The spy business doesn’t ever come in for public debate. There is no parliamentary scrutiny or CAG audit. You only catch snatches of whispers from which you piece together a hazy contour of their ops. India has half-a dozen intelligence agencies: prominent among them are the IB, formed in 1947 for internal security; the RAW, in-charge of external intelligence; and MI, to coordinate defence intelligence. All these agencies report to the IIC, the apex intelligence assessment body.
In India, “external intelligence” is the mandate of the Research and Analysis Wing, whose men are posted in all neighbouring countries, in some Western countries where extremist Indian ethnic groups operate, and other countries that serve as watchtowers to Pakistan. Their job is to keep track of political developments, activities of anti-India groups and Pakistani actions.
A RAW man is usually posted on an Indian mission as a consular officer in the rank of First Secretary. His PA and non-consular staff are also intelligence men. The RAW man’s usual ‘official’ job is to handle visas, the reason being that this provides the maximum opportunity to make contact with locals. Besides, visas and passports come under the Home Minister, so it is easier to post a non-IFS man there. The RAW has lobbied for its man to be posted as commercial counsellors, as this puts them in a better position to ‘oblige’ contacts. But the IFS-IAS lobby has zealously guarded its preserve.
The RAW man’s identity rarely remains a secret. Within the mission, the closely-knit Indian Foreign Service brotherhood is quick to identify him as an outsider, a suspicion confirmed when he says he is from the Home Ministry. Outside the mission, he is an obvious outsider on the diplomatic circuit, possessing neither the experience of the diplomats nor their suavity.
Then, the intelligence man’s ‘official’ job scarcely justifies his irregular and long working hours. The need to develop contacts makes him unduly keen to mix with the local population and to court people who are not relevant to his official duties. He is clearly not an ordinary diplomat who confines himself to the cocktail circuit. Thus, it takes very little for the host country to identify a mission’s intelligence man. Some agents do not even bother to cloak their identity, knowing it is futile. Once identified, an agent is ‘watched’ by the hosts till his contacts are exposed.
Among friendly governments, the practice is to inform the host capital of the identity of the intelligence man in the mission. India has such arrangements with countries like Canada, Britain and Germany, where there is common interest in tracking terrorist activity.
The IFS brotherhood deeply resents the RAW men in the embassies. There is some heartburn about RAW officials depriving Foreign Office boys of a rightful posting, and a suspicion that the intelligence man is there to watch them. Comments one diplomat sardonically, “Not having any work to do, he watches the others.”
But the key reason is that the RAW man is not answerable to the head of the mission. He files his reports in a separate bag directly to the Joint Intelligence Committee of the Cabinet Secretariat. He shows his reports or exchanges information with the ambassador on a “need to know” basis – and he decides what the ambassador needs to know. Ambassadors who think of themselves as god’s gift to Indian diplomacy have resented the freedom that RAW officers exercise within their missions.
RAW officials complain they lack the wherewithal to function efficiently. Unlike the CIA and the defunct KGB, they work on a shoestring budget. Most of (India’s) embassies do not possess even basic transmission facilities. A new dimension to international espionage is the premium on economic information in a world fast becoming a global market. RAW men, however, have not been trained or oriented yet to this field of intelligence.
The Central government office complex off New Delhi’s Lodhi Road, which houses the RAW, will soon be a mirror image of Langley as it gets ready for a shake-up. By a curious coincidence, the so-called natural alliance with the Americans will be a major factor in the RAW’s coming shake-up. It was the defection to the US of a RAW operative, Ravinder Singh, a few months ago that finally triggered an inevitable turmoil which has been gathering within the agency for a long, long time.