Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 19, Sep 10 - 23, 2005
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Home Contents

Printer Friendly Page Send this Article to a Friend


Covert contestation



Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rehman reviewing the Indian Army's farewell parade at the Dacca Stadium on March 12, 1972. The assets RAW had gained from the United States were put to good use during the 1971 war.

"THE water," General Zia-ul-Haq told his spymaster General Akhtar Malik in December 1979, "must boil at the right temperature." Pakistan's military ruler was referring to the need to calibrate carefully his covert services' activities in Afghanistan: to refrain from pushing the Soviet Union to the point where it would make it worth its while to launch a full-scale war against the mujahideen's covert sponsors. General Zia's orders were in line with the rules of engagement for one of the world's least-known, but most brutally fought, war.

Sarabjit Singh's story is just a small part of the untold - and, outside of the covert world, largely unknown - story of India's secret war with Pakistan: a contestation which has run unbroken since Independence; an arch of which the four full-blown wars of 1947-1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 were just pillars.

When the British left India, the new nation was left with nothing resembling a functional covert service. Departing British officers had denuded the Military Intelligence Directorate in New Delhi of almost all sensitive information, leaving it without even a map of Jammu and Kashmir to which the first radio intercepts of the Pakistan-backed invasion of 1947-1948 could be correlated. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) was, for its part, in what Lieutenant-General L.P. Singh has described as "a tragi-comic state of helplessness", empty of everything but "office furniture, empty racks and cupboards". Its senior-most British-Indian official had chosen Pakistani citizenship and left for that country with what few sensitive files the imperial authorities had neglected to destroy.

Not surprisingly, Indian covert activity was limited in scope and intensity until the mid-1960s. Pakistan, by contrast, initiated offensive covert activity in Jammu and Kashmir soon after Independence, backing groups that bombed government buildings and bridges after its failure to take the State by force in 1947-1948. Major-General Akbar Khan, who commanded the Pakistani forces during that first India-Pakistan war, has also recorded in his memoirs that his country's covert forces supplied weapons to Islamist irregulars in Hyderabad. Indian responses were in the main defensive, relying on the counter-intelligence resources of state-level forces and local political deal-making to blunt Pakistan's covert offensive. In the 1960s, for example, the Jammu and Kashmir Police was instrumental in dismantling a sophisticated anti-India jihadist network, which came to be known as `the Master Cell'. Pakistan's covert services operated similarly in the east, training Naga groups in the Chittagong Hill tracts. No open-source archival material has so far surfaced that suggests that Indian intelligence even attempted offensive operations directed at Pakistan during this period.

India's covert capabilities, however, began to develop significantly in the wake of the 1962 war with China. Aided by the United States, the newly founded Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) developed sophisticated signals intelligence and photo-reconnaissance capabilities. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) instructors also trained Establishment 22, a covert organisation raised from among Tibetan refugees in India, to execute deep-penetration terror operations in China.

For a variety of reasons, the India-U.S. collaboration on China soured within just a few years, but the assets RAW had gained were put to good use during the 1971 Bangladesh war. India's eastern offensive was substantially aided by its new covert assets. While India's covert aid to the Mukti Bahini is well documented, few are aware that Establishment 22, operating under the command of Major-General Surjit Singh Uban, carried out deep-penetration strikes against Pakistani forces well under the RAW umbrella prior to the onset of the war. Using Bulgarian weapons to ensure that India could deny it was connected to their activities, General Uban's covert forces played a key role in drawing Pakistani troops forward, thus easing the conventional thrust towards Dhaka.

Pakistan's vivisection in 1971 seemed to have rendered the need for an offensive covert capability against that country redundant. Even prior to the war, Pakistan had proved hesitant to provide full-scale support to al-Fatah, a jihadist organisation that its covert services had set up in Jammu and Kashmir, fearing that the detection of this enterprise would provide India with a pretext for going to war. For over a decade after 1971, Pakistan proved resistant to entreaties from Kashmiri organisations such as the National Liberation Front for military assistance, afraid of the consequences of large-scale Indian conventional military reprisal.

RAW's attentions now turned east. It played a key role in bringing about Sikkim's accession to the Union of India, began backing Tamil terrorists in Sri Lanka and began providing military assistance to groups hostile to the pro-China regime in Myanmar, such as the Kachin Independence Army. Pakistan's covert warriors turned their attentions west. In 1975, for example, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) backed an attempted Islamist coup against the left-wing regime of Mohammad Daud Khan in Afghanistan. Pakistan, it seemed to Indian covert strategists, was no longer a credible military threat.

The wheel soon turned, though, as wheels are wont to do. After the Soviet Union's intervention in Afghanistan, the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq acquired both the strategic influence and the military resources needed to insulate itself against India's superior conventional military capabilities. Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme, notably, received tacit consent from the U.S., allowing it to develop deterrent capabilities. The secret war now resumed. By the mid-1980s, the ISI had initiated supplies of Afghan war-surplus military hardware to Khalistan terrorists in Punjab. Five years later, similar support was made available to jihad groups in Jammu and Kashmir. On two occasions, in 1987 and 1990, India threatened to go to war in retaliation; both times, the threat of a widespread, possibly nuclear, war deterred its politicians. On both occasions, however, RAW and the ISI played a role in ensuring the water did not, to use General Zia's metaphor, boil over.

After the 1987 crisis, RAW chief A.K. Verma and ISI Director-General Hamid Gul met to discuss limitations for Pakistan's support for Khalistan groups, a negotiation brokered by the then-Jordanian Crown Prince, Hasan bin-Talal, whose wife, Princess Sarvath, is of Pakistani origin. After the 1990 crisis, the ISI was again pushed to ensure that jihad groups in Jammu and Kashmir did not gain access to anti-aircraft missiles, after India made clear that the shooting down of an aircraft would lead to a full-blown war, notwithstanding the risk of escalation.

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's regime did not, however, restrict itself to sending verbal signals to Islamabad. In the mid-1980s, RAW set up two covert groups, CIT-X and CIT-J, the first targeting Pakistan in general and the second directed at Khalistani groups. Rabinder Singh, the RAW double-agent who defected to the U.S. in 2004, was among those who helped run CIT-J during its early years. Both these covert groups extensively used the services of cross-border traffickers like Sarabjit Singh to ferry weapons and funds across the border, much as their ISI counterparts were doing.

A low-grade but steady campaign of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore, followed. According to former RAW official and security analyst B. Raman, the Indian counter-campaign yielded results. "The role of our cover action capability in putting an end to the ISI's interference in Punjab", he wrote in 2002, "by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known and understood." While Pakistan has long complained of India-engineered terrorism on its soil, however, there is so far no coherent open-source account of either its scale or its course.

For reasons that are still unclear - some people believe Indian strategists did not wish to undermine the moral legitimacy of their complaints about Pakistani cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir - the covert offensive soon wound down. None of those in office at the time will, not surprisingly, discuss the issue on record, but Raman asserted in a 2003 article that the decision to terminate India's offensive covert capabilities directed at Pakistan was made by Prime Minister I.K. Gujral. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao is believed to have terminated RAW's eastern operations earlier as part of his efforts to build bridges with China and Myanmar. As violence in Jammu and Kashmir escalated, successive RAW and I.B. heads attempted to gain authorisation for aggressive operations, but without success. After the 1999 war, key intelligence officers, including a former I.B. Director, attempted to persuade Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to issue the necessary authorisations. "He didn't say a word," recalls one official present at the meeting. "He didn't say no; he didn't say yes."

Given that violence in Jammu and Kashmir has de-escalated since 2002, the Indian strategic establishment's chosen weapons - military coercion and international pressure - seem to have paid off, at least in part. Intelligence officials who discussed the issue with Frontline, however, believe the debate remains alive. "You prepare capabilities to deal with what might happen," one official said, "not just what is apparent."

Printer friendly page  
Send this article to Friends by E-Mail

Subscribe | Contact Us | Archives | Contents
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
[ Home | The Hindu | Business Line | Sportstar
Copyright © 2005, Frontline.

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited
without the written consent of Frontline