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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Distancing from Cloak and Dagger
By Firdaus Ahmed
India is no stranger to intelligence operations. The founding director of its external intelligence agency, RAW, MK Kaw, is legendary. The RAW itself acquired its spurs in the run up to the 1971 War. While more is known of its work in raising, equipping and sustaining the Mukti Bahini, its contribution perhaps went way beyond that. If the start of the conflict is dated to the alleged hijacking of the Indian Airlines boeing to Lahore by Kashmiri separatists in February that year, then it can be credited with a shaping, stage setting role in the war. The incident enabled India to cut off air links overflying India between Pakistan's western and eastern wings. The indirect route via Sri Lanka led to the Pakistani military unable to fly in troops in response to the unrest; thereby leading to a heavy handed crackdown which in turn fed the Mukti Bahini with material and legitimacy. The success of 1971 elevated intelligence in the state repertoire. While the legacy of 1971 finally came to haunt India in Kashmir, the elevation has rebounded in an unexpected way in the rest of India. 

This is despite knowing that that intelligence indulgences have a tendency to bite back. Its subsequent forays into the intelligence game have had mixed results: be it the support for Al Zulfiqar and the like being reciprocated by ISI's Khalistan connection and its LTTE link leading up eventually to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This only underlines the well known fact that the intelligence instrument is double edged. The blowback from US and Pakistani support to the Mujahedeen is the best example. And yet, states seldom learn, condemned to repeating mistakes. However, in India's case the 'lesson' needs spelling out. 

Currently, the CBI noose is closing round the neck of Rajendra Kumar, a Special Director in IB looking towards retirement, for his doings as the IB representative in Gujarat during the infamous episodes of killings of supposed 'terrorists' out to get the chief minister, Mr. Modi. The problem is not in an officer going rogue, but in the pattern that emerges from incidents like Ansal Plaza and Batla House. There is the similar Sadiq Jamal case. The military intelligence has had its own scandal with its members spearheading Abhinav Bharat in a right wing conspiracy to paint India's minority black. There are instances of the investigation agencies in league with intelligence agencies, such as Maharashtra's ATS and Delhi's Special Cell, pulling their punches in following up on leads, hoping that their fingers pointing at extremist members of the minority are adequate evidence of the minority's culpability for terror acts. Such instances are legion in Kashmir, most notable and egregious being the Chittisingpora-Pathribal case. But the one with more extensive consequence was the sustenance of the unspeakable Ikhwan. However, the one that takes the cake is the revelation by RVS Mani, a formerundersecretary in the home ministry, implying that a constituency exists on an alternative version on the origin of the terrorist attack on Parliament.

There are reasons for the situation having come to such a pass. The ISI being a formidable opponent, perhaps required India to also allow the intelligence function greater autonomy than warranted in decent democracies. Second, India's association of late with the Americans and Israelis is also rubbing off on India, with India's capacity building being invested in by these states. Third, a government's misuse of the intelligence function leads the agencies in question to bid for greater impunity. Fourth, intelligence operations can help set the stage for pushing through other measures that would otherwise not be permissible. For instance, in the Parliament attack case, RVS Mani's revelations suggests that the attack may have been carried out to enable passing of 'draconian' laws. Lending credence to the theory is the timeliness of the attack in strategic terms to the launch India's largest military mobilisation, Op Parakram. 

Last, India's strategic culture has been somewhat somnolent. To conservative-realist quarters that are in awe of Kautilyan thought, India requires goading to exercise power. Leaving the threat perception and a challenging security circumstance to Pakistan to create was not enough. Pakistan's efforts required supplementing by black operations implicating it. This had useful diplomatic dividend. Also, it would come in handy in case India was to need a justification for 'Cold Start'. Increasing the terror attacks that could be attributable to ISI and its alleged internal abettors could in the event justify Cold Start as self-defence against cumulative attacks amounting to an armed attack.

However, these strategic reasons are less salient for intelligence agencies reaching levels of autonomy from accountability almost rivalling the ISI. The more significant reason has to do with internal politics. The conservatively inclined intelligence agencies have gravitated to the ideology of the right. This has compromised professionalism somewhat to the benefit of the right wing in polity that has taken care to penetrate the agencies as its first step in the take-over of the state. Therefore, if India lurched to the right over the nineties, the intelligence agencies went a step further, if not altogether overboard. The subsequent period of the NDA in government ensured that even if displaced from power, their residue would be firmly left behind on state institutions, in particular the agencies. State intelligence apparatuses under right wing governments in provinces were additionally available for black operations. Rogue elements with subterranean linkages to rightist political formations complete the picture. 

This is the direction to look at when contemplating the terror attacks India has been subject to over the past half decade and more, not excluding the latest one in Bodh Gaya. Since intelligence agencies themselves need to look in this direction, there is little likelihood of them doing so. This makes the case being made out here a 'conspiracy theory' for lack of evidence. The shortfall does not owe to evidence being wanting, but that it is not being looked for in first place. To insist would be anti-national. Further, painting a false picture is an intelligence function. In the Bodh Gaya case, the readiness to lap up the theory that this is Muslim backlash for the Buddhist suppression of Rohingya and Sri Lankan Muslims owes to the success of the narrative of Muslim extremism. This completes the circle in which there is then no compulsion to look for evidence.

To take another illustration, threat perceptions are manufactured to obfuscate the decline in terror instances in Kashmir since 2004, in order to keep justification for the military grip on Kashmir alive. They are plausible to begin with, such as Pakistan's refusal to dismantle the terror infrastructure and Kashmiri disaffection having potential to rekindle the fire. However, the narrative of threat is so pitched that the status quo represented by the AFSPA is frozen. Consequently, the several peace initiatives in Kashmir have been wrecked on the shoals of comments of intelligence czars on their practicability and consequences. The 'wait and watch' policy in place in Kashmir at least for half a decade now owes to the intelligence picture that come 2014, it would be back in business in Kashmir for Pakistan. Needless to add, such a self-fulfilling prophecy serves the interests of the security sector best. 

The inescapable conclusion is that intelligence agencies have not only been a major instrument of policy, but that this has been through policy choice. The unintended affect has been in India arriving at the cusp of reversal between the means and the master. What needs doing is not merely exercising political control over intelligence, but interrogating the understanding that makes intelligence the instrument of choice. This is the first step to keeping India secular, democratic and free over the long duree. 

(The author writes at

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