Books/Article

History of RAW - India’s external intelligence agency

Print edition : May 20, 2022

The mainstream media seldom devote attention to undercover operations and espionage unless the secret agents get trapped across the border, and their families appeal for deliverance. Kulbhushan Jadhav, arrested on charges of espionage in Pakistan, at a press conference in Islamabad on March 29, 2016. Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

“RAW: A History of India’s Covert Operations” by Yatish Yadav, Westland Books, 2020.

A path-breaking history of India’s covert operations by the fabled Research and Analysis Wing, based on extensive interviews with both serving and former intelligence operatives who share stories of triumphs and tragedies in the realm of spycraft.

Did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a monitoring station in the 1960s, with a plutonium device buried somewhere under the snow and earth on the slopes of the Nanda Devi, to spy on the Chinese? According to Morarji Desai (Prime Minister of India from 1977-1979), the device was “buried in an avalanche and could not be located”. A new device was installed. It “functioned normally for a while but was removed subsequently in 1968 and the equipment was returned to the US”.

What happened to the first device? According to Yatish Yadav, author of RAW: A History of India’s Covert Operations, “[the] Atma Ram panel suggests that new techniques need to be adopted to locate the device. The Committee has also considered the possibility of the device being still intact but lying buried somewhere. It has pointed out that even in this case there is no hazard unless the device is disturbed or disintegrated.”

Sounds apocryphal, like accounts of the Yeti, the “abominable snowman” of the Himalaya? Not quite, if we were to read notes provided by Yatish Yadav in his fascinating book.

The story of the missing plutonium device high up in the Himalaya serves as a perfect metaphor for the perennial lure of spy fiction across cultures and societies.

From Eric Ambler to Ian Fleming and John le Carre, authors of espionage narratives focus on solitary, flamboyant, larger-than-life figures who are pitted against evil predators that threaten nation states and the civilised world order. Such fiction intersects the genres of crime thrillers, adventure narratives and catastrophe fiction. Spy stories thrive in conflict situations on the world stage, and therefore the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War have given rise to classic spy stories. From Mata Hari to Richard Sorge, from the “Atomic Spy” Klaus Fuchs to “Carlos the Jackal”, and their fictional counterparts in the Cold War era such as the iconic 007, licensed to kill, such characters proliferate the espionage landscape. Once treated as part of the entertainment industry, today spy fiction is serious academic business in leading universities of the world: it reveals deeper subtexts and anxieties in cultural and ideological terms. Spy fiction is more than guns, girls and machismo.

Also read: Shadow wars

While spy fiction may be immensely popular in India, there have been few studies of India’s external intelligence agency, the fabled RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). The mainstream media seldom, if at all, devote attention and columns to undercover operations and espionage unless spies/agents get hopelessly trapped across the border, and desperate families appeal for deliverance. Praveen Swami’s columns on the subject in The Hindu were rare instances of public education. Regrettably, these have not been sustained over the years on a regular basis.

This is where Yatish Yadav’s book scores. In 11 fascinating chapters, the volume unravels, as the title indicates, a history of India’s covert operations by RAW, the nation’s premier spy agency. The author explains: “Unlike the American CIA, British M16 and Israel’s espionage unit Mossad, the Indian Intelligence community guards its critical operations, achievements and failures vigilantly. This book is an attempt to clear the cobwebs.”

How do we separate fiction from the facts, the grim life of the ordinary spy from the more appealing world of mythology, legend and iconography? In the United States, sustained efforts in the media, academia and legislature have brought to the attention of the interested public the activities of the CIA and its domestic counterpart, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Similar efforts in India have been few and far between and have been stonewalled for decades. The Indian courts have ruled in favour of maintaining secrecy and confidentiality on the ground of national security.

Yatish Yadav’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the subject. It is based on extensive interviews with serving and former Intelligence operatives who emerge from their shadowy lives to share stories of successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies, heroism and cowardice in the realm of spycraft.

Origins of RAW

Founded in 1968, RAW “began with 200 officers who left the I.B. [Intelligence Bureau] to join the newly created external intelligence agency named in a nondescript manner”. It would function with “glamour and anonymity in unchartered territory”.

Led by the legendary Rameshwar Nath Kao, the first batch of RAW officers joined service in 1971 and soon saw action in the formation of Bangladesh and other hotspots. RAW developed its own cadre even as members of the Indian Police Service (IPS) continued to serve the organisation on deputation. Debates over the two services continue to date. Officers and operatives, as Yatish Yadav explains, learnt to speak one or many languages such as Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Sinhalese, German, Polish and Urdu. By the time of Morarji Desai, RAW had a staff of “more than five thousand on its payroll”. Desai turned out to be inhospitable to RAW and Kao, and K. Sankaran Nair left the organisation. N.F. Suntook took charge and “saved the agency”.

Also read: India’s secret war

RAW’s glory was somewhat restored after Indira Gandhi’s return to power. It had mixed fortunes under the prime ministerships of Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. In due course, RAW “recruited trained and deployed informers and covert action teams in the USA, Iran and several European countries as well as in India’s immediate neighbours. It also employed analysts, polygraph examiners, cartographers, linguists, economists and political analysts to defend the country from internal foes and external enemies. While the I.B.’s mandate was essentially within the country, it also opened offices at times on foreign soil. As is to be expected, the two agencies joined hands, and at times fought over turf to the detrimental of the common cause.

Yatish Yadav tells us that the “first successful strike against Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil War was mounted by eighty battle-trained covert action operatives of RAW. Their valour and heroism were recognised within the closed chamber of Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and swiftly they receded to their shadowy zones and could never enjoy public accolades for their service to the nation.”

In Bangladesh, Yatish Yadav tells us, RAW combated the influence of CIA and Pakistan. The tragic assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a big blow and a much-chastened RAW regrouped to regain its lost influence in Bangladesh. By November 1988, RAW’s station head, code-named Krishna Patwardhan, had set up the necessary network in Bangladesh, to target elements that were hostile to India.

RAW saw spectacular action in other theatres as well. On March 20, 1988, we learn, RAW operative Anupam Malik began to carry out Mission Fiji’, “aimed to disrupt and dismantle Fiji’s military regime” that threatened to upset the ethnic balance in Fiji. Attempts were being made by this regime to deny political rights to ethnic Indians, most of whom had been immigrants to the country during the British Raj. Deporting all ethnic Indians to India’ was a distinct possibility. By the 1990s Sitiveni Rabuka, the strongman, was honey-trapped and compromised by RAW agents in Fiji and had to abdicate political power.

Also read: ‘The Kashmir issue is a convenient whipping boy’

Similarly, RAW’s involvement in Afghanistan, we learn, began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country. The agency’s operatives carried out missions right through the chequered regimes of Tarki, Amin and Karmal encountering opposition from Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq and the Taliban at different times. Former RAW operative Ashfaq reveals to Yadav that RAW was concerned about Afghan terrorists being used in Kashmir by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Hamid Gul. The success of Ahmed Shah Masoud’s Northern Alliance may be attributed to the clandestine support of the Indian spy agency in Afghanistan.

Supporting & opposing the LTTE

In Sri Lanka, RAW propped up the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had to follow the contradictory path of support and opposition following the dictates of the political masters in Delhi. RAW operative Pawan Arora believes that “launching the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in Sri Lanka was a ‘political blunder’”. While the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) gained from the clandestine support by RAW through the supply of aerial photography of LTTE positions, the SLA seemed to have reneged on its assurance and embarked on total annihilation of vast sections of the civilian population, committing war crimes that would bring it notoriety in the United Nations and other international forums. These are issues that are far from over, even as Sri Lanka undergoes a serious economic crisis and turmoil today.

The riveting narrative is assisted by Yatish Yadav’s astute political commentary. His verdict is that “Sri Lanka remains one of the most disastrous espionage operations ever. The political decision to first support the insurgents and subsequently turn the guns against them had little gains for India besides holding on to influence in the neighboring country for a few decades.”

Also read: The Doval doctrine

In the chapter titled “Shadowy War in Washington”, we see the RAW operative code-named ‘Blue Sky’ track down the Khalistani leader Jagjit Singh Chouhan and successfully penetrate the World Sikh Organisation, the International Sikh Federation and the Babbar Khalsa International. While the traditional rivalry between the I.B. and RAW continued, according to RAW operative Krishna’s candid opinion, “the I.B. proved to be far superior in the Canadian theatre than the RAW.”

Tales of betrayal

The book also chronicles stories of betrayal. The chapter titled “Hunting the RAW traitor” reveals the sordid career of the RAW agent Rabinder Singh, an ex-Army man who sold national secrets to the CIA for money. A loving father who quoted the Bhagavad Gita to his daughter, Singh led parallel lives and passed on classified information to the foreign power. Although given asylum in the U.S., he was soon forsaken by the CIA and met with an unexplained road accident there. The RAW agent Delta, whom Yatish Yadav spoke to “neither confirmed nor denied” any role the RAW might have played to eliminate the “traitor”.

Yatish Yadav also points out the hurdles, both bureaucratic and political, that have hampered RAW’s functioning. According to older agents, only three Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, “genuinely appreciated espionage statecraft”.

At the global level, aside from the U.S., RAW has also had its footprints in the Iran-Iraq conflict, in the Russian scene, elections in the U.K., the Nuclear Arms Race, the India-Iran relationship, corruption issues and pillow talks. In the epilogue, Yatish Yadav explores the role and relevance of spy operations and human intelligence in the digital world: “Could data accessed via cyberespionage replace a good spy behind the enemy lines?” Yatish Yadav firmly believes that machines and eyes in the sky cannot replace the human agent. He quotes Chanakya’s words in this context: “A king needs trusted spies not just to steal secrets of his enemies, but also to sow seeds of dissension among the opposition. A fiery spy working undercover can change the destiny of a nation.”

Also read: Balochistan vs Kashmir

While cyberespionage by RAW may answer the needs of the times, the agency performs its vital role as “the first line of defence against overseas threats”. In Yatish Yadav’s opinion, “the intelligence agency requires a clear political direction with zero interference if it is to maintain its neutrality, speed and efficiency”.

A major limitation of this account is that there are very few references to the sources used, especially the primary ones. It is Yatish Yadav’s claim that the revelation of sources is likely to jeopardise operations and the lives of agents. Even so there are many places where the interested reader would have liked to trace the quotes to published and other sources. In their absence, the sceptical-minded would question the authenticity of many of the claims being made. This is a departure from established scholarly practice.

Despite this shortcoming, readers would enjoy going through this path-breaking book. Written without jargon, with an easy flow, Yatish Yadav’s narrative about India’s covert operations will remain a significant milestone. In the words of the RAW spy code-named Vijay Giri, “spying is like walking on water, it can produce miracles”. Indeed!

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He has taught well-attended courses on spy fiction such as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Reading Spy Fiction Today. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.