In the spring of 1993 bomb blasts in 12 locations across Mumbai killed 257 people and injured more than a thousand. The perpetrators, members of the underworld in collaboration with Pakistani intelligence, were sheltering in Pakistan. As Mumbai reeled from the bloodshed, the leader of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), prepared to strike back. For years, the agency had been infiltrating trained agents into Pakistan to serve as long-term moles. The R&AW station chief, with his sophisticated network of agents, knew exactly where the militants were.
But when the order came from the prime minister, it simply said track and report. The strike never came.
Over the decades since the R&AW was formed in 1968 by the prime minister Indira Gandhi, such political reluctance has caused much frustration within its ranks but has also helped the agency to maintain a low profile compared with other more ostensibly aggressive foreign intelligence services.
Last week, however, it was thrust into the global spotlight when the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said there were credible reasons to believe that Indian agents were behind a murder in a suburb of Vancouver this summer.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, an Indian-Canadian who had vocally campaigned for Sikh separatism and was wanted under India’s Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002, was ambushed by two masked gunmen in a car park outside his temple in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18.
Trudeau told the Canadian parliament that “any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty” and said that he had already raised the allegation with India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, at the G20 summit this month.
Delhi has vociferously denied the claims, calling them “absurd”, but the case has stoked curiosity about the R&AW, its methods and its goals. What is the truth about India’s external intelligence agency? Is it the relatively benign organisation that its innocuous name suggests or a well-oiled killing machine hunting down the country’s enemies beyond its borders like Israel’s Mossad? I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between, in the shades of grey where the agency operates.
Within India’s troubled history, the R&AW has operated according to the beliefs and policies of the country’s political leaders. After independence from British rule in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, refused to create a dedicated foreign intelligence agency, put off by bitter colonial experiences and a quest for principled foreign policy.
His daughter and successor, Indira Gandhi, felt that this obstructionist attitude blinded India to security threats. In September 1968 she created the R&AW by executive order, making it responsible for producing strategic intelligence and maintaining influence in neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan. During her two tenures, and that of her son Rajiv Gandhi, the agency received active political patronage. Yet it has never had a legal charter of duties. Consequently, the agency’s remit depends on the beliefs and policies of whoever is prime minister.
Some leaders sought to limit the agency’s operations; others had a more neutral attitude. Modi, since becoming prime minister in 2014, has actively backed the agency in its fight against security threats to India.
Despite their differences, all these politicians were opposed to assassinations. As a result, the agency, frustrated with the restrictions, became innovative, infiltrating and manoeuvring among criminal groups linked to terrorist organisations, working to divide and rule in order to — deniably — eliminate their enemies. The key factor behind these covert killings, though, has always been that the agency would never be the actual perpetrators.
Overseas expansion of the R&AW’s networks was initially focused on military threats from Pakistan and China. They gradually adapted to cover the terrorist threats from separatist groups that sought to break up the world’s largest democracy.
By 1970 R&AW stations in India’s neighbouring states, as well as Paris, Bonn, Istanbul, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Mauritius, Fiji, and Trinidad, were monitoring military developments concerning Pakistan and China.
As state-sponsored terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir and the threat of the Tamil Tigers grew during the 1980s, R&AW spread its networks to North America, southeast Asia, Australia, and the Gulf countries. Active support of separatism among the Sikh, Kashmiri, and Tamil diaspora pushed the R&AW’s expansion. However, operations were limited to monitoring and not killings.
As the threat from terrorist groups grew during the early 1990s, the Indian intelligence community was increasingly impressed by Israel’s success with targeted assassinations: Nazi war criminals and Egyptian weapons engineers shot dead, falling off balconies or poisoned, from Belgium to Brazil.
The agency’s enthusiasm was tempered by a lack of political backing. After it was stopped from striking back against the 1993 bombings, it started its infiltration of gangs. The doctrine, though not a written one, owes its origins to ancient Indian strategic thought. Deployable weapons include persuasion, bribery, dividing and conquering and, as a last resort, direct violence. Using the first three means, Indian intelligence has successfully managed several internal insurgencies, eventually co-opting separatist leaders into India’s mainstream democratic politics. The fourth option was always discouraged.
From the R&AW’s operational point of view, the divide and conquer policy was ideal in that it could result in the killing of their would-be targets without exposing the culpability of the agency. Since murders are the norm in these criminal environments, the agency only had to exploit this in their favour.
The R&AW has pursued this policy in neighbouring countries. The fake currency trade in Nepal help sustain terrorism in India and rival gangsters vying for control of the lucrative trade are engaged in tit-for-tat killings. Such gang wars have offered the R&AW deniable means of rupturing terrorism networks, which also does not always require political approval.
However, deadly incidents such as the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 in which 175 people died after a series of co-ordinated attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organisation from Pakistan, presented opportunities to question political reticence towards dedicated, targeted killings. Immediately afterwards, R&AW enhanced co-operation with Mossad to learn the requisite skills to conduct overseas assassinations. Yet this seemed like a knee-jerk reaction in the wake of a ghastly attack and produced no immediate results.
In 2014, when Modi appointed Ajit Doval (former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, India’s counterintelligence agency) as the national security adviser, his public reputation as the country’s James Bond stoked wild aspirations about India becoming the new Israel. Lost in this euphoria was the fact that Doval belonged to the intelligence culture that had successfully implemented the divide and conquer tactic in the past. Modi and Doval have operationally strengthened the R&AW through more staff and skills development. However, the answer to whether the old doctrine of exploiting divisions within the targets continues, or whether India has embraced a Mossad-style approach of direct involvement in overseas, targeted killings lies in the evidence that Canada allegedly holds.
If and when Canada releases credible evidence proving the R&AW’s involvement in the fatal shooting of Nijjar supporters of Modi will finally be able to rejoice that India is indeed the new Israel. The rest of the world is already busy recalibrating its thinking about the world’s most populous nation.
Courtesy: The Sunday Times, UK. Click here to read the original