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India shakes the Foreign Hand—Nehru to Modi, PMs have deepened ties with Western spies

Even as Indian governments have warned of the peril from the Foreign Hand, they’ve been warmly shaking hands with it for a while now.

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The entire village is in the pub, drunk,” an irate East German Communist party official reported to Berlin. In the summer of 1953, a tidal wave of worker protests erupted across the new socialist republic, tens of thousands of citizens storming government offices, freeing political prisoners from jails, and beating up party functionaries. Finally, tanks were ordered in to confront protesters in East Berlin; elsewhere, soldiers opened fire on unarmed crowds. Many were killed, and thousands imprisoned.

In a secret report, the General Staff of the Soviet army reported that “the provocation was prepared in advance, organised, and directed from Western sectors of Berlin.” Few believed them—even inside the top Soviet leadership.

Last week, though, declassified documents emerged showing that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had funded anti-Soviet activists from at least 1949. The Fighting League Against Inhumanity, one of the key actors in the 1953 Germanrebellion, was “subsidised and guided by the CIA since its inception,” one document reveals. Even the highly-respected International Commission of Jurists traces its origins to the International Committee of Free Jurists in Berlin—which its financiers at the CIA knew as Project CADROIT.

To those schooled in the CIA’s sordid history, the idea of a malign power plotting regime change will be no surprise. Foreign Hands, politicians have long warned, are ceaseless in the efforts to mutate the motherland.

There’s a part of the story, though, that’s less well-known: Even as Indian governments have warned of the peril from the Foreign Hand, they’ve been warmly shaking hands with it for a while now.

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The Foreign Hand peril

Earlier this week, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) fired fresh shots in the long-running government campaign against foreign aid donors—this time, naming the Omidyar Foundation, which has provided funding to institutions like Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has earlier claimed that foreign-funded NGOs have been hatching conspiracies against him. Foreign-funded campaigns, the Intelligence Bureau claimed in 2014, were knocking up to 3 per cent off India’s GDP.

True or otherwise, Indian prime ministers have shown rare agreement on the Foreign Hand.

As early as 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru accused the United States of “buying up newspapers and spreading a network of publicity organisations.” Then, Indira Gandhi as PM assailed foreign powers plotting to “run down India.” CIA agents, American intelligence officer Russel Jack Smith wrote, “were to be found according to Madame Gandhi, beneath every charpoy and behind every neem tree.”

Even Manmohan Singh, arguably the most globalist of Indian leaders, had suspicions about the funding of NGO campaigns against the Kudankulam nuclear reactor.

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Shaking hands with the Foreign Hand

Left in “a tragic-comic state of helplessness” by the large-scale removal of personnel—and sensitive information—by their former colonial masters, India’s intelligence services consisted at independence of “the office furniture, empty racks and cupboards, and a few innocuous files dealing with office routine.” The Security Service, popularly known as MI5, soon began providing assistance. India became debilitatingly reliant on this relationship, Avinash Paliwal has recorded. “This is satisfactory,” an MI5 memo smugly noted.

In the summer of 1949, TG Sanjeevi, the first head of the Intelligence Bureau, travelled to the United States to explore setting up an alternate relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The visit was well-timed: India was battling an insurgency against communists in Telangana, and the IB hoped to secure counter-intelligence expertise.

Yet, the scholar of the India-United States intelligence relationship Paul McGarr has recorded, the meeting was an unmitigated disaster. Irked by the—notoriously-racist—FBI director Edgar J. Hoover, Sanjeevi let it be known he would oppose any relationship with the organisation.

Even though an FBI-IB relationship did not flourish, the CIA stepped in. BN Mullik, Sanjeevi’s successor, chose to turn a blind eye as the CIA ran secret flights supplying nationalist insurgents in Tibet. Exactly how much Nehru knew—or wanted to know—about this relationship remains unclear. According to scholar Christopher Andrews, Mullik kept much of the liaison with MI5 and the CIA out of Nehru’s view, fearing the prime minister would shut it down.

Historian John Garver has noted that “whatever the actual extent of Indian complicity with US covert operations, Beijing believed that Nehru knew of and cooperated with CIA efforts”—in part laying the foundations for the war of 1962.

Following the 1962 war, though, the relationship came into plain sight—or its equivalent, in the dark world of spies. India authorised CIA-operated spy planes to fly out of Charbatia, in Odisha. Espionage units by the CIA-trained Special Frontier Force were run out of a joint India-United States control room in New Delhi, while nuclear-powered surveillance equipment was planted in the Himalayas to gather data on China’s nuclear test facility at Lop Nur.

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The CIA in Indian politics

No evidence exists that the CIA ever sought regime change in India. Instead, there are disturbing suggestions it plotted to prop up the government. In 1959, McGarr writes, the CIA helped bring down the elected Communist Party of India government in Kerala. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another United States ambassador to India, wrote that the CIA funded Congress campaigns against the Left in West Bengal and Kerala. In one instance, he alleged, cash was directly handed to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In 1967, similarly, the KGB ran a steady stream of forged letters intended to smear Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s opponents as CIA stooges—an interference in domestic politics that invited no retribution from India’s government.

Oleg Kalugin, who led the KGB’s First Directorate—responsible for disinformation—claimed both superpower intelligence services had deeply compromised the government. “The entire country was seemingly for sale,” Kalugin wrote in his memoirs. “After a while, neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realising their enemy would know all about it the next day.”

Following the breakdown of the India-United States relationship in the build-up to the war of 1971, the anti-CIA polemic grew. There was, however, not a little daylight between public denunciations and covert intelligence arrangements.

In 1974, Moynihan claims to have been presented with demands for the expulsion of United States diplomats arrested on espionage charges.  At the same time, he writes, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) chief RN Kao lobbied for a visit by CIA chief William Colby. “The training Indians had received in the United States was of such quality,” Moynihan claimed Kao told him. “The Director of the CIA would be so welcome.”

The US sometimes protested the hypocrisy of India’s posture. In one letter to Kao, CIA chief George Bush—later President of the United States—grumbled about “statements by government officials linking CIA operations with occurrences in Amritsar [which] are completely contrary to the fact and quite distressing.”

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Dealing with damage

For the most part, political leaders have responded cautiously even when actual CIA plots are detected, seeking to insulate the relationship from damage. In 2004, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government played down the defection of R&AW officer Rabinder Singh, ensuring it did not damage a hard-won rapprochement with the United States. Two years later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh responded in much the same way to CIA penetration of the National Security Council.

Little has likely changed in the decades since—although archives aren’t quite so open. For all the political polemic about Western toolkits targeting India, India and the United States work closely on counter-terrorism and regional security. There are even efforts to bring India’s intelligence services into an expanded Five Eyes global intelligence alliance.

In spite of his dark suggestions about foreign-funded destabilisation plots, Prime Minister Modi’s years in office have seen the relationship between R&AW and the CIA steadily deepen.

Is the CIA spying on India? That’s its job. Does it seek to influence decision-making? That’s its job. Are India’s leaders worried? Perhaps—but they’re probably somewhat less anxious than their public speeches might lead us to imagine.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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