Saturday, 30 March 2013

Book Review: Escape To Nowhere, by Amar Bhushan

The Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, has had its share of defectors and moles – is there any decent-sized intelligence outfit in the world which has been totally spared such embarrassment? One of the most-known cases of infiltration involved an officer named Rabinder Singh who in 2004 fled to the US via Kathmandu, taking his wife with him. Rabinder Singh had already fallen under suspicion and was under surveillance by R&AW’s Counter-Intelligence & Security Division (CI&S). Amar Bhushan, author of Escape to Nowhere, headed CI&S and was largely responsible for the various decisions taken, including the decision to not to arrest Rabinder Singh until CI&S found out who exactly was his handler and the recipient of the information he was giving out. At that time, C.D.Sahay was Secretary (R), as the Head of R&AW is referred to. After Rabinder Singh’s flight, Amar Bhushan got a lot of flak. C.D.Sahay did not escape lightly either. Escape To Nowhere is literature and in the guise of fiction, albeit thinly disguised, Amar Bhushan attempts to explain (not justify) his actions.

Amar Bhushan calls himself Jeevnathan (sic) or Jeev for short. His boss C. D. Sahay is given the moniker of Wasan. Jeev has a wife, the ever suffering Manini or Mani for short. Rabinder Singh is called Ravi Mohan. The Principal Secretary and the National Security Adviser (NSA) to the Prime Minister at that time was Brajesh Mishra, christened Saran in this novel. R&AW is called the Agency and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is called the Bureau. CI&S is called the Counter Espionage Unit (CEU).

Escape To Nowhere is an engrossing read, and as may be expected, it doesn’t show the R&AW in a good light. One gets the feeling that the bulk of R&AW employees are not in the Great Game for the greater good or even personal glory. Rather, they are normal government employees and behave just like every other employee of the Central government. There is corruption galore. Not just the big ticket type, but a lot of misdemeanours, drivers selling petrol in the black market, officers creating small nests for their post-retirement life, men watching porn in office and the like. But the worst culprit for me was CI&S itself. After Ravi Mohan falls under suspicion, we see Jeev and a few others hard at work, trying to decipher what the suspect is up to. They follow him and his wife round the clock, place video cameras in this office, put bugs in his car etc. Despite a lot of hard work, they are unable to figure out how he contacts his handler or who his handler is, in the first place. R&AW is meant to hand over matters like this to the Bureau, but Jeev doesn’t, though the IB has more resources and greater competency in this sort of work. Professional rivalry between the two organisations comes in the way.

Shockingly, the watchers don’t consider the possibility that the suspect might be in touch with his handler through the internet. Not once do Jeev and his underlings consider or even mention words such as internet or email, let along VOIP, which was how Ravi Mohan was communicating his handlers. Jeev and his assistants do know that Ravi Mohan has an effective cross-shredder at home, which he uses to shred documents after photocopying them, but they do not even think of the possibility that he might not be handing over hard copies of stolen documents to his handler! Towards the end, after the bird has flown, we are told that Ravi Mohan had two laptops, but Jeev isn’t shown to be surprised. There is no mention of the two laptops prior to that, but if Ravi Mohan was being watched all the time, including when he was at home, it is unlikely that the watchers did not know of the laptops.

As Jeev hunts for clues to Ravi Mohan’s handlers, we see Wasan argue for a quick end to whole episode, by confronting Ravi Mohan with the evidence they have and either forcing him to resign or even arresting him and giving him the third degree treatment. But Amar Bhushan will have none of it. He wants to do things by the book, follow the letter of the law as well as adhere to its spirit. He doesn’t want a repeat of the fiasco where two scientists working for ISRO were accused of passing secrets to two Maldivian women, arrested, harassed, put on trial, only for the courts to later dismiss all charges against them and criticise the Intelligence Bureau and the Kerala government for having proceeded against them on very flimsy grounds. There’s also the Samba scandal where a number of serving army officers were arrested and tortured on the mere suspicion of having sold military secrets to Pakistan, only for the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court to exonerate one of the prime suspects for lack of evidence. Bhushan suggests that the army men involved in the Samba case might have been really guilty while the two ISRO scientists were actually innocent. Jeev even goes to the extent of persuading Wasan to not inform the Principal Secretary and it is only on the 75th day after the watch was mounted that Wasan puts his foot down and gets Jeev to prepare a note for Saran the Principal Secretary. When Princi is informed, he is much more worried about the impact of the possible scandal on Indo-US relations and wants the matter to be handled quietly.

Ravi Mohan and his wife flee to Kathmandu on the 92nd day. Finally after the horse has bolted, we see Wasan take as much flak as Jeev and I ended up feeling sorry for Wasan (C.D.Sahay), but not for Jeev (Amar Bhushan), though Jeev comes across as a very honest man.

Bhushan’s English is functional, very much desi-English and his grammar slips on a few occasions, but the 332-page book has been reasonably well-edited, making it an easy read. Jeev’s long suffering, but loyal wife Manini makes pithy and sarcastic comments every once in a while and these serve to spice up the narrative.

Here’s a link to a very good review of Escape to Nowhere by B. Raman, former head of R&AW’s counter-terrorism division. Naturally, B. Raman takes a much more charitable view of Bhushan than I do.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Book Review: Che in Paona Bazaar, by Kishalay Bhattacharjee

Senior journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a veteran of the North East. Not only did he grow up in Shillong, he also covered the conflict in the North East for seventeen years, while working for NDTV. Bhattacharjee’s offering Che in Paona Bazaar has a series of snapshots from Manipur, twenty two in total. Each of these vignettes offers a glimpse of life in Manipur and the rest of the North East for the common man. Bhattacharjee uses a fictional character called Eshei to tell his stories. Eshei seems to be the typical Manipuri girl. She can speak the lingo and knows the culture and food, but has spent a substantial part of her life outside the North East, in Eshei’s case, in Delhi.

Bhattacharjee writes well, his touch light and sure. When food is described, the reader gets to taste it. When Manipur’s or the North East’s history is narrated, we get to witness it. When Bhattacharjee tells us that the tribal areas of Manipur and Nagaland have been stripped of all wildlife due to excessive hunting, we feel outraged. The book’s title is derived from Paona Bazaar, Imphal’s most popular street which offers terrific bargains for those interested in buying Chinese goods. Umbrellas can be had for Rs. 50, mosquito-repellent tennis racquets for Rs. 90, fake Levi’s canvass shoes for Rs. 100 and pirated DVDs for Rs. 35 each. A majority of the items sold in Paona sport Che’s image.

However, the most important takeaway from Che in Paona Bazaar is that the people of Manipur are tired of the insurgency. Militants enforce their diktat through coercion. Bhattacharjee tells us that the man on the street wants ‘good roads, a salary without percentage cuts, drinkable tap water, electricity, good schools and security’. The average militant is a goon, out to extort money and doesn’t have much ideology. We are told that ‘six months after two dozen ageing women stripped publicly in protest against the Assam Rifles, a Meitei girl walked into a room to make love to a young army officer. There was nothing political about it. He had come from thousands of kilometres away and had connected with someone. Sex had nothing to do with borders and roots. It was merely an impulse to feel alive and desired.’ Bhattacharjee tells us that every Manipuri supports Irom Sharmila. ‘Not supporting Sharmila would be tantamount to treason in Manipur, but the support is only a posture. Her struggle has been painfully lonely.’ To be honest, I was not fully convinced that these anti-militancy feelings are Eshei’s and not Bhattacharjee’s.

Towards the end of the book, Bhattacharjee tells us that though he went to school in Shillong, he did not learn any Khasi. Shillong has the air of an educational town, like many hill stations developed by the British, but the locals are not educated in those institutions. Bhattacharjee wonders what is at fault – ‘the inability of the locals to assimilate the outsiders into the system or the haughty stubbornness of the plainsmen to adopt any of the local attributes into their own lifestyles?’ The key to resolving the militancy in Manipur and the rest of the North East could lie in the answer to this question.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Book Review: Road Humps and Sidewalks, by Kalyan C. Kankanala

What happens when a large and powerful MNC holding patent rights to a life-saving drug, hikes the drug’s price to such an extent that it becomes unaffordable for the common man? Section 84 of the Patents Act, 1970 provides that three years after a patent has been issued, the Controller General of Patents Designs and Trademarks may grant a compulsory licence to any third party to manufacture such patented product if certain conditions are met. One of the conditions, the most relevant in the case of overpriced drugs, is that the patented invention is not available to the public at a reasonably affordable price. On this basis, a year ago, the Controller General granted Indian drug manufacturer Natco Pharma Limited, a compulsory license for Nexavar (Sorafenib), a life-saving drug manufactured by Bayer AG, used for the treatment of cancer patients.

In Kalyan C. Kankanala’s Road Humps and Sidewalks, a similar situation arises. A mutant variety of the HIV virus has been wreaking havoc in India. Doctors at the Charaka Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad (CIMS) have called it the Immune Killer Virus and the killer disease has been christened Immediate Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (IIDS). Dr. Vishnu, a young doctor practising in a remote district in Andhra Pradesh accidently discovers that Nervir, a drug manufactured by German MNC Berminger is an effective antidote to the deadly IIDS. Nervir is an approved drug, approved for treating infections of the central nervous system and not for use against IIDS. Yet the good doctors at CIMS, who are called White Angels, start using Nervir, with gratifying results.

Berminger is no different from any other MNC – it is greedy for profits and doesn’t have a heart. When existing stocks of Nervir are exhausted, doctors find that fresh stock is not forthcoming. Instead, Berminger has plans to hike the price from Rs. 2,000 per injection to Rs. 40,000. At Berminger’s Munich office, Dr. Christian Muller, CEO of Berminger, declares, ‘We must make as much money as possible before the epidemic ends. As discussed during the teleconference, you must continue creating scarcity for Nervir, until the death toll reaches a sizeable number and then make the drug available at twenty times the current price.

Enter Arjun Mamidi, a very young and blind lawyer who has just won a landmark case in favour of Smitha, the hottest property in Bollywood, against Celeb, Smitha’s PR firm for having used, without Smitha’s permission, her images to endorse men’s undergarments. Arjun agrees to assist the White Angels at CIMS, who are desperately trying to get fresh stocks of Nervir. Finally, one Moon Pharma agrees to make Nervir, in breach of the patent rights held by Berminger. Arjun tells his clients that they have two options: One to wait for Nervir to file a suit for an interim order, which would prevent Moon Pharma from manufacturing Nervir. ‘In response to their suit, we will construct a thorough reply to pose as many impediments as we can in their pursuit to stop us through a court order.’ The second option is ‘to file a petition to the court asking for permission to make the drug to save IIDs patients.’ I am not sure if an Indian court is likely to give permission to manufacture a patented drug. There is also no mention of or discussion of the option to seek a compulsory licence from the Controller General to manufacture Nervir under Section 84 of the Patents Act, 1970, but I am no expert in these matters and author Kalyan C. Kankanala is an intellectual property lawyer who I assume knows his onions.

One can’t help but like Arjun, the young hero of the novel. Blind, but still strong and handsome, Arjun did his law degree from the Reddy College of Law, a non-descript law school in Hyderabad. A successful mooter, he met his wife Shreya while taking part in a moot court competition organised by the National Law School, Bangalore. Shreya was representing the Kerala Law Academy. No one expected Arjun or his team to do particularly well. But they beat all expectations and won the competition. Arjun also won Shreya’s heart in the process, Kankanala tells us.

Arjun relies on some very good software, his guide dog Neo and Jose, his clerk and Man Friday to read and write and get around. While walking around with Neo, he relies on road humps and sidewalks to get a sense of direction. The book’s title is derived from these aids.

Spoilers Ahead

Kankanala uses his writer’s licence with free abandon, at the expense of realism, not necessarily a bad thing. Young lawyer Arjun has a classy, three thousand square feet office in the Banjara Business Centre though his only employee is Jose. There isn’t even a receptionist. When Berminger goes all out to stop Arjun, they send a hired killer to smash up Arjun’s office. Due to sheer luck and bravery, Arjun fights off Ibrahim, a former ‘military assassin.’ A second attempt is made to abduct Arjun and prevent him from attending court on the day Berminger’s suit is to be argued in court. Once again, Arjun fights off his assailants, with able assistance from his guide dog Neo, who we are told, loves cream wafers. There is a third attempt as well, this time to kill Arjun and I’ll leave it to you to read this book to find out if Berminger is finally lucky.

Greed isn’t restricted to Berminger. We find a corrupt academic, in the form of Professor Saran Das, once a good man who inspired Arjun, now ploughing the land for MNCs like Berminger. The Union Health Minister is no good either. There is even an attempt to bribe the Chief Justice to have the incorruptible Justice Shekar replaced while the court proceedings are on.

I wouldn’t say that Road Humps and Sidewalks is an outstanding work of fiction, but all in all, it is a good read, especially if you are interested in issues revolving around patent rights.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Book Review: Headley and I by Hussain Zaidi and Rahul Bhatt

A troubled young man of mixed parentage with one foot in his father’s Pakistan and another in his mother’s United States takes to drugs and drug dealing. Nabbed by the authorities in the US, the dealer turns approver and then, an informer. Later he also turns to fundamentalist Islam and joins the Lashkar-e-Taiba which uses him to reconnoiter various sites in Mumbai for a planned terrorist attack. During his various trips to Mumbai, the terrorist befriends two younger men living in Mumbai. One of them is the son of a celebrated film maker and the other, a man of humble means and a Shiv Sainik. After the 26/11 attacks, the two young Mumbaikars are shocked to find out that they have been unwitting pawns in a larger game, that they have helped the terrorist navigate his way around Mumbai. The Shiv Sainik had actually taken the terrorist to Sena Bhavan and allowed to take a number of photographs and video recordings.

Hussain Zaidi’s Headley and I is the real life story of how two innocent young men, Rahul Bhatt, Mahesh Bhatt’s son and Pooja Bhatt’s brother, and Rahul’s friend Vikas Warak, a fitness instructor and Shiv Sainik, met with David Coleman Headley during his various recce trips to Mumbai. There were a number of meetings and Rahul Bhatt in particular started to look up to David Headley as a father figure. When the truth came out, Rahul summoned the courage to reach out to the authorities and speak the truth, taking Vilas with him. In this, both men were immensely helped by Mahesh Bhatt who used his enormous clout to ensure that the two innocent young men were not unnecessarily detained by the police or harassed in any other manner. Vilas Warak lost his job, but never went to jail.

Incidentally Rahul Bhatt is a co-author of Headley and I though I suspect Zaidi wrote more than half of this book. Mahesh Bhatt has written the foreword.

Headley and I is a good, easy read but failed to excite me a lot because much of its content is well-known. In any event, it is not half as interesting as Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai – Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia. Zaidi does a good job of showing Rahul Bhatt’s estrangement from his father and how Headley filled the void in his life. Rahul Bhatt comes across as rather naïve at times, which I guess is only fair.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Book Review: The Kaoboys of R&AW – Down Memory Lane, by B. Raman

When B. Raman, an IPS officer belonging to the Madhya Pradesh cadre applied to join R&AW, he had to overcome a number of difficult tests, some of them calling for physical strength and agility, some requiring excellent mental dexterity. The final test took place in Calcutta (as it was called then). B. Raman’s examiner took him to a dusty by-lane, pointed to a house and said, ‘in that house you’ll find a couple in their late fifties and their three children – an unmarried daughter in her late twenties and her younger twin brothers. I want you to enter the house, befriend them, find out the full names of all three children and a get me a copy of the father’s LIC policy. You have an hour to do all that and your time starts…….NOW.’ B. Raman thought for a few minutes and then went forward to ring the bell. The woman who opened the door found an earnest looking young man, muttering in embarrassment, asking for directions to an address she had never heard of. ‘I’m already so late’, B. Raman muttered, cursing the broker who sent him out to find a stranger’s house. ‘Usually he comes along, but today, he’s fallen ill. I’m so sorry.’ Soon B. Raman was drinking a cup of coffee, nibbling on some namkeen and chatting with the parents. When the all-knowing God sent them an unmarried MBBS doctor, not inviting him in for a cuppa would be stupid, wouldn’t it? Forty five minutes later, B. Raman emerged from the house with the required details and a Xerox copy of the father’s LIC policy, for which he had promised to obtain better terms, claiming that his father was a senior LIC officer.

Okay, I made that one up. B. Raman’s path-breaking book on R&AW doesn’t disclose how B. Raman was selected to join the Intelligence Bureau (R&AW was formed a year after B. Raman joined the IB). Did B. Raman merely fill up a few forms and get transferred from the IPS to the IB? Did he have to undergo an aptitude test? We are not told. The Kaoboys of R&AW is so very different from a book like, say, Rorke Denver’s Damn Few which has a lot of information about how the US Navy screens and selects applicants for its SEAL programme. The Kaoboys of R&AW also has no information whatsoever about B. Raman the individual. What the hell, B. Raman does not even once mention what his initial ‘B’ stands for, though this information (Bahukutumbi) is freely available on the internet. We are told that B. Raman’s hometown is Chennai, that he did a course in journalism at the University of Madras, worked for Indian Express for 4 years, joined the IPS in 1961 and the Intelligence Bureau in 1967. On completion of his training, he was tasked with heading the Burma branch of the external intelligence division. On retirement he settled down in Chennai. Oh! And B. Raman speaks French. That’s all we ever get to know about B. Raman from The Kaoboys of R&AW!

So what’s The Kaoboys of R&AW all about? It is definitely not an action thriller. It is also not a chronicle of every operation which B. Raman was involved in while serving with R&AW. Rather, it is a high-level examination of various important incidents that took place during B. Raman’s tenure as well as an analysis of the various policy issues which confront R&AW at present. The Kaoboys of R&AW is written by a man who is proud to have served R&AW and still cares about it and for this reason, it is very different from India’s External Intelligence – Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing by Maj. Gen V.K. Singh, which is a disgruntled nitpicker’s narrative of what’s wrong at R&AW.

On Bangladesh:
The 1971 War was R&AW’s finest hour, B. Raman tells us. R&AW was formed only in 19688, but when in 1971 Indira Gandhi decided to help the people of East Pakistan, R&AW was ready. It not only collected intelligence, but also had clandestine divisions which raided the Chittagong Hill Tracts to attack Naga and Mizo hostiles. R&AW’s performance vis-à-vis West Pakistan was not as satisfactory, but the 1971 war was a success story altogether.

R&AW’s Head Rameshwar Nath Kao was in Paris with B. Raman when Kao received a message from a Congress leader informing him that Indira Gandhi was considering the imposition of Emergency and requesting Kao to advise her that it was a good idea. B. Raman tells us that Kao disagreed and counselled otherwise. Did Kao later change his mind or did Indira Gandhi go against Kao’s advice? B. Raman doesn’t know, he tells us.

Relations with other agencies: The CIA was always willing to help India in its dealings with China. At the same time, the Americans would never help India fight Pakistan sponsored terrorism. India had good relations with SDECE, the French intelligence agency. At one point, prior to the 1979 revolution in Iran, there was proposal for France, India and Iran to set up a mechanism to jointly collect maritime intelligence in the Indian Ocean. The proposal fell through and was not implemented.

Every change of regime was usually followed by a witch-hunt against those perceived to have been close to the previous regime. We are told that ‘Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Vajpayee came to office with the impression that Kao played an important role in the proclamation of the Emergency and that he let Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi misuse the R&AW for partisan political purposes. Morarji Desai was so distrustful of Kao that he sent the Cabinet Secretary to Kao’s office to make sure that he did not destroy any papers before handing over to Nair.’

Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi: B. Raman has a soft corner for Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi though he does not hesitate to point out their faults. Declaration of the Emergency was a mistake, as was Operation Blue Star, B. Raman tells us, adding that Indira Gandhi had frantically tried to find a political solution and avoid sending the army inside the Golden Temple. Similarly, B. Raman says that Rajiv Gandhi’s Sri Lankan policy was characterised by bewildering confusion. At the end of it all, B. Raman laments that these two Prime Ministers did more for R&AW than anyone else and the intelligence agencies had totally failed to protect them. It is a genuine cry of despair and anguish. B. Raman believes that corruption claims made against Indira Gandhi with respect to her actions during the emergency did not have any substance. Even in the case of the Bofors scandal, B. Raman tells us that in his view, Rajiv Gandhi was a man with austere tastes who was not corrupt. The mistake Rajiv Gandhi made was to get personally involved in refuting the charges against him and in the process, muddied himself.

B. Raman claims that the CIA ran a disinformation campaign against Indira Gandhi. Allegations to the effect that the Congress Party accepted bribes from a French oil company during the Emergency were planted on the Morarji Desai Government through a retired Indian military officer living in Europe. The Bangladesh War, the nuclear tests at Pokhran and India’s perceived support for the Soviet Union, all of this motivated the disinformation campaign, B. Raman tells us.

In the aftermath of Operation Blue Star, it was decided that Sikh officers should not be in close proximity to Indira Gandhi. When Indira Gandhi heard of such a decision, she had it reversed…. and paid for it with her life. B. Raman makes it clear that he believes keeping Sikh officers away from Indira Gandhi was the right thing to do, in those circumstances, citing examples from the UK and USA where officers from Northern Ireland and those with an African heritage respectively were never deployed as bodyguards to the British Prime Minister or the US President. B. Raman’s anguish is just as pronounced in the case of Rajiv Gandhi’s murder. Since he was in the opposition, Rajiv Gandhi was denied SPG cover. The protection offered by state police forces was sloppy and unprofessional and ultimately, Rajiv paid for it with his life.

VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Narasimha Rao, Sharad Pawar:
B. Raman doesn’t seem to have much respect for VP Singh. He says that ‘VP Singh curried cheap publicity with the extremists and terrorists not only in J&K, but also in Punjab. He was soft to people like Simranjit Singh Mann, who were suspected to be sympathetic to the Khalistani terrorists…………..V.P. Singh came to office with a single-point agenda – to exploit the Bofors issue to discredit Rajiv Gandhi and end his political career once and for all.’ Using the services of a private detective in Europe (paid for by the government) and many journalists like the famous Chithra Subramanium, he pursued the Bofors case at the cost of fighting the insurgency in Punjab and J&K.

B. Raman has a much better opinion of Chandra Shekhar than VP Singh. Sharad Pawar too impressed B. Raman by the way he handled the situation in Mumbai after the 1993 bomb blasts.

As for Narasimha Rao, B. Raman tells us that after the Babri Masjid demolition, Rao invited to his house all officers of the rank of Addditional Secretary and above and addressed them in a rambling manner. B. Raman was left with the feeling that Rao thought the demolition was the nation’s karma and that the government’s inaction was the right thing in the given circumstances.

Getting it wrong:
B. Raman freely talks of a number of instances, some major, some minor, where R&AW got it wrong.

R&AW failed to anticipate the 1975 Bangladesh coup which resulted in the murder of its founding father Mujibur Rahman. Ever since then, India’s influence in Bangladesh has declined and Bangladesh has once again become a hub for anti-India activities in the region. Another instance was when the IB and R&AW jointly took the stand that around 2,100 Naga militants had gone to Yunnan for training. Sam Manekshaw called the intelligence agencies’ bluff and came up with a much lower number, on the basis that, if such a large number of young men had departed for training, the local villagers and administration would have known. Sam Manekshaw turned out to be right.

B. Raman doesn’t specially say that Sri Lanka and the IPKF fiasco was an intelligence failure. Rather he says that when the IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka, General Sunderji, the Chief of Army Staff, told Rajiv Gandhi that the IPKF would be able to accomplish its mission within a month. As we know, things went wrong. Was it entirely General Sunderji’s fault? How much of a role did the intelligence agencies have to play? Wasn’t there an intelligence failure as well? B. Raman doesn’t say much about this in his book. According to B. Raman, General Sunderji, who was earlier responsible for Operation Blue Star, at that time a Lt. General, had committed a similar blunder in his assessment of the terrorists occupying the Golden Temple. In both cases General Sunderji blamed the intelligence agencies for the wrong assessments. According to B. Raman, there were too many agencies involved in Sri Lanka and only the CIA had the complete picture of what was going on, thanks to the various moles within Indian intelligence outfits.

Balanced writing:
B. Raman’s narrative is mostly very balanced. While his polite bureaucratic air never deserts him, B. Raman also doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. B. Raman has a lot of praise for Kao and his successors, Sankaran Nair, Suntook and Girish Chandra Saxena. He says, ‘they were not only brilliant professionals, but also lovable individuals with endearing personal qualities. There was nothing small or mean about them. They did wonders and were very close to the Prime Minister of the day. Their role in influencing government policy on national security matters was phenomenal. They had a wide network on contacts in the international intelligence community at the highest levels. They imparted a sense of pride to R&AW officers. They never bragged about themselves and their role and contacts.’ However, such effusive praise does not prevent B. Raman from saying that Kao’s 3-year post-retirement tenure as a Senior Adviser to Indira Gandhi did not have the brilliance of his tenure as head of R&AW. We are told that post-1971, a permissive atmosphere crept into R&AW. Corruption and misdemeanours by officers were tolerated by Kao and other senior officers who did not act decisively and put an end to it.

India’s nuclear tests:
B. Raman is totally silent on India’s policy on nuclear weapons. India first conducted a nuclear test in 1974. This test was also an intelligence success, since India managed to prevent the CIA and other intelligence agencies from finding out about the test in advance. Pokhran II was in 1998 and B. Raman had retired by then. I had expected B. Raman to have something to say regarding the first nuclear test and the acquisition of nuclear weapons by India, but was disappointed.


The Kaoboys of R&AW is peppered with minor incidents and anecdotes, some of which are funny. When Naga militant gangs started going to Yunnan for training, some Naga pastors went with them. The godless Chinese were not too keen on the God men and wanted to send them back. For good measure, they wanted the Naga hostiles to attend classes on Marxism. There was an impasse and after negotiations in Beijing, the Chinese gave in. The pastors stayed and Marx was kept out!

Then there was case of an IB surveillance team which full-time trailed a Pakistani ISI officer/diplomat posted in Delhi. Once on a winter’s night in dense fog, the ISI officer who was being followed stopped his car and invited the IB team in for tea. It was then the IB surveillance team realised that while following the ISI officer’s car bumper to bumper, they had actually entered his house! Mind you, humorous incidents like this are few and far in between. The Kaoboys of R&AW is mostly serious stuff.

Policy conundrums:
The best part of The Kaoboys of R&AW is the discussion around pertinent questions such as whether there should be Parliamentary oversight over intelligence agencies. B. Raman is in no doubt that intelligence agencies require supervision, citing various cases of corruption, nepotism and inefficiency involving R&AW to buttress his arguments.

However, there were a couple of other policy decisions taken in the past which B. Raman accepts unquestioningly, which in my opinion, need to be re-examined. The first is the formation of R&AW itself, through a bifurcation of the Intelligence Bureau. Should the organisations responsible for external and internal intelligence be separate? In my opinion, keeping in mind that many of the internal terrorist threats arise from external sources, there is no rationale for bifurcation of the intelligence agencies into IB and R&AW. This division does not automatically lead to greater efficiency or effectiveness. On the other hand, a single agency headed by one individual would solve the problem of IB and R&AW not sharing intelligence effectively. B. Raman himself gives an example. During operations involving Sri Lankan Tamil organisations, various Tamil militant groups took money from R&AW, IB and the Military Intelligence, with each organisation not being aware of money paid out by the other organisations. We are told by B. Raman that China experts of the IB vintage (who moved to R&AW when it was formed) were better than China experts trained by R&AW. If before the bifurcation IB could turn out better China experts than R&AW could later on, what’s the rationale for keeping external intelligence separate?

B. Raman also tells us that at various times the Indian army has sought permission for running clandestine operations from Indian diplomatic missions overseas, a request which has been repeatedly denied. The army is only allowed to collect tactical military intelligence through trans-border sources. B. Raman does not clearly explain why the Army made such a request in the first place. Was it not happy with intelligence collection by R&AW? Or was it because R&AW does not readily share the intelligence it collects with the armed forces? Until Rajiv Gandhi’s time, the army’s proposals for investing in TECHINT capability needed R&AW’s approval. This is no longer the case and these days IB officers have been posted in embassies in neighbouring countries. It is clear that B. Raman doesn’t approve of the loss of R&AW’s monopoly over collection of external intelligence, but he doesn’t say so in as many words.

Is there an argument to be made for having the intelligence agencies and the armed forces under a unified command? I do not claim to understand these issues too well, nor do I have any special insight or access to information that would allow me to form an informed view on this matter. However, I do wish B. Raman had specifically addressed this question. At present, India is a long way away from having a unified command even for various wings of its armed forces and so, it is almost impossible to imagine a situation where Indian intelligence agencies also fall under a unified defence command.

Better late than never: The Kaoboys of R&AW was published in 2007.

Earlier posts on B. Raman: I’ve blogged about B. Raman a few times in the past. You’ll find my previous posts here and here.