An insider's view

Print edition : March 11, 2005

Open Secrets: India's Intelligence Unveiled by Maloy Krishna Dhar; Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pages 519, Rs.795.

THE merits and demerits of M.K. Dhar's book may be debatable, but there cannot be much disagreement with the view that one of its principal features is shock value. The revelations made in the book by Dhar, a former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.), has already caused shudders in the country's political, bureaucratic and security institutions. The fact that no other government official of Dhar's seniority has made bold to disclose so much about the functioning of the Indian intelligence establishment has imparted a kind of historic significance to the book.

B.N. Mullick, one of Dhar's predecessors in the top echelons of the I.B., had also chosen to record his experiences in the intelligence community. But that his book, My Years with Nehru, is rather tame when compared to Open Secrets is not surprising because Mullick went through some compliance procedures before publishing the book. The former Director of the I.B. submitted his draft to the government and got clearance to publish, in all probability, a sanitised version.

Dhar did not acquiesce to any such compliance procedures. In his own words, "Open Secrets can be treated as the first open confession of an intelligence operative". He is also "conscious that most elected lawmakers and bureaucrats will accuse" him and his book "of breaching the limits and service rules". But, he justifies his blatant disclosures as a well-thought-out endeavour aimed at improving the country's security and political systems.

Considering the manner in which it is written and the reasons the author offers for writing it, Open Secrets can be compared to Ralph McGhee's Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA, a classic account of the covert operations and stratagems of the United States' Central Intelligence Agency. McGhee worked with the CIA between 1952 and 1977 and was one of its prized operatives. Several others, including Philip Agee (CIA Diary: Inside the Company), have tried this genre of "revelatory writing" in the West. But in India Dhar, as of now, is the lone crusader.

Like Dhar, McGhee too joined the intelligence agency with tremendous enthusiasm and patriotism. McGhee participated wholeheartedly in the skulduggery of the Pentagon and the U.S. administration and delivered all that was demanded of him during the Cold War by his political bosses. But by the time he left the CIA he was thoroughly disillusioned. So much so that he branded the CIA the covert action arm of the U.S. President and his foreign policy advisers: "In that capacity it overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting intelligence justifying those activities." McGhee even accused the CIA of shaping its intelligence, even in such critical areas as nuclear weapons capability of other countries, to support presidential policy. "Disinformation is a large part of its covert action responsibility," McGhee pointed out, "and the American people are the primary target of its lies."

AFTER serving the I.B. for three decades in various capacities and retiring as its second most senior official, Dhar says much the same thing in Open Secrets. "Over the years, the political system has misused the intelligence organisations... . What is more insidious is the misuse of agencies in interfering with the elected governments, indulging in toppling games, spying on every conceivable individual and groups of individuals including the members of the bureaucracy, judiciary, Bar councils, university professors and members of the media."

Dhar more or less echoes McGhee when he points out that this style of functioning has created grave fault lines in the Indian security system, which can be left unresolved only at the nation's peril. He argues that it is time that "free India" evolved mechanisms to administer and democratise its intelligence community and the institutions that control and guide the community in order to make it accountable to the people and constitutional institutions. The absence of all this, Open Secrets contends, is steadily weakening democracy.

The book makes it clear that Dhar, like McGhee, was himself party, along with several others, to facilitating the development of these fault lines. In fact, the many errands that he ran for the ruling class in his three-decade-long career had earned him sobriquets such as "rogue officer". In the process he cultivated an assortment of politicians, terrorists and fixers. But Dhar asserts that he was essentially carrying out the diktats of his political bosses. In other words, Open Secrets squarely puts the primary responsibility for the malfunctioning of the system on all political leaders and parties that have ruled the country. The many sensational revelations in the book are strung together on the basis of this thematic premise.

Dhar's disillusionment covers almost the entire political spectrum. There are enough indications in the book that Dhar hoped that a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani would be different from the Congress regimes of the past, particularly that of Indira Gandhi, who according to Dhar "formalised" the blatant misuse of the intelligence system even to pursue petty political goals. This appreciation even led to intimate personal ties with some BJP leaders, including the Hindutva ideologue K.N. Govindacharya. But he says he realised in the early 1990s itself that his conviction was ill-founded, long before the BJP came to power at the Centre leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Talking to Frontline, Dhar explained that the deceptive manoeuvres and the subterfuge that the BJP and its Hindutva allies employed in the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 were among the key factors that motivated him to write the book. Dhar's record makes it clear that notwithstanding all the refutations of Sangh Parivar leaders, they had planned the demolition of the Babri Masjid in great detail.

Open Secrets refers to a clandestine I.B. audio coverage of a February 1992 meeting of the Sangh Parivar top brass. On the basis of that, Dhar says that "the meeting proved beyond doubt that they had drawn up the blueprint for the Hindutva assault in the coming months and choreographed the dance of destruction at Ayodhya in December 1992". The manner in which Dhar retrieved the tapes of the meeting bore the marks of the intrigue associated with the planning done by the Sangh Parivar leadership. He had to break into the venue after two days to get the tapes.

Two other major inspirations for the book were the manner in which the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government "deliberately botched up" the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spying case and the inadequacies of the Indian intelligence system that were laid bare in the various happenings related to the Kargil War.

In a broad reference to the two parties that have ruled the country for a sizable period, Dhar said: "I have seen politics from close quarters and I can say one thing with certainty: neither the Congress nor the BJP has played politics by fair means." If it was the Ayodhya agitation that brought the BJP down in his gaze, he was a witness and party to a series of "games" during the various Congress regimes he worked under.

Dhar reveals that sections of the Congress regime, including members of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's office, even deputed him to monitor Sanjay Gandhi, the Prime Minister's son. His brief was to monitor "the goings-on in the parallel PMO [Prime Minister's Office]" run by close associates of Sanjay Gandhi. The "parallel PMO" had evoked negative reactions from R.K. Dhawan, who was calling the shots in the PMO.

Dhar's book has recorded an interesting instance of I.B. operatives reporting not to the Home Minister or the Prime Minister but to an important party supporting a government. The party is, of course, the Congress, the I.B.'s political boss for the longest period during its existence. This bizarre system existed when Chandra Shekhar was the Prime Minister with the Congress supporting his government from outside. Dhar chanced upon evidence of this much later - in January 1992 - when he was asked to sweep Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's office with bug-detecting devices. He found a micro-recording monitoring machine inside the phone of an aide to the Prime Minister planted by the I.B. during the National Front government of V.P. Singh. "The end products," Dhar says in the book, "were delivered to Rajiv Gandhi even when Chandra Shekhar warmed the seat for the former."

Dhar also records the planting of bugging devices inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan during Zail Singh's tenure as President. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Zail Singh differed on several issues and the PMO thought that the President was into political games against the government. The I.B. was instructed to find out what was happening and a device mounted somewhere on top of the PMO picked up telephone conversations from certain "treated phones" inside the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The recorded tapes were regularly made available to Rajiv Gandhi.

Some stories of political intrigue of the 1980s, including some allegations about the tacit arrangements between terrorists and the government, find confirmation in Open Secrets. Dhar recounts how he worked on a "Punjab peace policy". It involved releasing "reformed" militants such as Bhindranwale's nephew Jasbir Singh Rode and three high priests of the Golden Temple from jail and smuggling a cache of arms to Rode inside the Golden Temple. The weapons were loaded in a special flight and carried to Rode's base in the temple in fruit baskets, ostensibly to help him fight terrorists. Dhar says the plan was carried out while Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister.

Open Secrets does not hide Dhar's role in any of these "immoral" and "illegal activities". But his "confession", he argues, reflects an urge and an effort to make amends. He describes it as "an attempt on the part of a backer and wrecker of the system to share his anguish with his countrymen". Dhar's plea in the prologue is illustrative of this concern: "I would like to draw the attention of the discerning opinion makers, the judiciary, the media, the academia and the intellectuals to think over this loudly and to start a national debate in and outside Parliament."

The former I.B. Joint Director is apprehensive that "some day or other, taking advantage of the weakening fabric of our democracy, some unscrupulous intelligence men may gang up with ambitious Army brass and change the political texture of the nation". Elaborating on this idea in a conversation with Frontline, Dhar pointed out that for their own good politicians need to set right what they had damaged in the country's security structures. Dhar hopes that his message will reach them. "I have taken up this endeavour, even at the risk of facing any action for my revelations, basically to give this message." He is convinced that "after 57 years of Independence, the time has come to liberate the intelligence and investigation establishments from the stranglehold of petty and visionless politicians".

Open Secrets deals with the divergence in intelligence gathering by the I.B. and the country's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and the premier investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The depiction of the I.B.'s perspective in the ISRO case has several references to these discrepancies. Although Dhar's book repeatedly refers to the present National Security Adviser (NSA) and former I.B. chief M.K. Narayanan as one of the best intelligence officers the country has produced, he is doubtful whether the new NSA will be able to succeed in his efforts to develop better coordination between the various agencies and weed out the corrupt and self-serving elements in the system.

The debate about Open Secrets has revolved not only around the contents of the book but also on the propriety of an I.B. officer revealing what are official secrets. But Dhar is not bothered. He told Frontline that he was prepared for any action, even a case under the Official Secrets Act. "I can face all that if the questions I have raised in the book get addressed by opinion-makers and decision-takers." Will Dhar's book get the kind of reception that he hopes for? If initial reactions from the establishment are anything to go by, the question does not have positive or definitive answers.

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