Advisors and analysts use intelligence mishaps such as the Pulwama, Uri, Pathankot and Mumbai 26/11 attacks to draw attention towards a myriad of problems that plague India’s intelligence agencies. But reform advocacy is largely focused on increasing accountability of agencies by bringing them under parliamentary scrutiny and removal of defunct ones. These, however, tend to overlook what is at the core of intelligence – people.
First focus on the human factor
Earlier this month, Pakistan declined India’s request for consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav citing the International Court of Justice’s pending verdict on his death sentence. Pakistan claimed that Jadhav was on a mission for the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), a claim that India has officially denied. The incident has raised a more significant question about whether agencies are paying adequate attention to recruitment and training of human resources.
Reforms must first focus on this human factor which lies at the core of espionage. The Narendra Modi government took a step in this direction last year. In a mammoth clean-up drive, the government marked more than 70 senior and mid-level officers in the RAW for “compulsory retirement”. The decision may have been taken to create a leaner, more effective agency, but removing a significant number of people could lead to unintended consequences. Introducing changes to the recruitment process can help improve the capacity and the capability of the agency without complications.
Recruitment to the RAW
Currently, there are two routes of entering the RAW. The first is recruitment via the RAW Allied Service test (which forms the internal cadre) and the second, on deputation (either short-term or long-term) from the All India Services. Besides the Indian Police Service (IPS), deputation principally also includes the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Forest Service (IFS). While the idea behind recruiting from the civil services was well-intentioned, it has created two parallel cadres that has bred inefficiencies affecting the performance of the agency.
Interestingly, the RAW is the only external intelligence agency in India that includes members of the civil services, specifically the IPS. Most agencies around the world keep police work separate from intelligence gathering and analysis. The nature of work for the former is different and sometimes contradictory to the latter. Policework involves following defined processes set by law. Espionage, on the other hand, requires operating in the grey often outside laws of countries.
Given this fundamental difference, many nation-states prefer to maintain a clear distinction – internal intelligence work is part of law enforcement, making police support indispensable. The term ‘Intelligence’ is reserved for the external sphere where information is gathered through means that may not be entirely legal.
Catch ‘em young
As part of the Takshashila Institution’s Intelligence Reforms project, we suggest changes, which can be introduced at various stages of an officer’s career – from recruitment to retirement. Incremental changes to the recruitment process, for instance, would bring about significant improvement.
The RAW should open its recruitment avenues and engage individuals from different backgrounds with diverse skills and education experiences to fill positions. The existing practice of recruiting and training persons without technical specialisations and proficiencies leads to inefficiencies, particularly when candidates with these skills are available in the job market. Additionally, establishing an interface with private industries could create openings both in collection of intelligence and in providing non-diplomatic cover for postings.
By adopting a practice similar to the one employed by the CIA, India too can utilise university deans and retired intelligence officers as talent spotters for campus recruitment across Indian universities. These talent spotters can easily identify students who have a flair for foreign languages, are articulate in speech and writing and display strong interpersonal skills. Increasing student engagement by offering internships and asking retired officers to take on teaching assignments will allow intelligence agencies to tap into the university talent pool. Continued engagement with university students will serve a second objective of relaxing the element of secrecy enough to make working at the agency an attractive career option for students.
Currently, the average age of an officer on deputation to join the RAW is 32 years. He or she is 37 years of age when he or she becomes the first secretary and is eligible to take on overseas assignments. This would mean that in the short span of five years one has to master a foreign language, the tradecraft required and gain experience in handling area desks at a very young age. Investing in younger recruits not only increases the service years of individual officers, but also eliminates other problems that have plagued the RAW.
First, it is easier to instil a sense of belonging into the hearts and minds of young recruits who join the agency right after graduation than a civil servant who owes his or her allegiance to the parent service. Second, it puts an end to the ‘revolving door’ mechanism that allows civil servants on deputation to leave the agency and return to their parent service – a great liability for the intelligence agency.
Immediately after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the rules for deputation to the RAW also came under the scanner. While the rules continue to be debated, it is clear that the benefits of separating the civil services from external intelligence outnumber the benefits brought by an amalgamation of the two. There are better-suited solutions that should not be dismissed without exploration. Policymakers need to break away from the traditional line of thought and develop creative reforms. Without getting human resourcing right, intelligence reforms will remain incomplete.
The author is a Policy Analyst at the Geostrategy Programme of The Takshashila Institution.