The Case for an Intelligible Agency

Why are Indian intelligence agencies allowed to run like a cabal, when their counterparts abroad follow the basic statutes for transparency?

Shazia Nigar Delhi 

The history and working of Indian intelligence is shrouded in mystery. The Intelligence Bureau, India’s prime agency focusing on domestic intelligence, falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs. An attempt to find an official website or narrative on the IB leads to a page, last updated in December 2010, with just one line: “Content for this page is being prepared by the ministry and would be available soon…” The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), which works on foreign intelligence, doesn’t even harbour the pretension of having an official webpage.

The IB, a colonial legacy, was established by the British in 1885 to gather intelligence on the Independence movement. The premise of the agency was a political one — to gather information on dissent by locals against the colonial British. Today, the agency works for the people it was established to work against and yet, very little has changed in its approach towards transparency and its statutory basis. Its most well-known failure was during the 1962 India-China war. BN Mallick, the then IB chief, played a crucial role in Nehru’s underestimation of the threat from China. He urged Nehru, along with VK Krishna Menon, to focus instead on Pakistan and “anti-imperialist forces”. After the humiliating defeat in the India-China war, R&AW was set up in 1968 on the orders of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to work on external intelligence. Both the IB and  R&AW have no statutory basis. They also function without any parliamentary or judicial oversight. Vikram Sood, who served as chief of R&AW, once said “Intelligence agencies must have a mystique.” If there is one rule that R&AW has lived by, it is this.

While little is known about the working of intelligence agencies, they have been credited with successful operations over the years. MK Dhar, former Joint Director, IB, in his book Open Secrets, India’s Intelligence Unveiled revealed the manner in which the external intelligence agency works with the intention of destabilising neighbouring countries to benefit Indian agenda. He wrote: “R&AW’s operations against the regional countries are conducted with great professional skill and expertise, which include the establishment of a huge network inside the target countries. It has used propaganda, political dissent, ethnic divisions, economic backwardness and criminal elements to foment subversion and terrorism to weaken these states in consonance with Indian regional ambitions.” Dhar alleges that the agency ran these covert operations in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Maldives. Ajit Doval, currently National Security Adviser to the PM, often surfaces in the retelling of these operations. Known as a master spy, he was the director of the IB in 2004-05, having served as chief of operations for over a decade. It is said the success of Operation Black Thunder, which was the final blow to the Khalistan movement, relied heavily on intelligence gathered by Doval. In May 1988, he posed as a rickshaw puller around the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As he was new to the area, Khalistani militants put him on their watch list and made contact after 10 days. He convinced them that he was an ISI agent sent to help them. This gave Doval access to crucial information like the strength and position of the militants within the Golden Temple, which he passed on to the security forces that carried out the search and flush operation. Doval’s bravado also led him to infiltrate the ranks of Pakistan-trained militants in Kashmir during 1993-94, and convince them to cooperate with the Indian government. He was responsible for the first turn around by a militant leader in the history of insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir, Mohammed Yusuf Parray aka Kukka Parray, who went on to contest elections and become an MLA. Known to be the brains behind the section on national security in the BJP’s election manifesto for 2014, Doval took a political turn after he retired from the agency. He is now the founder director of the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think-tank
with established links to the RSS. The think-tank is associated with the Vivekananda Kendra, based in Kanyakumari, established by RSS organiser Eknath Ranade in 1970. Among other things, the VIF was instrumental in several campaigns, like the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement that destabilised the Congress-led UPA II government.

Given the lack of a mechanism for accountability, the IB also poses a severe threat to Indian citizens, as was seen in the extra-judicial killings in the  Jahan case in Gujarat. The motive for engaging in extrajudicial killings by top officials in the agency is still not clear. In such a scenario, India could derive lesson or two out of the mechanisms for accountability and transparency developed by other nations.

Unlike their Indian counterparts, intelligence agencies belonging to the UK, US, Australia, Argentina, South Korea, South Africa, Canada, and Norway have detailed websites with information on their history, scope of work and mechanisms for accountability. In the UK the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6, which looks after overseas intelligence, the Security Service or MI5, which looks after national security and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which specialises in gaining intelligence from communications all have dedicated websites that explain their statutory basis, scope of function and even mechanism for accountability. India, however, has often shied away from making the working of its intelligence agencies transparent in the name of ‘national interest’, an argument that doesn’t hold considering the relative transparency and mechanisms for accountability displayed by intelligence agencies abroad.

These measures not only act as checks and balances against illegal acts of intelligence agencies but also go some way in gaining public trust. India has no mechanism in place to ensure rights of citizens adversely affected by the actions of intelligence agencies or for employees who work for them, especially field agents and whistleblowers, at great peril to their lives. In a nation fraught with contentions over fabricated cases, extrajudicial killings, and corruption, the only way ahead for these agencies is that of reform. MK Dhar, in an article for Rediff, wrote, “We fail because the IB is not allowed by the government to expose its wares to the larger audience of any parliamentary watchdog body. The country is not entitled to know why they fail and why they cannot be made fail-proof. The agency is out of bounds for the RTI Act of 2005. It should at least be made accountable to Parliament, so that people can know how their money is being spent and how the political masters manipulate the agencies. The people have a right to know. Failures cannot be covered up behind the veil of departmental security rules.”

Coming from a former Joint Director of the agency, these words should not be taken lightly.  

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2014