Monday, 17 October 2011
India’s External Intelligence – Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) by Maj Gen VK Singh – Book Review
I bought this book (which was published in 2007) because I have always been curious about RAW, India’s external intelligence agency, about which not much is known, at least not as much as is known about the CIA or the KGB or the Mossad. After I read the very badly written one page publisher’s note titled ‘Attention Authors’ which precedes everything else in this slim volume (of around 180 pages), I nearly stopped reading and threw away the book. However, I am glad I didn’t, since Maj Gen VK Singh’s English is relatively much better than that used in the publisher’s note, despite the publisher’s claim that ‘an author always gives the raw material in the shape of manuscript and it is the sense of publisher to make it a finished product.’
Singh was a senior army officer with 35 years’ experience in the Corps of Signals who joined RAW in the year 2000 at a relatively senior level (as a Joint Secretary) and served for 4 years, after which he retired. Singh was involved in various projects for upgrading RAW’s technical capability, which according to Singh, is not exactly the most advanced in the world.
India’s External Intelligence is a disappointment since Singh was solely involved in signal intelligence rather than human intelligence or even the analysis of gathered intelligence and doesn’t know much about, or at least, doesn’t reveal anything exciting about the workings of RAW. Many of the incidents which Singh discusses, such as CIA mole Rabinder Singh’s defection to the US, are already well-known and Singh doesn’t reveal anything which is not in the public domain. However, the various issues raised by Singh, are valid and important and Singh has, in my opinion, done yeoman service to India by writing this book. Is there a need to have better oversight over RAW, which according to Singh functions in a manner (corrupt and inefficient) not much different from any other department of the Indian government? Since intelligence obtained through technical sources, such as wiretapping etc. accounts for over 90% of total intelligence gathered, shouldn’t more resources be allocated to telecom teams? Shouldn’t the individuals running those teams be better qualified? Since there is so much overlapping between the functions of RAW, IB, Military Intelligence (MI) and dozen other agencies, which behave more like rivals rather than departments of the same government, shouldn’t RAW and IB be merged? The answers to all of this is, according to Singh, an unequivocal Yes.
Singh tells us that during the Kargil war, India made public a telephone conversation between General Pervez Musharaff and his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammad Aziz, in order to prove Pakistan’s complicity and gain brownie points with the US and the United Nations. However, by doing so, India revealed to Pakistan that a particular satellite link between Beijing and Islamabad was being intercepted by RAW leading to its immediate closure. Of course, Singh mentions this in a very disapproving tone and gives the example of how during World War II, the Brits who had cracked the Enigma codes found out that the Luftwaffe was all set to bomb Coventry, but did not evacuate the city in order to not to tip off the Germans that the Enigma codes had been cracked. Many lives were lost, but the Germans continued to use Enigma codes. All of this sounds good, except that this is a very bad example. As Wikipedia can tell you, this anecdote (about Coventry) was put forth by a former RAF officer, but has since been discredited. Also, if India only wanted to gain brownie points with the US and the United Nations, the details of tapped call could have been provided to the US or UN officials in a confidential manner, couldn’t it? No, Singh doesn’t ask this question.
Singh’s narrative, though not very exciting, is very honest, though at times a tad clumsy. At the very outset, Singh makes it clear that he joined RAW not for career advancement or in search of adventure, but because if he had continued in the army, he would have had to retire in 2 years’ time, whereas by joining RAW, he got to work for 4 more years. Singh comes across as a man who wouldn’t tolerate the slightest indiscipline or infraction of procedure, traits which wouldn’t guarantee success while working for any civil administration anywhere in the world.