Variety

RAW: 50 years of operating from the shadows

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on September 20, 2018

RAW’s role in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 — training the Mukti Bahini and helping create Bangladesh — is perhaps its most recounted accomplishment   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

The intelligence agency has accomplished much, but is it ready for the new world?

Generally, we regard the Indian system as more effective. It is institutional. It is not at anyone’s whims.” Lt Gen Mohammad Asad Durrani may have spoken those words out of self-deprecating modesty, for after all, he was at that time sitting in the company of Amarjit Singh Dulat, head of his opposite organisation of an enemy country, but a personal friend.

Nevertheless, on the 50th anniversary of India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), it is nice to remember such a compliment paid by the organisation’s Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI.

Today (September 21), RAW enters its 51st year. Half a century ago, it was spun off from the Intelligence Bureau, of Raj vintage. Bruised by the 1962 war with China, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru realised the need to keep an eye on neighbours, but it was left to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to work the idea into an organisation, using a blueprint prepared by a man who became a legend — Rameshwar Nath Kao.

Achievements

RAW came into being — in 1968 — a good 20 years after Pakistan had set up the ISI. Even as it was growing its milk teeth, RAW was called into service, and its role in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 — training of the Mukti Bahini and the creation of Bangladesh out of the erstwhile East Pakistan — is perhaps its most recounted accomplishment.

There is very little authentic information about RAW’s activities. Legend mixed with information from private and public conversations or papers, articles and books written by ex-RAW officials keeps the patriotic Indian kicked about the organisation that has operated from the shadows for half a century.

Many achievements are credited to it. It is said to have stage-managed the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to discredit Pakistan and to provide a ruse to ban Pakistani aircraft over-flying India, in the run up to the 1971 war. It is said to have provided a timely tip off about Pakistan’s plan to tent-up in Siachen, enabling India to pre-empt it. It is reputed to have hit back at the ISI during the Pakistan-backed Khalistan movement in Punjab, by supporting Balochi insurgents.

The list is long and includes providing intelligence inputs to Israel’s Mossad during Operation Entebbe, and, more recently, cobbling up a coalition in Sri Lanka to vote-out pro-China President Mahinda Rajapaksha.

Most of this is likely to be true, and despite ‘failures’ such as the Kargil war, the 2001 attack on Parliament and 26/11 it is fair to assume that the agency has earned its spurs.

Fundamental issues

However, on its 50th birthday, a few fundamental issues offer themselves for examination. One is whether or not there is a need to restructure RAW to bring it under some oversight, and, two, about its future in the changing milieu.

RAW is certainly a mysterious organisation, and darkness provides equal cover for the good, bad and the ugly. RAW is a ‘wing’ of the Cabinet Secretariat and reports only to the Prime Minister’s Office — it is not answerable to Parliament, nor is it within the ambit of Right to Information. Nobody knows how much money it gets (one figure floating around is $450 million, which is pittance), or how much it spends.

As much as it is lauded for its successes, it also has a reputation of corruption. Its recruitment process is through Civil Services exams which, as a former RAW chief Vikram Sood said, is not good enough for a milieu of big data, artificial intelligence and blockchain.

In contrast, other intelligence agencies such as the US’s CIA or the UK’s SIS (aka MI6) recruit via their website and are able to cast their net wider. RAW doesn’t even have a website. In 1980, the US brought in the Intelligence Oversight Act to subject CIA’s activities to the scrutiny of the Senate. The SIS is accountable to the House of Commons. Not so in India. In 2011, Congress MP, Manish Tewari, introduced an Intelligence Services (Power and Regulations) Bill, but this private member initiative lapsed the following year.

On the flip side, fears that opening RAW’s operations to many eyes could be disastrous are not unfounded. After all, in the late 1970s, Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who thought little of intelligence operations, caused immeasurable damage by letting it slip to then Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq that India knew of Pakistan’s nuclear activities at Kahuta; many RAW agents were killed and Pakistan went on to build a bomb. The point on oversight of RAW remains moot.

The other questions that beg answers include: Is the present system of making IPS officers RAW chiefs appropriate? Why should RAW chiefs have short tenures of two years?

So far, so good. But for the future, RAW needs to change and fast.

Published on September 20, 2018

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