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.

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