The wound of 1962 just would not heal; the humiliation just would not go away. And then came the 1965 war with Pakistan. In both wars, intelligence gathering and analysis was identified as a black hole. We simply did not get information in time. And when we did, it was not accurate.
The Intelligence Bureau was responsible for foreign and domestic intelligence, and somehow, in spite of immense resources and political reach, it failed to deliver. India needed a lean and specialized foreign intelligence agency that would do whatever it took to deliver and this agency would have carte blanche. It would operate in the shadows, and like smoke go where it wanted. It would operate globally in that grey area which would give India “plausible deniability”.
It would not be an “agency”, in the narrow Indian context, but a wing of the Cabinet Secretariat and hence not answerable to the Parliament of India. So, they decided to structure it on the lines of the Central Intelligence Agency of the USA.
In 1968, Indira Gandhi created the Research and Analysis Wing, under Mr. RN Kao, the legendary spymaster.
RAW was, in the beginning, a part of IB, but later branched off into an independent unit.
The role of RAW (or R&AW as its operatives like to call their mother agency) is hazy. It is however agreed that RAW takes “care of India’s interests globally”. Its role includes, but is not limited to, covert operations, foreign intelligence gathering, monitoring political, economic and technical (technology & science) development in ‘enemy’ countries, molding of opinion in foreign countries and other tasks that may be given from time to time.
There have been insinuations and accusations of RAW’s involvement in assassinations and overthrow of foreign regimes, thought unfriendly to India.
When former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 8 January 2015 election by a humiliating margin, he blamed RAW in an interview given to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. He said that RAW used the Indian Embassy in Colombo to stage-manage his defeat, because he was getting too close to the Chinese. Similarly, RAW was blamed for the 1 June 2001 massacre of the Nepalese Royal Family, by Prince Dipendra, the crown prince of Nepal. These allegations were made in 2001 by Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, who is the current Prime Minister of Nepal, and an avowed Maoist. Prachanda was blatantly pro-China and was pushing for mainstreaming the Maoist party in Nepal, towards total power. Some conspiracy theorists say that Prachanda is next.
However, RAW has always maintained that it neither has the mandate, intent nor capability to carry out such operations, and that it is simply an information gathering setup.
RAW is headed by Secretary (Research) in the Cabinet Secretariat, and is colloquially referred to as Chief of RAW. The position reports to the Prime Minister of India, but administratively Secretary (Research) reports to the Cabinet Secretary. For operational matters, Secretary (Research) works with the NSA.
Earlier, the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) was the umbrella organization responsible for coordination of intelligence efforts between IB, DIA (Defence Intelligence Agency) and RAW. But with the creation of the National Security Council, the NSC is the intelligence mother ship. It controls all intelligence organizations and is headed by the NSA.
RAWs first major success was the 1971 Indo-Pak war. It worked closely with IB, Indian Army, Navy & Air Force. It oversaw the recruitment, funding, training and deployment of the Mukti Bahini. In 1975, RAW oversaw the deposing of Sikkim’s Chogyal rulers and its integration into India as a state. It did the background intelligence work and the Indian Army did the rest.
Over the years, as the organization evolved, it started adding capabilities, all of them vicious. Some were sharp edged, the others blunt.
Electronic & Technical Services (ETS) and Radio Research Center (RRC) are two organizations that deal specifically with signals intelligence, collation of data, analysis and electronic warfare. ARC (Aviation Research Center) is a specialized unit that does aerial reconnaissance for RAW, and is also heavily involved in satellite imagery. National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) is responsible for very high-end electronic surveillance and Internet monitoring. It is, in effect, a highly technical intelligence gathering organization that is the feeder to other intelligence services and the Indian armed forces. It also has largely confidential capabilities in cryptology, remote sensing and cyber warfare.
In the mid-fifties, the CIA and the Intelligence Bureau established the Mustang Base, in Mustang, Nepal. This base was used for training Tibetans in guerilla warfare and covert operations behind enemy lines.
Cut to the disaster of 1962, and Intelligence Bureau put an enormous amount of pressure on Prime Minister Nehru. The time for peace with China was over. “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” was a lie. IB was cryptic and clear. India needed a Special Force, which could fight deep inside China, a high altitude specialist force consisting of soldiers who were born and raised in such super-high altitudes. This force would have the best weaponry and would consist entirely of paratroopers.
On 14 November 1962, Special Frontier Force (SFF) was created. The core groups consisted of pure Tibetans.
The SFF would be used for covert and clandestine intelligence gathering operations, spec-ops inside Chinese territory, direct action, reconnaissance and other secret missions. CIA, US Green Berets and India’s Intelligence Bureau trained the force. Though exact numbers are not known, its strength is said to stand at 10,000 today. SFF is stationed at Chakrata in Uttarakhand. It is also known as Establishment 22 and was so called after its first head Maj. Gen. Sujan Singh Uban who had earlier commanded 22 Mountain Regiment. If you find army officers, referring to something called “VIKAS”, it is the SFF battalions they are speaking about.
RAW had all its bases covered, except one. It still felt the need for a very small unit of highly elite Special Forces soldiers and officers. This unit would carry out what is commonly known as “black ops”, an oft-used euphuism for selective operations with total and absolute deniability. These operations would be so sensitive and secret that the Government of India would never own up to them. It would bluntly deny any knowledge of the operation. This unit would not exist on paper. It would be a “ghost unit”.
In 1981, the Directorate General of Security launched Project Sunray. A colonel of 10 Para SF was quietly moved out from his unit and asked to handpick 250 of the best Special Forces men he could find.
This was the ultra-secret Special Group (SG), the existence of which was denied for years before it was hesitatingly accepted. Even now its officers and men cannot be photographed. The SG became RAW’s hammer. It would carry out operations that were too dangerous, too secret or just too inconvenient for anyone else to touch.
The core of SG is Para SF and it is stationed in Sarsawa (UP).
SG has been deliberately kept in the shadows. The only time people saw SG operators was after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. There was no SPG (Special Protection Group) at that time to protect the PM. Indira’s own bodyguards had killed her. No one could be trusted. The Indian Army does not guard politicians, not even the PM of India. There was no alternative. The task was given to RAW. Suddenly, the power corridors of New Delhi woke up one fine morning to tall bearded men with long hair carrying sophisticated automatic weapons. These men donned black dungarees and wore no ranks. They enforced an absolute wall of silence; no one knew what was happening. They protected Rajiv Gandhi till the time the SPG was created in 1985. And then they went back to Sarsawa.
I had the opportunity to interact with a Delhi Police veteran who spoke of those dark days when Delhi had descended into chaos. He had to meet someone at the PMO and ran into two SG operators. “They were terrifying”, he said. I asked him why he though so. “I don’t know. They were really quiet and menacing. They did not speak. I have spent my life in the police. The eyes never lie. These guys…their eyes were dead. No emotions. Yes, they were terrifying”.
There have been rumors about SG operations in the media. Were they involved in Operation Bluestar? Does SG operate in civilian clothes in Kashmir? No one knows for sure.
RAW has always been extremely secretive. Everything is always on a strictly “need to know” basis. They are paranoid, and for a good reason.
It was 1978 and RAW was desperate to know about the progress Pakistan had made in uranium enrichment. But the Khan Research Laboratories at Kahuta in Pakistan was guarded like a fort. There was no way to get information. It was then that a RAW operative in Pakistan hit upon an idea; simple yet brilliant. Scientists came outside the complex to get haircuts. He started collecting hair samples from barbershops in Kahuta. The hair samples of scientists were sent to India. The laboratories here confirmed India’s worst fears. Pakistan had developed the ability to enrich uranium to weapons grade quality.
RAW soon had agents inside Kahuta. Information began to flow. It was during a phone call between Morarji Desai and Gen. Zia ul Haq that the Indian PM inadvertently let slip that India knew what Pakistan had achieved in Kahuta. It was a slip of the tongue. Repercussions followed. Zia ordered a “cleanup” of Kahuta. RAW agents were caught and killed.
In the mid-eighties, RAW had managed neutralize Pakistan’s ISI by setting up two secret units called Counterintelligence – X (CIT-X) for Pakistan and Counterintelligence – J (CIT-J) for Khalistan. ISI used to smuggle drugs and weapons into India using trusted smugglers and routes. RAW corrupted those smugglers and started sending weapons back into Pakistan using them. This program was so successful that ISI stopped interfering in Punjab.
In 1997, RAW suffered a massive setback. Prime Minister IK Gujral wanted peace with Pakistan. And he wanted peace to such an extent that he ordered the closure of CIT-X and CIT-J, as a goodwill gesture towards Pakistan. It is said that hundreds of agents and their identities were compromised. Many RAW assets inside Pakistan were killed. This set back RAW capabilities by decades, a setback from which they have still not recovered. It takes backbreaking work and funds to create an operative or a double agent. And it takes time, trust and bandwidth.
The CIA has gone on record to say that RAW provided valuable inputs leading to the neutralization of Osama bin Laden. It was RAW that sent a message to ISI telling them that President Parvez Musharraf was about to be assassinated. Musharraf was saved just in time. They did this possibly because at that time the Govt. of India wanted Musharraf alive. And it was RAW that launched Operation Chanakya and engineered a vertical split in the Kashmir based terror groups. It created pro-India groups that started decimating the ranks of terrorists.
RAW has been involved in almost each high security operation or incident since the time of its inception, be it Kargil or 26/11. They have trained African intelligence agencies to work against the apartheid regime in South Africa, launched Operation Cactus to save a friendly regime in Maldives from external invasion, and gave accurate and actionable intelligence for the Indian Army to be able to launch Operation Meghdoot in Siachen glacier. It even trained a RAW operative so well that he was able to join the Pakistan Army as an officer and rise up to the rank of a Major.
According to Chanakya, there are four ways of defeating an enemy.
“Saam” is by way of giving counsel and advise and our diplomats follow this path. “Daam” is by way of enticing by money and rewards and our political leaders do this by investing in other countries to buy influence. When the above does not bend people to our will, “Dand” is used. This is by way of using force and is done by the armed forces of India.
But sometimes, India has to use the fourth path advocated by Chanakya, called “Bhedh”. This is by way of deception. RAW follows the fourth path.
You cannot always protect a nation by following the rulebook. Enemies, who mean us mortal harm, surround us. And they do not abide by the norms of ethical conduct of war. They use subterfuge and cunning. They are guided by deceit and lies. Hence our answer must be in the same language of subterfuge and deceit.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in January 2017, I sat down for lunch with a former RAW officer. We were in Connaught Place, New Delhi and we spoke about everything but work. That was the understanding. But I had to ask him one question, and I did. “Sir, why do you do what you do”.
What he said will stay with me forever.
“I follow no rules. Maybe there is no morality in what I do. But my sworn dharma is to protect India. I will make any compromise, go to any length and break any rule of God and man to protect India. I know I will never be acknowledged. My work is such. And I willingly choose to live in the shadows”.
As we finished lunch, I walked him outside the restaurant. We shook hands.
“Jai Hind, Sir”, I said in the time honored Indian Army tradition.
“Jai Hind, Major”, said the old spy.
He put on his golf cap, wrapped a muffler around his neck and walked away slowly, merging into the lazy Sunday crowd.
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)
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