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.


Reuben D said...

Thank You for giving us an overview of Mr.Ramans book. I did want to point out that Mr.Ramans assessment of the Sri Lankan despot in 2009, Rajapaksa was prescient. You, in one of your earlier posts advocated non-interference in our revered neighbors affairs and spouted some gobbledegook that Tamils had equality in Lanka, however one is now faced with a full on Tamil genocide. Perhaps you should take a short ferry ride to the Northern provinces and visit for a first hand account. Or you could also read, Francis Harrison's account, 'Still counting the Dead'. Incidentally the lead up to the wanton killing of Sri Lankan Tamils during 2009 had the sanction of our foreign service and the UN mission head: all of whom are from Kerala (perhaps a hidden rage against all Tamils) perhaps you share their insecurities. Remember what Elie Wiesel said about surviving the Jewish Holocaust in Germany: 'For the dead and dying, we must bear witness'

Winnowed said...

Reuben D, I never liked the LTTE or its demand for Eelam. However, I’ve always been extremely sympathetic towards the Sri Lankan Tamils’ struggle to preserve their language, culture and other minority rights.