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India: R&AW Founder’s Strategic Intelligence Fusion

The finest intelligence operatives are indeed risk-takers, yet they aren't reckless thrill-seekers. They navigate dangers with calculated precision. Mr. Kao embodied this balance, and I believe your choice of words encapsulates it perfectly.

12 mins read
File Photo of R. N. Kao

The following article is based on an interview with Ramanathan Kumar by Nitin Gokhale of StratNewsGlobal on the occasion of the 106th Birth Anniversary of R.N. Kao

You can call him a spook, an intelligence operative, or an R&AW officer, but welcome to this program. It’s such a pleasure to have you here because you have studied Ramji Kao’s personality, as I have, since I wrote this book. So, tell me some big highlights of his personality’s impact on the organization you worked in for such a long time.”

Well, I must confess at the beginning that I am not one of those who had the privilege of really working or interacting with Mr. Kao in flesh and blood because by the time I joined government service and R&AW in the mid-1980s, Mr. Kao had sort of faded from the scene. The assassination of Mrs. Gandhi had taken place in 1984, and Mr. Kao had tendered his resignation as a senior advisor in the Cabinet Secretariat. I must also confess that, like all serving intelligence officers during most of my career, I was busy with the immediate here and now, firefighting on a daily basis. I had little time to think about the founder of the organization. But over time, thanks to various circumstances, I have had occasion to become aware of, as you said, the monumental impact that Mr. Kao had in founding and nurturing R&AW. And, of course, now in my retirement, perhaps I have had a little more time to reflect on some of these matters. Your work, of course, is that book you referred to, ‘R. N. Kao: Gentleman Spy Master,’ which is indeed one of the few very rare books that one can come across regarding an assessment of Mr. Kao’s work. There is, of course, much more work to be done because his papers have thus far remained with the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, now known as the Prime Minister’s Museum and Library. Some part of it has been released in the public domain, which you have skillfully used, but much more is still there, due to be released at some point in time. So I hope that scholars and researchers like you will do a little more justice.”

“Hopefully, there will be a follow-up. Let’s see. So, you know, it’s easy to perhaps dwell only on the positive aspects of indeed a great spymaster, and we’ll discuss some of those things in a little more detail. But if you permit me, I mean, just to assess Mr. Kao in a more rounded manner.”

“In a wholesome manner, yes. If you permit me, I thought I would read one passage from another wonderful book written by another legend in R&AW and in the intelligence community, the late Mr. B. Raman. A formidable intelligence operative and again, a great admirer of Mr. Kao, with whom he worked very closely. And in fact, the book is called ‘The Cowboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane.’ It’s full of memorable passages. Mr. Raman was a brilliant writer, among other things. But there is, in that book, a magical passage in chapter 3, which says, ‘Meet Mr. Kao.’ And in that, there is a purple passage, as I said, and if you permit me, I’ll just start with that.”

“And I quote, ‘Like any human being, Kao had his faults as well as his greatness. Like any leader of an organization, he had failures as well as successes. His judgment of men, matters, and events proved presciently right often and wrong on occasions. He was a complex mix of objectivity and subjectivity in matters concerning human relationships. He was a man of tremendous vision but was not uniformly successful in choosing the right men and women to give shape to his vision. His humility and mental generosity occasionally rendered him blind to faults in those around him. He trusted men and women to a fault, little realizing that some of those trusted by him were not worthy of it.'”

“And then he goes on to add the positive aspects. Despite all this, no knowledgeable person can dispute that Mr. Kao strode elegantly, effortlessly, and scintillatingly in the intelligence world of his time. In the intelligence world of yesteryear, Kao was first, the rest nowhere. He was a legend and deserved to be. The triumph of 1971, India’s role in the great game in Afghanistan, India’s assistance to newly independent African countries in building up their intelligence and security setups, India’s covert assistance to the African National Congress’s anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and to the independence movement in Namibia, the happy denouement in Sikkim and Nagaland in the 1970s, and in Mizoram in the 1980s, etc., etc. Kao was there in the midst of it all, active but unseen.'”

“It’s a slightly long passage, but it sums it up very well. Absolutely, a huge canvas. I think Mr. Raman has admirably summarized it all in the space of two paragraphs.”

“Yes. So if I were now to reduce poetry to prose, come down from the level of poetry to prose, I think the unique points about Mr. Kao were, above all, an institution builder with tremendous vision. And this was the age of institution builders in India, if one may say so, when Mr. Kao was active, from the Sarabhais and Babas and Setnas to the Swaminathans and you know, to the Kaos and Maliks and Rustamjis. These were all institution builders who set up institutions which have stood the country in good stead over a long period of time.”

“Exactly. These were all institution builders who set up institutions that have stood the country in good stead over a long period of time. And his another good friend Sam Manekshaw in 1971. Absolutely. Who again, you know, sort of gave that impetus to the Indian army after the 1962 defeat, and then of course. How true. Yeah. So they were, and it’s a you know, coincidence of history that they worked together in 1971. That’s right. It was apparently a very stormy relationship to begin with but became a beautiful one as they worked closer and closer together. Correct. So institution builder to begin with.”

“Right. Then secondly, of course, you know, his human relationships. Mr. Kao was, above all, it was the strength of his human relationships, whether it was, you know, the political leadership, or his peers, or indeed his subordinates, and even the last man at the lowest level. I think above all, his humility and compassion are something that always came through, no matter how tense the situation was or you know, however, whatever be the adversity that they were facing. This aspect of human relationships, I think Mr. Kao attached extraordinary importance to it. Team building.”

“I think he had this tremendous ability to delegate the right job to the right person. You and I have had the occasion to talk about, for instance, the role played by the late Vanindranath Banerjee, Nath Babu, as he was called. Right-hand man, whether it was the Bangladesh operations or the Sikkim operations. Mr. Kao trusted Vanindranath Banerjee immensely. Similarly, Mr. Shankaran Nair when it came to Pakistan, and there were a host of other stalwarts, the pioneers of R&AW, who came along with them, many of them from the external intelligence wing of the Intelligence Bureau to R&AW when it was formed by Mr. Kao at the instance of Prime Minister Gandhi.”

“So the right man in the right job, he was very particular about it. Third, another great thing about Mr. Kao, you know, I think was his ability to both see the larger picture and also pay attention to the finer details. You know, often in the intelligence business, with all, you know, the best of spymasters, I think they sometimes, and I include myself in that, sometimes we tend to develop tunnel vision and we get into the operational microscopics, which is very important; without that, you cannot do any kind of operations.”

“But if you get bogged down, in the intelligence parlance, it is called operator’s bias. You tend to get bogged down in your operations without seeing the larger picture. So Mr. Kao, I think, had the rare ability both to understand the larger picture of importance to the political leadership of the country and also to ensure that, you know, the finest of details were taken care of when it came to conducting operations.”

“If I may use a contemporary sort of expression, I mean, scholars these days say that intelligence consists of two parts. One is the sense-making enterprise; this is the analysis part of it. And the other is the shaping outcomes part of it, which is also called covert action by the Americans. So the sense-making part of the analysis part and the operational part or the shaping outcomes part.”

“Here again, I think the best are good at both, and in fact, to some extent, you know, this is a divide which has its importance, but, you know, you cannot have one without the other. You cannot, to my understanding, to the best of my understanding, you cannot shape outcomes effectively if you do not really understand the objective realities properly, and there is no point in just passively understanding the objective realities if it’s not put to any practical use. Mr. Kao attached tremendous importance to both these.”

“He would never run down one or the other. You know, he was extremely fastidious, if I may use the expression when it came to analysis, disseminating notes to government. He would correct the drafts put up by his subordinates, the best of them, with the finest of fine-tooth combs, which, well, I am afraid to say perhaps is not something that is taken so seriously these days.”

There was nothing slipshod about the operations; always, the pros and cons were examined, the risks and rewards. You know, again, there is an American saying that intelligence, the best intelligence operatives are risk-takers, but they are not risk-seekers. They are not reckless. Mr. Kao was, and yes, that’s a very, I think that’s a very apt expression that you have used.”

“In fact, if anything, one of the most striking things about Mr. Kao’s work is that he was a man of tremendous discretion, tact, and caution. You know, there was nothing reckless about Mr. Kao. He was not a Rambo kind of operative, and every single action was preceded by a very careful and methodical examination of the pros and cons, and then step by step, you know, various operational initiatives were put in place.”

“So that aspect of discretion, caution, I think the traditional, the hallmarks of a traditional spymaster, these were habits that Mr. Kao had honed to perfection. That’s right. So these are some of the, and of course, the last point, I mean, if I may say so if my answer has not become too long.”

“That’s fine. I think also, you know, the aspect of bringing professional objectives into perfect harmony with larger political or strategic objectives. Mr. Kao had a very fine political antenna, and so, therefore, I think he made sure that his, you know, the operational initiatives that the organization took.”

“They were in perfect harmony with the larger strategic or political objectives that the political leadership had in mind at that point in time when he was at the helm. When he was at the helm. So, you know, in his own sort of, I think language or words, I am paraphrasing, of course.”

“I think he was very conscious of the fact that, you know, intelligence can always bring an additional dimension to the decision-making table for the political masters to use, to make use of. If you had certain, you know, military options, diplomatic options in any situation, he would try to bring an intelligence option also to the table and then leave it to the leadership.”

“He was rarely photographed. He was a private person. When I spoke to his daughter, she said, you know, he was an artistic. He had artistic sensibilities. Absolutely. He was a great sculptor.”

“And this is what I have actually sort of, again, I am going to read like you. That what he said at that point in time that you know about him, what has been said is something that one must talk about. That he was generous.”

“He was a professional, sensitive, compassionate man. And somebody who was very distant and a stern spymaster in the public eye, if at all he was in the public eye. But he was very compassionate.”

“He was very sensitive to human sensibilities or human feelings. And that’s why I thought he could build these institutions and that’s why the headline of this book or the title of this book was chosen with care, if you remember that time. I didn’t call him a spy.”

“I called him a spymaster. And I think that aspect should be taken into consideration when we are talking about what happened in those years of the mid-’60s, late ’60s, turbulent 1960s. And one thing I got to know after I wrote the book was also how he was chosen by Mrs. Indira Gandhi to try and break the ice with the Chinese in October 1984.”

“I did mention it briefly in the book, but not much was available, but later I have met people who actually escorted him in Beijing. And who went and was talking to his interlocutors and at the highest level it was almost true that Mrs. Gandhi would have a talk with Deng Xiaoping at that time.”

“And that didn’t happen, of course, because of her assassination. But the very fact that even after his retirement, after he had hung up his boots formally in 1977 under whatever circumstances that I have written in the book, he was chosen to go and do the outreach to the Chinese.”

“So, these are histories, you know, great mysteries if I can say. If that had happened, what would have happened? Would we have come to the stage where we are today vis-a-vis the Chinese? Yes, in fact, that’s right.”

“These were developments that took place during Mr. Kao’s second coming, so to speak, as senior advisor in the Cabinet Secretariat 1981-84. There were, in fact, two initiatives. I will come to the China one was the second one.”

“There was a certain estrangement between India and the United States and there was always this, in fact, that’s one of the reasons why the R&AW was formed about, you know, the quote-unquote the foreign hand. I mean, Mrs. Gandhi and the leadership then felt that behind many of our internal difficulties there was a foreign hand.”

“So, India and the US were sort of, to use another famous expression, estranged democracies at that point of time. But when she came back in 1980, she used and brought back Mr. Kao from the cold as it were, the spymaster who came in from the cold. She sent him to the United States of America to, in a sense, you know, cut or to break the ice with the Reagan administration.”

“We had misgivings at that point of time behind the Khalistani movement which was really rearing its head at that point of time. There were sections of the American establishment, sections of the American establishment were possibly behind it. The Americans, of course, had their own doubts about our leaning towards the Soviet Union, etc.”

“So, Mr. Kao was sent there and why, that’s the important thing. Because the senior Bush was the vice president and the senior Bush had been the head of the CIA in the 1970s during Mr. Kao’s heyday. And the senior Bush and vice president Bush at that time and Mr. Kao had a very good equation.”

“So, that is why Mr. Kao was sent in 1981 and indeed the meeting that Mr. Kao had with the vice president Bush was extraordinarily helpful in paving the way for Mrs. Gandhi’s visit to the United States, historic visit to the US in the subsequent year in 1982 when she met President Reagan. And of course… And Rajiv Gandhi met President Reagan in 1985. That’s right.”

“So, of course, India and the US have travelled a long long way from there. But that was… The breakthrough moment. That was the breakthrough moment.”

“And similarly, you know, China, you are absolutely right. I think Mr. Raman has written about it in his book, so has Mr. Balachandran. Yes, in fact, I will touch on that also if we have the time.”

“On something that Mr. Balachandran has written, it’s very pertinent. You know, China, he was indeed in Beijing on that fateful day, October 31, 1984 when Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated, meeting the Chinese leadership. He had, you know, actually travelled incognito to Beijing.”

“And, you know, on, as far as China is concerned, you have, of course, written about it in your book as well. There is a whole chapter about what happened in Kashmir Princess. Crash.”

“Absolutely correct. That was 1955 or thereabouts. That is when Mr. Kaur was still possibly a young assistant director looking after VIP security.”

“And Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru actually chose him to become the pointsman. Absolutely. To do that joint investigation.”

“Absolutely. And from the Chinese side, it was none else but the redoubtable Chou Enlai. Yes.”

“The number two of the country. That’s right. Older definitely, I am sure, to Mr. Kaur at that point of time.”

“Yes. And he was a target actually. He was. That’s right.”

“He was supposed to have travelled on the plane which was bombed. But he didn’t travel on the Air India Kashmir Princess.”

“So, when the, it was during the Kashmir Princess investigation that Mr. Kaur actually struck up a very close working relationship with Chou Enlai. And he has written extensively on all that transpired during the Kashmir Princess investigation. That’s right.”

“Investigation. Chou, of course, was more experienced than Mr. Kaur at that point of time. And Mr. Kaur has admitted that Chou’s assessment that the UK and Hong Kong would not come clean on what really had happened in Hong Kong at that point of time.”

“He acknowledges that Chou Enlai’s assessment was correct. But Mr. Kaur had a long history of dealing with the Chinese leadership also at the highest levels, so to speak. So, yes, it was no accident that he was chosen for that outreach to the Chinese also.”

SLG Syndication

SLG Syndication is committed to aggregating excerpts from news published by international news agencies and key insights on contemporary issues published by think tanks. Our aim is to facilitate the expansion of its reach while giving due credit to the original source.

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