If the purpose of an intelligence service is to inform their nation’s leaders and prevent them from being surprised, then the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was perhaps India’s worst intelligence failure. While Indian military leaders had assumed that Chinese forces would come from the north if they decided to invade what is now Arunachal Pradesh, the invasion force actually came from the East (Raman, 17). Chinese forces moved clandestinely through the Kachin state of Burma and over the Naga hills, which were unadministered by the Burmese government.
The move was not completely unanticipated as the Intelligence Bureau had observed an increase in mules in the Kachin state, but policy makers didn’t see this as sufficient reason for concern. The Chinese used the mules to transport war material from the Yunnan province in China, cutting through the ungoverned areas of Burma and launched their surprise attack. The war shook the Indian government and led to Indira Gandhi’s decision to split the external intelligence units within IB into their own agency, which came to be called the Research and Analysis Wing.
The RAW’s first director was an unassuming man named Rameshwar Nath Kao. Kao was selected for the job despite the complaints from others in the intelligence services of his lack of analytical and field experience because of Indira’s family relationship with Kao and because he had headed IB’s external intelligence division prior to RAW’s creation (Raman, 24). Kao was known to be a humble, low profile, and loyal gentlemen professional. British trained from the time he joined the Indian Police in 1940, Kao spent twenty years with IB until he was asked to head RAW.
Kao was known as a subtle but friendly professional who “cultivated strong bonds with foreign intelligence chiefs to expand strategic interests, achieving what normal diplomacy could not” (Akbar, 68). These bonds were so strong that they later led to joint intelligence operations with the CIA, DGSE, and SAVAK. But the master spy had his work cut out for him, as the IB was not very cooperative in transferring their external intelligence capability to RAW. “It would not be an exaggeration to say that Kao had to create the organization almost from scratch without much assistance from IB.” (Raman, 115). The members of RAW came to be known as “Kao-boys” under their director’s watch.
One senior RAW officer describes covert action as, “the safeguarding of national security through deniable action of a political, economic, para-diplomatic or para-military nature” (Raman, 7) and these type of external cross-border operations appear to be something that RAW has become quite adept at over the years. In the first months after the creation of RAW, Kao issued two priorities to his staff: intelligence collection in Pakistan and China and covert action in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
RAW’s first big win came with the creation of Bangladesh, a historic moment, which severed East, and West Pakistan. The role of RAW was to train freedom fighters in clandestine camps, create diplomatic liaisons in both East and West Pakistan who would cooperate with the independence movement, conduct Special Operations missions directed against Naga and Mizo insurgents, and conduct a PsyWar campaign against Pakistan’s leaders (Raman, 10).
The PsyWar campaign conducted in conjunction with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting was largely successful in keeping the international community fixated on the brutal tactics employed by the Pakistani Army and the refugee crisis it created (Raman, 12) although the para-military operation directed against insurgent camps met with mixed results. The Nagas had moved to another camp and the Mizos escaped before the RAW para-military units could close the net around them, (Raman, 15) but important documents were captured at the camp.
An official history of RAW activities in the 1971 war was commissioned by Kao (Raman, 27) but reportedly sits in a archive somewhere collecting dust. While the full activities of RAW in the East Pakistan conflict are not known, “everyone agreed that 1971 was the R&AW’s finest hour” (Raman, 22).
Other RAW activities during this time period include India’s covert activities in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, covert assistance to the African National Congress in South Africa, and the training and assistance to foreign intelligence agencies in African nations such as, “the Maldives, Uganda, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius and Seychelles” (Raman, 118). RAW also trained the communist insurgent group SWAPO in Namibia and sent two retired officers to Zambia to train intelligence officers.
Utilizing Kao’s overseas contacts and prior rapport building, RAW also jumped into the world of counter-terrorism when Indian civilian passenger jets began to be hijacked by terrorists, at least some of them sponsored by the ISI. The fifth and final hijacking occurred in 1984. Unlike previous hijackings, the Pakistanis could not offer a safe haven to the hijackers on their soil due to pressure from the international community. Instead, they made the hijacker fly from Lahore to Dubai.
The Indian government dispatched a joint team of IB, RAW (including para-military forces), and civil aviation ministry personnel to Dubai (Raman, 90). The hijacker demanded safe passage to the United States so the plane ferrying the Indian team flew into Dubai but the passengers stayed on board when they landed.
The UAE authorities then told the hijackers that their flight to the US had arrived and they were free to board. The hijackers climbed into the airplane and were promptly arrested by the Indian agents and flown back to Delhi (Raman, 91). A similar counter-terrorism liaison operation took place in the Philippines when RAW persuaded the Filipino government to arrest a Khalistani terrorist in Manila and had him over to India for trial (Raman, 91).
The biggest military and intelligence failure since the Sino-Indian war came in 1984 with Operation Blue Star. A RAW para-military official known as the DGS, Director General Security, met with Kao and Indira Gandhi in April of 1984 to brief them on Operation Sundown. The DGS was one of the more enigmatic characters of RAW. He was in charge of RAW’s covert action para-military capability, such as the Special Frontier Force (including Tibetans, a structure absorbed by RAW from IB when the agency was stood up in 1968), the Special Services Bureau, and Special Group (SB), the latter being a small counter-terrorism unit trained by Israel’s Sayeret Matkal in 1983 (Unnithan). The DGS also controlled the Aviation Research Center, a clandestine Air Force.
SB commandos had been rehearsing Operation Sundown for two months when the DGS went to brief Kao and Indira. Sikh separatists had barricaded themselves inside the Golden Temple, one of the most holy sites of the Sikh faith. Extended negotiations had failed and tensions reached a fervor pitch after the separatists killed the provincial police chief as he was visiting the temple. SG commandos had infiltrated the temple disguised as journalists and pilgrims to conduct reconnaissance. Kao even used his contacts to have British MI5 officers tour the temple and then have an SAS officer draw up a plan.
The SG plan called for a bold helicopter assault, which was designed to capture Bhindranwale, the separatist leader, and then extract him with a ground assault force, which would simultaneously breach the temple. When Indira inquired as to what kind of casualties to expect, the DGS said they would lose twenty percent of the assault force, both helicopters, and an unknown number of civilians would also be killed (Unnithan).
Operation Sundown was cancelled and an Army led operation known as Operation Blue Star eventually got the green light on June 5th of 1984 after the Army officer in the charge of the operation assured the Prime Minister that no one would be killed.
SG commandos and conventional Army forces launched a frontal attack against the temple. 83 soldiers and 492 civilians were killed (Unnithan) and the Golden Temple was nearly destroyed. In October, two of Indira’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. Kao, who had been on a secret trip to China, immediately returned and filed his resignation as then national security advisor.
The intelligence failures surrounding Blue Star and the assassination of Indira Gandhi are black marks from which both IB and RAW barely recovered.
Another curious episode took place in the 1980s that potentially involved RAW’s counter strike against Pakistan by waging a proxy war of their own. Zia-ul-Haq rose to power in Pakistan by staging a coup against the Prime Minister. He then began the process of deconstructing democracy and instituting a military dictatorship in Pakistan. He made for strange bedfellows with the Reagan administration, which was committed to a proxy war of their own against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The CIA moved huge amount of weapons and ammunition into Pakistan for the Afghan mujahedeen, a portion of which the ISI re-routed to supply Sikh separatists in India.
At the time, the Sikh Khalistan movement was in full swing, especially after the disaster of Operation Blue Star, which fanned the flames of Sikh separatism. The United States did everything possible to avoid listing Pakistan as a state-sponsor of terrorism because of their relationship with the government to arm the Mujaheddin.
With the US not cooperating, the Sindhudesh Movement for an independent Sindh state began to gain momentum in Pakistan. The leader of the movement, G.M. Syed met with the Indian Prime Minister and traveled around the Western world calling attention to human rights abuses in Pakistan (Raman, 156). The ISI meanwhile created a counter-movement called the Mohajir Students’ Organization.
The ISI accused RAW of trying to destabilize Pakistan by supporting the Sindh movement (Raman, 157). All India Radio began broadcasting in Sind and Baloch. In August of 1988 Zia-ul-Haq flew from Bhawalpur to Islamabad. At the last moment, General Mirza Aslam Beg decided not to fly with them. He was the vice chief of staff of the Army, and also a Mohajir. Zia’s plane crashed, killing everyone on board. Sindh separatists, “came out into the streets, sang, danced, hugged each other and distributed sweets to the passers-by” (Raman, 159).
Elections were held in November of 1988, bringing Benazir Bhutto to power. One of her first acts as Prime Minister was to call on ISI director Hamid Gul and order him to stop supporting Sikh separatist movements in India (Raman, 160). The ISI regarded Bhutto as being a RAW puppet and she was close friends with the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi.
Was the assassination of Zia-ul-Haq, the support for Sindh separatists, and the rise of Benazir Bhutto an elaborate intelligence operation conducted by RAW? We may never know, but the way B. Raman relates the episode in his memoirs is interesting if nothing else.
Without explicitly saying that RAW had a hand in it, he certainly hints at the idea. We know that Indian intelligence does conduct these types of operations as it bears some similarities to Dhar’s mission to inject a fissure into the Second Panthic Committee.
Coming Up: India’s Secret Wars Part 4: A Troubled History
Akbar, A.J. National Security and Intelligence Management. Indus Source Books, 2014. Print.
Dhar, Maloy Krishna. Open Secrets. Manas Publications, 2005. Print.
Doval, Ajit. “Changing Paradigms of National Security-Need to Transform and not Reform Intelligence Apparatus.” Vivekananda International Foundation. 11 May 2014. Web.
Kumara, Kranti. “India’s intelligence bureau and Gujarat police indicted for extrajudicial murders.” WSWS.org. 25 July 2013. Web.
Raman, B. The Kao-Boys of R&AW. Lancer Publishers, 2007. Print.
Swami, Praveen. “A raw deal for RAW.” The Hindu. 18 February 2009. Web.
Unnithan, Sandeep. “The league of shadows.” India Today. 31 January 2014. Web.
(Featured Image Courtesy: The Times)