New Delhi: Samant Goel, the chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), could become India’s longest-serving spymaster in four decades if the government decides to give him a second one-year extension of service next month. Goel and Intelligence Bureau chief Arvind Kumar were both given an extension of service that runs until 30 June this year, but the two could be asked to stay in office another year, highly-placed official sources said.
Rameshwarnath Kao, RAW’s legendary founder, served as the organisation’s chief from 1968 to 1977, presiding over the reconstruction of India’s external intelligence. Naushervan Framji Suntook, appointed to the position at just 53 in 1977, served for five years and ten months.
Two other RAW chiefs, Vikram Sood and A.S. Syali, held tenures in excess of three years. The chiefs of the intelligence services, as well as those of some other police organisations, are appointed for a two-year tenure.
Government sources said other candidates were, however, also being considered for RAW’s leadership, and no final decision had so far been made. The potential candidates include Sridhar Rao — like Sood, a former Indian Postal Service officer — who heads the Aviation Research Centre, the super-secret organisation responsible for gathering imaging and communications intelligence along India’s borders.
Another possible candidate, based on seniority in service, is Ravi Sinha, an Indian Police Service officer of the Chhattisgarh cadre.
The Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is another potential candidate for leadership of RAW. A 1985-batch Indian Police Service officer, who served for many years in both the Intelligence Bureau and RAW, Jaiswal was appointed to head the CBI last summer.
Inside RAW itself, the senior-most officer after Goel, Shashi Bhushan Singh Tomar, is scheduled to retire on 30 May, government sources said, which puts him out of contention. Tomar, famously, was among the hostages held on Indian Airlines flight IC 814, which was hijacked by the Jaish-e-Mohammed and taken to Kandahar.
Two other potential candidates for leadership of RAW before Goel’s appointment — highly-reputed Pakistan expert R. Kumar and Abhijit Halder — continue to serve the organisation on post-retirement contracts. Kumar is reputed to be writing an official history of RAW, while Halder has been tasked with managing propaganda operations in the diaspora.
India is unusual in having relatively short terms for its external intelligence chiefs. The heads of the British Secret Intelligence Service — popularly called MI6 — typically serve terms of five years or more, and are often recruited when in their early 50s. The head of the Central Intelligence Agency also broadly serves through the duration of a President’s tenure, and they’re often diplomats, rather than career intelligence officials.
Longer tenures, advocates of this practice argue, would give Indian intelligence chiefs the chance to engage in deep reforms, including the recruitment of technologists and language experts — areas in which RAW has been deficient. Executive leadership in the organisation is made up, in the main, of Indian Police Service officers given a six-month crash course in intelligence tradecraft.
Expanding operations, controversies
Goel — a former Indian Police Service officer who served in Punjab, and went on to head RAW’s London station in 2012 — is believed to have overseen a dramatic expansion in the service’s offensive operations against Pakistan-based jihadist groups, as well as Khalistan terrorism. It’s believed — though not confirmed — that one of these operations was the near-successful assassination attempt on the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s chief, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, in 2021.
RAW has also been seeking to grow its capabilities to gather intelligence on China, but the process has been hobbled by the limited pool of expertise available, a senior official said.
The organisation, however, has also found itself entangled in allegations that the Pegasus surveillance software it and other Indian intelligence services purportedly operated was used to target domestic dissidents. International controversy was also generated by an alleged RAW bid to kidnap fugitive diamond merchant Mehul Choksi.
Goel’s term as chief has been underpinned by a close circle of lieutenants, who have served in key positions through his entire tenure. Key RAW stations overseas, similarly, have seen officers staying in place for three years or more — unusual, given RAW’s past practices.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)