By the time Indira Gandhi left office in 1977, the RAW was drawing criticism for its shadowy functioning.
India created its intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) exactly 50 years ago. But to this day, there are virtually no declassified documents pertaining to its activities, nor has an official history been written. The contrast with other major democracies, which have facilitated inquiry into the histories of their intelligence agencies, is stark indeed.
But in India, it is difficult to offer a proper historical assessment of the organisation’s performance over these decades.
Even today, the RAW continues to run on the track that was laid down 50 years ago. The problems with this track were, in fact, evident within the first decade of its creation itself.
The decision to set up a separate agency to deal with external intelligence was taken against the backdrop of the perceived intelligence failures in the wars of 1962 and 1965. Hitherto, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had looked after both internal and external intelligence.
But the IB’s external capabilities had remained misshapen. The organisation failed to gauge the military preparation of China and Pakistan in the wars of 1962 and 1965. Although the IB came in for criticism, especially after the debacle against China, this singular focus on gaps in intelligence collection obscured wider problems of assessment and relationship with policymakers.
Under the leadership of B.N. Mullik, director of the IB from 1950 to 1964, the organisation cornered almost all functions of intelligence.
On paper, the Joint Intelligence Committee was the apex intelligence assessment body. But in practice, the IB produced assessments of its own reports – a violation of the basic norm that the collecting agency should not assess its own inputs.
More importantly, the IB shared these assessments directly with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, Mullik enjoyed extraordinary access to Nehru and played an important role in shaping his thinking about the threat from China. This had disastrous consequences. In the summer of 1962, the IB had picked up intelligence suggesting that the Chinese leadership was contemplating a major attack on India. Mullik passed these raw inputs to Nehru and defence minister Krishna Menon, but the IB’s assessment maintained that the Chinese would not go beyond frontier skirmishes.
The creation of the RAW addressed only one of the main problems thrown up by the two wars: the need for a dedicated agency that would focus on external intelligence. But the other institutional pathologies were perpetuated. The RAW’s design and powers came out of extensive discussions between its first chief, R.N. Kao, and the principal secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, P.N. Haksar. Three institutional features were worth noting.
First, the RAW was intended to be a covert organisation – unlike the IB whose existence was well known. Second, and again unlike the IB, it would not be under any ministry but come under the cabinet secretariat. Kao claimed that the RAW would need to coordinate with several ministries, but he was also keen not to be under the supervision of any minister or secretary to the Government of India. Third, even the cabinet secretary had only weak administrative oversight on the RAW. Indeed, Kao sought and obtained direct access to the Prime Minister for operational matters and assessments. Like Mullik, even Kao enjoyed a close working relationship with the prime minister for almost a decade.
During the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, the RAW came into its own. In early March 1971, over three weeks before the Pakistan army cracked down on the Bengalis, the RAW was in touch with the Awami League leadership and drew up contingency plans for providing them with arms and supplies. At this stage, Kao would directly brief the prime minister and then convey her decisions to Haksar.
Once the crisis broke, the RAW was designated as the sole agency through which the government would deal with the Awami League leadership. The RAW not only kept in touch with the Mukti Bahini, but unbeknownst to the Awami League leaders, it was also secretly training another militia – the Mujib Bahini – in case the Mukti Bahini went out of its control. These ill-thought through policies stored up serious trouble for Bangladesh after its independence.
The 1971 crisis, however, bolstered the RAW’s standing within the government and soon the agency was at the frontlines of other crises, including the annexation of Sikkim. Its existence and functioning could hardly be kept from the public glare.
By the time Indira Gandhi left office in 1977, the RAW drew a host of criticism for its shadowy functioning, including its alleged interference in domestic politics. In his recent biography of Haksar, Congress politician Jairam Ramesh reproduces an interesting letter drafted by Kao dismissing these allegations. Yet by removing the RAW from the purview of nearly all kinds of oversight, Kao himself ensured that the agency would periodically be mired in such controversies.
As with all national security agencies, including the armed forces, when it comes to intelligence outfits, democracies need to strike a balance between efficiency and control, expertise and legitimacy. These agencies’ control of sensitive information, their institutional identity shrouded in secrecy, their professional expertise in surveillance and covert operations are all essential to their functioning, but these also erode the practice of democratic governance and the liberties of the people.
Yet we currently have nothing more than executive control over the RAW and the IB. There is no parliamentary legislation governing their functioning. Nor do we have a standing parliamentary committee on intelligence. Even basic procedures suggested by recent national security committees such as periodic briefing of leaders of the opposition have not been implemented. The existing system suits the agencies and all incumbent leaders perfectly well. But in the longer run it risks undermining trust and legitimacy – as many other democracies have realised.
Historical understanding is also crucial to promote accountability. Perhaps, the government could make a start by allowing scholars to access an unpublished memoir written by Kao and kept in the Nehru Memorial Library. It would be a good starting point for reflecting on the RAW’s institutional story.
Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research.