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R&AW officers abroad short on local language skills. Big challenge to intel gathering

Officers in crucial postings like China don't know the local language, says sources, which affects their work of raising and developing human intelligence or building local connections.

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New Delhi: Lack of language expertise among Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officers, posted overseas as the “eyes and ears” of India, especially in adversarial states, seems to have become a challenge for the agency, ThePrint has learnt.

Most officers sent overseas, especially to crucial postings such as China, do not know the local language, which affects their work that involves raising and developing human intelligence or building a local connection, sources told ThePrint.

Speaking to ThePrint, a source in the agency accepted this challenge as “real”, but added that knowing a language is not the only thing that is taken into account while making these postings and it is not an “overwhelming factor”.

“Language skills definitely play a role. For instance, someone who knows Mandarin Chinese would be preferred to be posted in China-watching stations. But for someone who doesn’t know the language, the agency has language specialists who are in assisting positions. It, of course, may not be the ideal situation,” the source said.

“The officer who is posted in a country should know his desk well. He should be thorough with the country’s affairs, its history, politics and should be able to anticipate developments,” the source said.

“But of course, if the officer knows the language, it is a big plus, which does not happen very often as there are only few people who actually know the language of the country they are posted in,” the source said.

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‘Raising human intelligence requires language skills’

A former senior officer who worked with the agency, however, stressed on the need for officers to gain language expertise.

Raising human intelligence overseas requires language skills and domain knowledge, something the department must ensure, he said to ThePrint.

“The idea of compensating for the lack of language expertise by having a cadre of linguists is not adequate. Posting an officer overseas without a command over the language is a waste of time, effort and money,” he said.

“Officers may say that it is not essential to one’s posting since there is assistance available, but that is only when the posting is in a country with a friendly foreign agency, not in an adversarial state,” the officer explained.

The officer added that the agency should have professionals equipped both with language skills and domain expertise.

The officer further suggested that for this to happen, the induction into the agency has to be done at an early stage when languages can be learnt.

“The average age of inductions into R&AW for any officer is 38 to 40, when they come on deputation after serving five to eight years in service, an age which makes it difficult to learn languages. This is what needs to be addressed,” the officer said.

A second retired officer said to ThePrint that in such assignments, knowing the language plays a crucial role as it requires public dealing and developing sources.

“You cannot take an interpreter for a personal meeting, if you are meeting an important person. Working with interpreters is a slow and cumbersome process. The best way to go about it is to know the language yourself. If you know the language, it is a big advantage and if you do not, it definitely is a challenge, a drawback,” the officer said.

‘Language just a variable’

An intelligence expert who has also served in the agency, however, told ThePrint that language is a variable, but should not become an “overwhelming factor” for these postings.

“When the postings are done abroad, it is an all-encompassing brief. You are supposed to have an idea of what is happening in that country since you are the eyes and ears of India there and you convey it back home through different channels. It is true and even more important for neighbouring countries but there are several other factors that matter in the success or failure of an officer and language has a limited role to play,” the officer said.

“There is much more to it and this is an oversimplification of the issue,” the officer said.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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