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RAW@50: Remembering RN Kao, India’s first true spymaster

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R.N. Kao, whose team was called ‘Kao-boys’, became India’s first RAW chief in 1968. He is also known as ‘architect of Bangladesh’ for his role in 1971 war.

New Delhi: Around June 1975, a betel-nut exporter arrived in Dacca (now Dhaka). Over an hour-long meeting, he tried to convince the then President of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that a coup to overthrow him was imminent. He also named the military officers behind the conspiracy.

Rahman refused to believe him. A few weeks later, Rahman and 40 members of his family were slaughtered by the very military officers this betel-nut exporter had named.

The exporter was India’s “philosopher-spymaster” Rameshwar Nath Kao in disguise.

Kao served as the first chief of India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW). As the agency marks its 50th anniversary this month, ThePrint looks back at the incisive “father figure” who first led it.

Also read: After 50 years of RAW, there are still no declassified documents or an official history

A deputy director at the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Kao took over as director of RAW in 1968 after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi split the former to carve out an intelligence agency focused on international threats.

He began with a small team, 250 handpicked agents from the IB who would later be called the mysterious “Kao-boys”.

‘Architect of Bangladesh’

Known to be ruthless, Kao has come to be identified as the architect of Bangladesh for his role during the third war between Pakistan and India in 1971, when the erstwhile East Pakistan was liberated.

India’s intelligence forces had been operating in East Pakistan before 1971, becoming “active” only after the war began. Kao was in charge of the silent operations.

In the war, which lasted 13 days, RAW actively helped Mukti Bahini, the Bangladesh liberation force, triumph over West Pakistan. RAW is believed to have trained one lakh people who fought to free the country.

General Zia-ur-Rehman, president of Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981, is said to have told Indira Gandhi once that “this man [Kao] knows more about my country than me”.

In 1974, Kao was reportedly one of the first to warn Gandhi about a possible coup in Sikkim against the then ruling Chogyal dynasty. Fears that the Chinese may step in, and reportedly at the Sikkim ruler’s behest, India took over the state. A subsequent referendum saw most Sikkimese vote for a merger with India, and the erstwhile protectorate went on to join the country as its 22nd state in 1975.

Also read: The barely told stories of Indian and Pakistani spies making peace while waging war

After Gandhi’s government lost power in 1977, Kao too retreated into the shadows. Many say that this may have been because Moraji Desai’s government was suspicious of the agency’s role, especially during the Emergency.

The return

As Gandhi was re-elected in 1980, Kao returned and stayed on as her security adviser till her assassination in 1984.

“A little-known secret is Kao’s visit to China in 1984, laying the ground work for the subsequent ‘historic visit’ of Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988,” wrote former national security adviser and IB chief M.K. Narayanan in an obituary for Kao after his death on 20 January, 2002.

“For much of this period, Kao continued to function as the ‘eminence grise’ of the security establishment,” he added.

Kao was also entrusted by Gandhi to develop a better and more stable relationship with Mossad, the intelligence agency of Israel.

“Some analysts say Kao also had a substantial role in arming Tamil guerrillas in the late seventies and eighties and played a pivotal role in Sri Lankan affairs, even though he was no longer the hands-on man,” journalist Ranjit Bhushan wrote about Kao in another obituary.

Fiercely personal

Kao was born on 10 May, 1918, to wealthy Kashmiri Pandits in Benares.

He graduated with a Master’s in English Literature from Allahabad University, and went on to join the Imperial Police, the predecessor of the Indian Police Service, in 1939.

On 21 January, 1942, Kao married Malini, the daughter of Justice Tej Narain Mulla of Allahabad. They had a daughter.

Kao was known to have been a fiercely private man, and was rarely seen in public.

On 3 June, 1947, Kao was deputed to the central intelligence bureau, one of the few Hindus on a turf dominated by British and Muslim officers.

After Independence, Kao’s first assignment was to guard VIPs. When Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, visited Independent India in 1961, Kao was assigned to her security detail.

He was also the personal security chief of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. He was sent to Ghana in 1957, where he worked for a year and formed the country’s intelligence agency, Foreign Service Research Bureau (FSRB).

Kao also played an integral role in setting up the National Security Guard (NSG), an elite force that has proved invaluable in dealing with hijackings and terrorist attacks. Along with B.N. Mullick, he helped form the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and the Aviation Research Centre (ARC).

As a person, he had been described as “suave, brilliant, loving, caring, self-effacing”, with most remembering him as a father figure.

“Kao pulsated warmth and was essentially a father figure to all those who worked with and under him…” Narayanan added in the obituary.

“He was not only the founder of RAW… He is a legend,” former RAW chief A.S. Dulat said.

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