very fine in a limited context and in the battle against terror but it will not work when you are confronted by an adversarial state.

The task for the next generation of intelligence officers is to provide their political masters the inputs for taking informed decisions, for on this depends the well-being of the state. Our political masters would also do well to give their intelligence chiefs direct access on a regular basis.

Anand Arni is a former special secretary, R&AW