The 1971 war highlighted two major deficiencies of the R&AW. The first was its poor capability for the collection of maritime intelligence in the Indian Ocean region. The second was its lack of capability for the collection of human (HUMINT) and technical intelligence (TECHINT) about the US and its activities directed against India.
The hostile attitude of the then US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to India, their ill-concealed attempts to prevent an Indian victory, their perceived collusion with China and their exploitation of Dr.Jagjit Singh Chauhan and other Khalistani elements to create embarrassment for India convinced Indira Gandhi that after Pakistan and China, the US should receive the priority attention of the R&AW.
Despite the resignation of Nixon in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, she felt that there was no change in the US hostility to India. She was further convinced that the US hostility was not only to India, but also to her as the Indian leader. She feared that the US intelligence was trying to destabilize her Government as a punishment for her action in East Pakistan. She started seeing the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) everywhere—-in the setting aside of her election to the Lok Sabha, in the mass movement against her started by Jai Prakash Narain, in her defeat in the elections of 1977, in the allegations made by the Government of Morarji Desai that her party had accepted money from a French oil company, in the various enquiries ordered by the Morarji Desai Government against her and Sanjay Gandhi, her son, and in the outbreak of terrorism in Punjab.
She (Indira Gandhi) feared that the US intelligence was trying to destabilize her Government as a punishment for her action in East Pakistan.
Her fears were not totally imaginary. Between 1971 and her assassination in October,1984, the PSYWAR Division of the CIA mounted a vicious disinformation campaign against her projecting her as a Soviet surrogate. All sorts of false stories regarding her were disseminated through compliant foreign journalists. These stories alleged that she had agreed to give base facilities to the Soviet Navy in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in Vizag, that a large number of Soviet military officers were attached to the Indian Armed Forces in various capacities, that experts from the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, had played a role during Operation Blue Star in June 1984, when the Indian Army raided the Golden Temple in Amritsar to flush out the terrorists etc.
The CIA’s disinformation campaign against Indira Gandhi was at its height between 1971 and 1977. It was discontinued between 1977 and 1980 when she was out of power, but even during this period, the CIA had a piece of disinformation about the Congress party accepting money from a French oil company during the Emergency planted on the Morarji Desai Government through a retired Indian military officer living in Europe. An enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into this allegation ordered by the Morarji Desai Government could not prove it.
While the CIA and other agencies of the US intelligence community were not prepared to give any assistance to the R&AW in relation to Pakistan, they were always positive in their response to requests relating to China.
After Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, the disinformation campaign against her was revived. Whereas before 1977, the disinformation campaign was triggered off by her actions in Bangladesh and by the Pokhran I nuclear test of 1974, the post-1980 disinformation campaign was caused by what the US perceived as the Indian support to Moscow on the Afghanistan issue and by US suspicion that the R&AW was collaborating with the Khad, the Afghan intelligence agency, and the KGB against US interests.
Dr.Chauhan, who had practically suspended his Khalistan movement after Indira Gandhi was defeated in the elections of 1977 and returned to India, went back to London and revived the movement in 1980. Starting from 1981, there was a mushrooming of Khalistani organizations—-many of them operating from the UK, the US and Canada. Dr.Chauhan had easy access to Congressional committees and members and made allegations of violations of the human rights of the Sikhs. He also carried on propaganda regarding alleged military links between India and the USSR.
Worried by the increasing fraternization of elements close to the Ronald Reagan administration with the Khalistani and other anti-Indian elements, Kao, in his new post-retirement capacity as the Senior Adviser to Indira Gandhi in the Cabinet Secretariat, visited Washington DC and met George Bush, the father of the present President, who was the Vice-President under Reagan. Kao had known Bush when the latter headed the CIA in the 1970s. He tried to remove US misapprehensions about India’s policy on Afghanistan and expressed his concern to Bush about the attention given in Washington DC to the Khalistani elements. This meeting led to an improvement in the atmosphere and the Khalistani elements found that they were no longer as welcome in Washington DC as they were before. Indira Gandhi’s warm meetings with Reagan at Cancun in Mexico in October,1981, and at Washington DC in July,1982, also contributed to the improvement in the atmosphere.
Despite this, suspicion persisted in the Congress Party that the CIA’s malevolence towards Indira Gandhi had not ceased. There was even suspicion of a possible CIA hand in her assassination by two of her Sikh security guards in October 1984. After her assassination, it came to notice that before her death an American academic had undertaken a study of what could happen in India after her death. Rumour-mongers tried to project this study as an indicator of a CIA involvement in her assassination. An enquiry into their allegation could not prove this suspicion.
The post-1971 disinformation campaign of the CIA against Indira Gandhi led to a peculiar situation for the R&AW. The operational and analysis divisions of the CIA were cordially co-operating with the R&AW in the coverage of China. At the same time, its PSYWAR Division was trying to undermine the authority of Indira Gandhi.
During the Clinton Administration, the CIA did not hesitate to penetrate the Intelligence Bureau at a very senior level.
These things may seem strange to those outside the intelligence profession, but intelligence professionals take them in their stride as normal occupational hazards. The excellent relations of the French Government headed by President Francois Mitterrand with the Governments of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi did not prevent their external intelligence agency from penetrating the office of our Prime Minister and stealing volumes and volumes of sensitive documents relating to the clandestine operations of the R&AW and the IB. The cordial relations of the Ronald Reagan administration with the Rajiv Gandhi Government did not prevent the CIA from penetrating the R&AW office in Chennai and stealing many of its files. During the Clinton Administration, the CIA did not hesitate to penetrate the Intelligence Bureau at a very senior level.
During the present administration of George Bush, who never tires of expressing his admiration for India and its leaders, the CIA did not hesitate to penetrate the R&AW and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), which is a part of the Prime Minister’s Office. The CIA not only penetrated the R&AW through Rabinder Singh, but also took him out of the country reportedly with a US passport under an assumed name when he was about to be arrested. The Government managed to suppress the seriousness of the penetration of the NSCS by the CIA. Benevolence and malevolence go side by side in the relations between intelligence agencies.
Indira Gandhi and Kao felt the urgency of giving the R&AW a capability for the collection of intelligence about the USA””-particularly about the movements and activities of the US naval ships in the Indian Ocean region.
The post-World War II period saw an increase in co-operation amongst the intelligence agencies of friendly countries for mutual assistance in matters relating to counter-subversion, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. India has had a long history of intelligence co-operation not only with the other member-countries of the Commonwealth excepting Pakistan, but also with the erstwhile USSR and other Communist countries of East Europe and, more importantly, with the US.
Active and fruitful intelligence co-operation with the US dates back to the early 1950s during Jawaharlal Nehru’s Prime Ministership. This picked up momentum after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The momentum was maintained even during the troubled days of Indo-US relations after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, under Indira Gandhi. Many senior Indian intelligence officers of the pre-1990s had undergone some intelligence training or the other in the UK or the US. The Directorate-General of Security (DGS), which came into being after the 1962 disaster, was set up with American and British assistance.
India had considerably benefited from the co-operation of the R&AW with the CIA and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) of the UK, popularly known as the MI 6.The CIA played an important role in helping the IB initially and then the R&AW to strengthen their operational capability with regard to China. While the CIA and other agencies of the US intelligence community were not prepared to give any assistance to the R&AW in relation to Pakistan, they were always positive in their response to requests relating to China.
It was, therefore, felt that the positive side of this co-operation must be maintained and should not be allowed to be affected by the PSYWAR campaign against Indira Gandhi. At the same time, Indira Gandhi and Kao felt the urgency of giving the R&AW a capability for the collection of intelligence about the USA—-particularly about the movements and activities of the US naval ships in the Indian Ocean region.
A number of steps was initiated in this regard such as opening new monitoring stations in India’s island territories and opening new R&AW stations in countries in the Indian Ocean region. The possibility of tapping the R&AW’s liaison network for the collection of intelligence about the US was also explored. The liaison with the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency, brought in some inputs, but those were not sufficient enough. The other countries with which the R&AW had a liaison relationship such as the UK, Canada, West Germany, Israel and Japan were close to the US and, hence, could not have been expected to help India in this regard.
After a careful examination of the various options, Kao decided to explore the possibility of approaching the SDECE, as the French external intelligence agency was then known (it is now known as DGSE), for assistance in improving the R&AW’s capability for the collection of maritime intelligence in the Indian Ocean region and for intelligence and assessment sharing regarding the US. In the French language, SDECE stands for Service For External Documentation and Counter-Espionage. DGSE stands for Directorate-General for External Security.
After the exit of the French President Gen.Charles de Gaulle and the death of his successor Georges Pompidou, the relations between the US and France had improved under President Valery Giscard d’Estaing (1974 to 81). Paris had started once again to participate actively in the activities of the NATO. However, despite this, the French continued to nurse misgivings and reservations regarding the US. It was, therefore, felt by Kao that they might be more positive to India’s request for assistance.
The SDECE was then headed by Le Comte Alexandre de Marenches, an officer with a military background, who was half French, half Scottish. The then Indian Ambassador to France was a Bengali, who had come to the Indian Foreign Service from the Armed Forces. He had a French-speaking wife from Luxembourg. He was a close personal friend of Michel Poniatowski, who was the French Interior Minister. At the request of Kao, the Ambassador conveyed to Poniatowski the R&AW’s interest in a liaison relationship with the SDECE.
The idea was that the French would provide the required technology, equipment and technical advice, the SAVAK would provide the funds to the French and the R&AW would provide the skilled manpower to man the TECHINT stations to be set up for this purpose.
Alexandre de Marenches immediately responded positively and invited Kao to visit Paris for a discussion on this subject. Kao did so and was warmly received. The visit led to an agreement on the setting up of a liaison relationship for the collection and sharing of intelligence regarding the movements and activities of the US and Soviet naval fleets in the Indian Ocean region. Kao wanted it to be a bilateral project between the R&AW and the SDECE. Alexandre de Marenches proposed a trilateral network by also bringing in the SAVAK, the Iranian intelligence agency under the late Shah of Iran. Kao knew the Shah well. He liked the idea and accepted it. The Shah of Iran was amongst the closest allies of the US. He owed his continuance in power to the CIA and had reasons to be grateful to it. However, despite these factors, he felt the need for keeping a wary eye on the US. Difficult to believe, but true! Indira Gandhi was not the only leader, who did not feel comfortable with the US. Many supposedly close allies of the US did not either.
The idea was that the French would provide the required technology, equipment and technical advice, the SAVAK would provide the funds to the French and the R&AW would provide the skilled manpower to man the TECHINT stations to be set up for this purpose. The produce of these stations would be shared by the three services. The head of the Monitoring Division of the R&AW, a retired military officer from the Army Signals Corps, who had distinguished himself during the 1971 war, was put in charge of this project in the R&AW.
Kao decided that I would be posted in Paris to liaise with the headquarters of the SDECE on behalf of the R&AW. He also decided that I would be based in Paris under the cover of a journalist for an Indian newspaper and not as a diplomat working in the Indian Embassy there. Till then, the practice had been for all overseas field officers of the R&AW to work under the cover of diplomats. Foreign intelligence agencies use both diplomatic and non-diplomatic covers for their officers posted abroad, but the R&AW had not experimented with a non-diplomatic cover till then.
I was selected for two reasons. I had done a course in journalism in the University of Madras in 1956 and worked in the Southern editions of the “Indian Express” for four years before joining the Indian Police Service in 1961. I had studied French for four years in the Alliance Francaise of New Delhi between 1970 and 1974 and acquired a fairly good working knowledge of the language.
There is an unwritten code of conduct in liaison relationships under which officers posted in a country for liaison purposes cannot undertake clandestine espionage operations directed against the host country.
Kao sought the assistance of the late G.Parthasarathi for persuading “The Hindu”, the well-known national daily of Chennai, to give me accreditation as their correspondent in Paris. The idea was that all the expenses towards my emoluments, office and travel as a journalist would be met by “The Hindu” and the expenditure thus incurred by them would be re-imbursed to them by the R&AW.
After discussing this idea with the person concerned in “The Hindu”, Parthasarathi informed Kao that the newspaper owners were agreeable in principle, but before giving their final approval, they wanted to interview me. Kao said that he would take the clearance in principle of Indira Gandhi before I went to Chennai for the interview.
A couple of days later, Kao called me to his office and said: “The Prime Minister does not like the idea of your working there as a journalist. You better go as a diplomat.”
After undergoing the required training in the training school of the R&AW, I arrived in Paris in April,1975, and took over as First Secretary in charge of UNESCO. Subsequently, the Ambassador changed my cover job as Consular Affairs instead of UNESCO. Thus, I worked in the Indian Embassy in Paris till September 1979 as the First Secretary in charge of Consular Affairs (passports and visas).
The heads of the Indian diplomatic missions in those countries were opposed to a clandestine monitoring station of the R&AW functioning from within the premises of their mission.
Some weeks after I had joined the Embassy, Kao came to Paris and introduced me to Alexandre de Marenches as his representative to liaise with the SDECE. The two agreed that my charter would be assisting in the implementation of the project for the collection of maritime intelligence regarding developments in the Indian Ocean region, and sharing of intelligence and assessments regarding developments in Indo-China, China, West Asia, the Gulf countries, North Africa and the US.
There is an unwritten code of conduct in liaison relationships under which officers posted in a country for liaison purposes cannot undertake clandestine espionage operations directed against the host country. Thus, I was debarred from collecting any intelligence from French nationals—whether working in the Government or the private sector. Before leaving Paris, Kao briefed me that while I should follow this strictly and refrain from raising any French national as a source for the collection of intelligence, I could undertake clandestine espionage operations directed against Pakistan, China and other countries through non-French sources. Subsequently, in 1978, as the Islamic movement against the Shah of Iran gained momentum in Iran, coverage of Iran through Iranians living in France became one of my priority espionage tasks.
So far as the implementation of the joint project for the collection of maritime intelligence in the Indian Ocean region was concerned, my job was merely to act as a facilitator for meetings involving the Monitoring Division of the R&AW and its counterparts in the SDECE and the SAVAK. A number of meetings were held in Paris, Teheran and New Delhi in 1975 and 1976 and a detailed project report was drawn up. The project report called for the setting up of two big monitoring stations in India—-one each on the East and the West coast and two stations abroad.
The full implementation of the joint project with the French and the Iranians would have required the recruitment of a large number of technical personnel. This became out of question under Morarji Desai.
The French started supplying the equipment and, with the help of their experts, the two monitoring stations in Indian territory were set up without any difficulty. Problems arose with regard to the overseas monitoring stations. At the request of Kao, who personally knew the leaders of many countries in the region, two well-located countries agreed to the R&AW setting up the monitoring stations in their territory, provided they functioned from the local Indian Embassy premises. The heads of the Indian diplomatic missions in those countries were opposed to a clandestine monitoring station of the R&AW functioning from within the premises of their mission. They were worried that if the information about it leaked out, there could be an embarrassing political controversy, which, they felt, could damage India’s relations with that country.
As a result of this, the two overseas monitoring stations as envisaged in the joint project report could not be set up. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 led to the exclusion of the SAVAK from this project. The flow of funds from Iran dried up. The SDECE was interested in continuing with this project only if it meant no expenditure from their budget.The project ultimately petered out. The only benefit to the R&AW was that it got some modern monitoring equipment from France. The project did not produce much intelligence on developments in the Indian Ocean.
The liaison relationship with the French did not develop as satisfactorily as Kao thought it would for various reasons. The most important was the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the elections of 1977. Her successor Morarji Desai came to office as Prime Minister with a lot of reservations regarding the R&AW. He wanted to drastically reduce its strength and budget. The full implementation of the joint project with the French and the Iranians would have required the recruitment of a large number of technical personnel. This became out of question under Morarji Desai.
The present Government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh, which seems to feel itself more comfortable with the US than Indira Gandhi did, does not seem to be unduly concerned about it.
The second reason was that the successors to Kao as the chiefs of the R&AW did not evince the same interest as Kao did in operational co-operation with the French service. The project was not totally abandoned, but it lost its importance as the core element of the Indo-French intelligence co-operation. The liaison relationship continued in full steam even under the successors to Kao, but it was largely confined to intelligence and assessment sharing.
When Kao returned to office as Senior Adviser to Indira Gandhi in 1981, he tried to revive interest in the project and in operational co-operation with the French service. But in the French presidential elections of 1981, Francois Mitterrand, the leader of the Socialist Party, was elected. Alexandre de Marenches resigned as the chief of the French external intelligence agency and was replaced by Pierre Marion, the then Chief Executive Officer of Air France. He did not give to the project the same importance as Alexandre de Marenches did.
To sum up in one sentence the outcome of the Indo-French intelligence co-operation: High expectations, poor results.
Despite some improvement since 1971, the R&AW’s capability for the collection of intelligence about the US and about naval developments in the Indian Ocean region remains weak. The present Government headed by Dr.Manmohan Singh, which seems to feel itself more comfortable with the US than Indira Gandhi did, does not seem to be unduly concerned about it.