I was posted in Geneva as Counsellor in the Permanent Mission of India (PMI) to the UN organizations based in Geneva from April 1985 to May,1988. I handled work relating to the International Telecommunications Union, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Commission for Environment and Development, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Concurrently, I also held charge as the Indian Consul-General (CG) in Geneva.
As the Counsellor in the PMI, I worked under the Indian Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN Organizations in Geneva and as the CG, I took orders from the Indian Ambassador to Switzerland, who was based in Berne, the capital. Ego and jurisdictional clashes between the two often created difficult situations for me. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Geneva in June, 1985, was mainly to address the annual session of the International Labour Organization and to visit the headquarters of the ICRC. It was not a bilateral visit to Switzerland. The PR was totally in charge. Hence, I had no problem.
A Swedish non-governmental organization had alleged that the company had paid commissions to certain persons, allegedly close to Rajiv Gandhi and his family.
R.Venkatraman, the then President of India, visited Geneva in 1987, to inaugurate a Festival of India. After doing so, he visited Berne before returning to India. It was a purely bilateral visit and he had no engagements connected with the UN. The then Ambassador in Berne said he would handle the entire visit to Geneva and Berne, but the PR refused to let him handle the visit to Geneva. He insisted that since he was the representative of the President of India in Geneva, he would handle the Geneva part of the visit.
Caught between the two, I went through many tense moments. The PR would forbid me from going to Berne to attend the co-ordination meetings held by the Ambassador, who insisted that I would take orders only from him in respect of the President’s engagements in Geneva too. Somehow, I managed and the visit went off smoothly.
The President’s visit came at the height of the controversy over the Bofors deal of the Government of India with the Bofors company in Sweden. A Swedish non-governmental organization had alleged that the company had paid commissions to certain persons, allegedly close to Rajiv Gandhi and his family. It had also been alleged that the Hinduja brothers, a Sindhi business family, were one of the beneficiaries of the commission payments. The headquarters of their business ventures were located in London and looked after by Srichand Hinduja, the eldest brother. They had a big office in Geneva, which was being looked after by Prakash Hinduja, his brother. Srichand used to visit Geneva often.
I knew Prakash quite well. Frankly, despite the allegations against the family, I found Prakash and Srichand to be likable and patriotic persons. The entire family had very wide contacts at very high levels in Iran, where they had originally started their overseas business career, Europe and the US. They never hesitated to be of any legitimate help to the Government of India, whenever they were approached. Even though they had been living abroad for many years, they were Indians by heart and by mind. Even if they had accepted commissions from the Bofors company as it was alleged they had, it did not make them any the less Indian or any the less patriotic. I do not hesitate to put this on record even at the risk of being misunderstood and vilified.
Even if they had accepted commissions from the Bofors company as it was alleged they had, it did not make them any the less Indian or any the less patriotic.
The Hinduja brothers —particularly Prakash— were in the permanent list of invitees of the PR in Geneva and the Ambassador in Berne and were invariably invited to any reception or dinner hosted by them in honour of visiting dignitaries from India. A few weeks before the visit of the President, H.K.L.Bhagat, who was then Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, had visited Geneva to attend a meeting of the IPU. I had co-ordinated the arrangements for the visit under the guidance of the late Alfred Gonsalves, the then PR. The PR requested Prakash to host a dinner for Bhagat and invite all the senior members of the Swiss Federal Cabinet in Berne and of the Cantonal Government in Geneva. Prakash happily agreed and issued the invitations. Everbody invited by him accepted.
Before the PR asked Prakash to host the dinner, I had drawn his attention to the controversy relating to the Bofors and pointed out that it might not be advisable to ask Prakash to host a dinner for Bhagat. I suggested to the PR that he should ask Bhagat whether he would have any objections to attending a dinner hosted by Prakash. The PR summarily rejected my suggestion saying: “ Raman, I know more about our politicians than you do. I have handled more foreign visits by our politicians than you have. They are all corrupt without exception. They all like to wallow in the comforts and riches provided by businessmen. I know Bhagat. He will happily go to Prakash’s house.” I kept quiet.
All the senior officials from Delhi and all the officers of the Permanent Mission guessed that Bhagat’s decision not to attend must have been due to the Bofors controversy.
Gonsalves and I received Bhagat at the airport and took him to Hotel Inter-Continental where he was put up. Gonsalves hosted a lunch for him at a hotel restaurant, which was attended by senior officials of the IPU. After the lunch, the PR took him on a sight-seeing visit to Lausanne. The PR and Bhagat traveled in one car. I followed them in another. When we were half way to Lausanne, the PR’s car stopped. My car also stopped. The PR came literally running towards me. I came out. He said: “ Raman, you were right. The old man was furious when I told him he would be attending a dinner hosted by Prakash. He said I should not have accepted the invitation and has refused to attend. You go back to Geneva and tell Prakash that the Minister is indisposed and hence would not be coming. Tell him, I also won’t come because I have to look after the Minister.”
At that time, two important conferences of the ILO and the World Health Organisation (WHO) were going on in Geneva. Half a dozen senior officials of the Government of India had come to Geneva to attend them. Prakash had invited all of them and also all the diplomatic officers of the Permanent Mission. Gonsalves asked me to ring up all of them and tell them that the Minister would not be attending the dinner due to indisposition and that it was up to them to decide whether they would attend or not.I did so. All the senior officials from Delhi and all the officers of the Permanent Mission guessed that Bhagat’s decision not to attend must have been due to the Bofors controversy. They all rang up Prakash’s office and said they would not attend due to indisposition.
On coming to know of this, I contacted the PR in Lausanne and told him that this amounted to humiliating Prakash. I told the PR: “Prakash did not offer to host this dinner. You asked him to do so because you thought that if he hosted the dinner senior leaders of the Federal Government would attend. All of them have agreed to attend because they were told it was a dinner in honour of a senior Indian Minister.If they find that neither the Minister nor the PR nor any Indian official was attending the dinner, they would start wondering what had happened. There will be unnecessary gossip.” Gonsalves agreed with me and said: “You contact all visiting officials from Delhi and all officers of the Permanent Mission and tell them that this is an important dinner and that I desire that they should attend.” I did so. Some officials from Delhi and some diplomatic officers attended. Many did not. What a messy situation it was !
Farooq Abdullah started criticizing the R&AW in very strong language, “Kuch nahin karthe hain. Secret service paisa kathe hain (They dont do any work. They just eat the secret service money),” he remarked.
Another VIP who visited Geneva before the President was Dr.Farooq Abdullah, the then Chief Minister of J&K. I got a message from the Indian High Commission in London that Dr.Abdullah and his staff officer would be visiting Geneva for 24 hours. The message did not say why they were coming, whether it was an official or a private visit and whether any hotel arrangements for them were required to be made. I contacted the Indian Mission in London. They replied: “ We have told you what we were asked to communicate.The Chief Minister’s staff officer did not tell us anything about hotel bookings.”
As the Consul-General, I went to the airport to receive him and waited for him at the place through which normally VIPs exit. He and his staff officer did not come. I made enquiries with the airport Police. After checking, they told me that a member of the staff of the Hindujas had taken a car to the tarmac and taken them directly to the hotel. I then went to the hotel and called on him.
A diamond merchant of Indian origin, with some links to South Africa, hosted a lunch in honour of Farooq Abdullah attended by a small number of dignitaries from the local Indian community. I was also there. It was a sit-down lunch. During the conversation, there was a reference to the situation in India and the role of the intelligence agencies. Farooq Abdullah started criticizing the R&AW in very strong language, “Kuch nahin karthe hain. Secret service paisa kathe hain (They don’t do any work. They just eat the secret service money),” he remarked. He did not know I was from the R&AW. I just kept listening to him without reacting.
Abdullah replied: ” So what? I would myself inform the Government of India that I had attended a dinner by the Hindujas”¦”
The host was embarrassed. He wrote something on a piece of paper and passed it across to Abdullah. He had obviously written that I was from the R&AW. Abdullah was not the least embarrassed. “Raman Saheb, you are from the R&AW? Kao is a great man. Your organization taught the Pakistanis a lesson in 1971. The time has come to do it again. Otherwise, they will keep interfering in Punjab.” I replied that I would convey his views to my headquarters.
That evening, he had been invited by the Hindujas for a dinner in their house. As he was discussing his programme with his staff officer, the latter pointed out that there could be a controversy if it came to be known in India that the Hindujas had hosted a dinner for him. Abdullah replied: “ So what? I would myself inform the Government of India that I had attended a dinner by the Hindujas. He has been my friend for long. I can’t suddenly boycott him socially just because there has been a controversy over his role in the Bofors deal.”
Dr.J.S.Teja, the then PR in Geneva who had succeeded Gonsalves, hosted a reception for the President when he came to Geneva. He intended inviting, among others, the Hindujas too. I mentioned to him what had happened when H.K.L. Bhagat had come and suggested that he should consult the President’s office before inviting the Hindujas. He sent a message. Prompt came the reply that they should not be invited.
The next day, Prakash rang me up and said that the President’s office had asked him to arrange a check-up for the President by a local ear specialist since he wanted to change his hearing aid. Prakash requested me to keep an empty slot in the President’s programme for this. I immediately sent a message to the President’s office asking them to confirm that they had asked Prakash to arrange a check-up for the President. His office replied denying that they had made any such request to Prakash and told me that there was no need to include this in the President’s programme. I informed Prakash suitably. After inaugurating the Festival of India in Geneva, the President went to Berne and from there returned to India. Later on, I came to know that the ear specialist had gone to Berne and examined the President there. The President’s office was apparently embarrassed when Prakash told me that he had been asked to organize the check-up. They, therefore, decided to have it in Berne instead of in Geneva, without the knowledge of the Indian Embassy in Berne.
While visiting dignitaries thus started exercising caution about interactions with the Hindujas after their names cropped up in connection with the Bofors scandal, I did not notice any inhibitions coming in the way of the interactions of senior officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) with the Hindujas during their visits to Geneva. Even after the scandal broke out, I had occasionally seen senior CBI officers having lunch with Prakash or Srichand or both in Geneva restaurants. After the scandal broke out, Narasimha Rao had once come on a visit to some West European countries.
During his stay in West Europe, the Hindujas had hosted their annual Diwali dinner, which was always attended by many dignitaries of the UK and other countries. The Hindujas were very keen that Narasimha Rao should attend. He was reluctant to do so. He sent a message to the PMO asking whether he should attend. Prompt came the reply that he should.
An Indian journalist based in Geneva played a very prominent role in exposing the Bofors scandal initially through the columns of “The Hindu”, a daily of Chennai, and then of the “Indian Express”.
Before the Bofors scandal broke out, there were no such inhibitions. In fact, Prakash was even better informed about the happenings in New Delhi than the Indian diplomatic mission was. He came to know in advance— even before the Indian mission — the details of the programmes of all visiting dignitaries—-whether political leaders or senior bureaucrats. Almost everybody—-political leaders, senior bureaucrats, judges and others— socially interacted with him during their stay in Geneva.
There were only two leaders who kept away from them even before the Bofors scandal broke out. One was Narasimha Rao. The other was V.P.Singh. He was the Minister for Commerce in the Cabinet of Rajiv Gandhi at that time. He used to attend meetings of the GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs). He had given strict instructions to the Indian mission that the Hindujas should not be informed of his programme and that no invitation from them should be accepted.
Once Prakash came to know of his presence in Geneva. He found out in which hotel he was staying and rang him up there in order to invite him for a dinner. V.P.Singh declined the invitation. He then strongly protested to the Indian mission for telling Prakash about his programme. The Indian mission told V.P.Singh that Prakash always came to know of the programmes of visiting dignitaries from his contacts in Delhi and not from the Indian mission in Geneva.
Often — but not always — she used to share with me the salient points of her despatches to her paper on the Bofors scandal.
An Indian journalist based in Geneva played a very prominent role in exposing the Bofors scandal initially through the columns of “The Hindu”, a daily of Chennai, and then of the “Indian Express”. She had very good sources in the Federal Police Department of Switzerland and in governmental and non-governmental circles of Sweden. According to some people in the Indian community of Geneva, a Swedish student, who was living Au Pair in her house and helping her in her domestic chores, also helped her in her coverage.
The personal relations of this journalist with the Indian diplomats posted in Geneva and with large sections of the local Indian community were somewhat strained. They tended to keep away from her. Though I cannot claim to have been her friend, I had better contacts with her, thanks to the fact that her mother, a well-known musician, was a close friend of my family in Chennai. I had been to her house on a couple of occasions for taking a meal with her and her husband, an Italian-speaking Swiss national. Often—but not always— she used to share with me the salient points of her despatches to her paper on the Bofors scandal. I had some well-informed friends in the local community of Afghan political exiles and I used to share with her—-not as a quid pro quo— interesting information gathered by me about developments relating to Afghanistan. Whatever information about the Bofors scandal she shared with me, I used to pass on to the R&AW headquarters, who used to pass it on to Rajiv Gandhi. On such occasions, Rajiv Gandhi used to know in advance what “The Hindu” was going to carry the next day.
…Rajiv Gandhi was corrupt and whether he or any member of his family had accepted a commission from the Bofors company.
Once this journalist contacted me and alleged that she had heard that at the instance of the Government of India, the Hindujas were planning to have her killed in order to silence her. I told her she was imagining things. I assured her that the Government of India was not in the habit of indulging in such things. On two more occasions, she came back to me with the same allegation. I told her that I did not believe it was true and added that if she believed it was true, she was free to seek the protection of the Geneva Police. Thereafter, she did not raise the topic again. I did not think she sought the assistance of the Geneva Police either.
I continued in Geneva for about a year after the Bofors scandal broke out. Many of my friends had asked me while I was still in Geneva and subsequently too whether I thought Rajiv Gandhi was corrupt and whether he or any member of his family had accepted a commission from the Bofors company. My reply has always been as follows: “I had never come into contact with Rajiv Gandhi in Delhi, but I was associated with his visit to Paris, Lyon and Geneva in June,1985, and to The Hague in October,1985. He had some expensive tastes like his love for fast cars and fancy electronic gadgets. He had reportedly accepted an expensive Mercedes Benz car as a gift from the King of Jordan, who felt concerned about his personal security when he found him moving around in Delhi in a slow-moving Ambassador car.
As a result of all this, Rajiv Gandhi unnecessarily got himself tied in knots.
He used to drive around in this Mercedes sometimes, but when he lost the elections towards the end of 1989, he promptly transferred it to the President’s garage for being used when foreign Heads of State and Government visited India. Similarly, he transferred to the Government all the other gifts which he had received from foreign leaders when he lost the elections. His personal habits were very simple and austere and he made it a point to settle all his bills while traveling. I formed a strong impression that he was not corrupt. However, he lost his cool when allegations were made in Stockholm that commission had been paid by the Bofors company to some people, one of them an Italian businessman, who was well known to be close to his family. He frantically mounted a cover-up operation and personally got involved in the cover-up exercise, thereby creating unnecessary and incorrect doubts in the minds of some people about his own integrity. Indira Gandhi would have handled a similar situation differently.
She would have maintained a regal distance from any cover-up exercise and let her senior officials handle it, without personally getting involved. Rajiv Gandhi not only personally got involved in the cover-up, but he also encouraged officials and others close to him to create pin-pricks for V.P.Singh, who was in the forefront of those against a cover-up. As examples of such pin-pricks, one could cite the allegations of the involvement of the son of V.P.Singh in a scandal, the childish attempts with the alleged help of the IB to delay from the New Delhi airport the take-off of a hired aircraft in which V.P.Singh wanted to fly to his constituency to file his nomination papers in the 1989 elections etc.
The Bofors scandal brought out some of the worst traits in our intelligence and investigative agencies.
As a result of all this, Rajiv Gandhi unnecessarily got himself tied in knots. Instead of giving him the correct advice to let the truth about the Bofors come out even at the risk of some personal and political embarrassment to him, the IB, the R&AW and the CBI vied with one another in giving ideas to Rajiv Gandhi as to how to do the cover-up.” I still hold this view.
At the instance of Rajiv Gandhi, a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) chaired by B. Shankaranand, a Congress (I) member of Parliament, had been set up to enquire into the allegations of the commission payments. The JPC had deputed to Geneva and London a team of investigators consisting of officers of the CBI, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and other concerned agencies to make enquiries and record the statements of a number of persons in Geneva and London. The R&AW headquarters had advised me that I would have no role in their investigation. I was told that my role would be restricted to providing them with back-up support such as acting as their interpreter (French-English) when required, placing the services of my Personal Assistant at their disposal for typing work etc. But they insisted that I should meet before them all the persons figuring in their list of possible witnesses, have a preliminary chat on what he or she knew and then tell them before they met the person formally and recorded his or her statement. I got the impression that they met only those who had little or no knowledge of the Bofors payments and avoided meeting those, who claimed to have knowledge of the payments.
One of the persons, whose name they gave me for a preliminary chat, did not live at the address mentioned by them. Through my sources, I found out his correct address and gave it to them, but they did not meet him. They recorded in their report that no person by that name was living in that address. They did not meet either Prakash Hinduja or the journalist, who had done the investigative reporting. They told me that they would be recording the statement of Srichand Hinduja at London. They had a sanction from the Finance Ministry for a stay of five days in Geneva, but their work was over in three days.
By making payments from the secret service fund of an intelligence agency, Pandey had the services of an European private detective hired for making enquiries about the Bofors payments.
The head of the team rang up the then Director of the CBI, who was co-ordinating the investigation on behalf of the JPC, and asked him what they should do. After consulting Shankaranand, he advised them that they should not cut short their stay since this could lead to allegations that they were not serious about the enquiry. Despite this, they cut short their stay by a day and left for London.
The Bofors scandal brought out some of the worst traits in our intelligence and investigative agencies. The very same officers, who placed their services at the disposal of Rajiv Gandhi for assisting him in his cover-up exercise and advised him as to how to do the cover-up, volunteered their services to V.P.Singh, when he succeeded Rajiv Gandhi as the Prime Minister after the elections of 1989, for bringing out the truth and having Rajiv Gandhi fixed. While he was the Finance Minister, V.P.Singh and Vinod Pandey, who had served under him, had shown a penchant for relying more on private detective agencies such as Fairfax than the intelligence agencies of the Government of India for making confidential enquiries. They exhibited this penchant even after V.P Singh became the Prime Minister and appointed Vinod Pandey as his Cabinet Secretary.
By making payments from the secret service fund of an intelligence agency, Pandey had the services of an European private detective hired for making enquiries about the Bofors payments. The reports sent by this detective—not independently verified or often unverifiable— were given by Pandey to journalists for publishing in their newspapers as coming from “privileged sources”. If a US President had recruited a foreign detective to make enquiries about his predecessor or a Congressman and if this had leaked, he might have faced impeachment proceedings. I was amazed how highly reputed newspapers—-including one of Chennai—-unquestioningly accepted what Pandey fed them on the basis of the uncorroborated reports of this European private detective and carried them as coming from “privileged sources” in order to discredit Rajiv Gandhi.
I was transferred back to Delhi in May,1988, after I had completed three years. I was succeeded at Geneva by the late S.A.Subbiah, an outstanding IPS officer from the Karnataka cadre. Unfortunately, his relations with the Geneva-based journalist, who was playing an active role in exposing Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged cover-up of the Bofors scandal, were not good due to no fault of his.
After V.P.Singh took over as the Prime Minister, she developed direct and easy access to him and Vinod Pandey. She became their blue-eyed investigative journalist and anything she said or reported to them was believed without proper verification. She reportedly felt that Subbiah was not giving her the importance she deserved under the new dispensation headed by V.P.Singh. She allegedly carried baseless tales about Subbiah’s behaviour towards her to Vinod Pandey and Satish Chandra, who was Subbiah’s boss at Geneva as the Indian Permanent Representative. While Satish Chandra reportedly did not believe her allegations and took no notice of them, Vinod Pandey did and ordered Subbiah’s premature transfer back to Delhi, allegedly for trying to create difficulties in the way of the Bofors investigation.
The Standing Instructions of the R&AW lay down that in order to protect what is called the diplomatic cover
It must be said to the credit of A.K.Verma, the then chief of the R&AW, that he resisted the orders of Vinod Pandey. He called back Subbiah to headquarters for consultations for a month and, during this period, managed to convince Vinod Pandey that he was an outstanding professional with unimpeachable integrity and that the journalist’s allegations against him were baseless. Vinod Pandey agreed to his going back to Geneva and resuming his work.
My tenure in Geneva (1985 to 1988) as an intelligence officer was professionally not as satisfying as my earlier tenure (1975 to 1979) in Paris. In Paris, I was in what was known as an open liaison post. I was responsible for liaison with the French external intelligence agency, which knew that I was from the R&AW. There was a gentleman’s agreement that I would not take advantage of my position to recruit sources in the French Government. I observed it strictly, but I was free to recruit and run sources, who were not French nationals or public servants. There were no restrictions on my running operations to collect intelligence about other countries such as Pakistan, China, Iran etc so long as I did not use French nationals or public servants. This gave me opportunities for professional satisfaction. Moreover, the liaison work itself was quite interesting.
While Satish Chandra reportedly did not believe her allegations and took no notice of them, Vinod Pandey did and ordered Subbiahs premature transfer back to Delhi, allegedly for trying to create difficulties in the way of the Bofors investigation.
In Geneva, I worked in a secret, non-liaison post. The Federal authorities of Switzerland and the Cantonal authorities of Geneva were not told that I belonged to the R&AW. Instead, they were given the impression that I was an officer of the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India belonging to the Indian Foreign Service posted in the Indian Permanent Mission to do multilateral work relating to the UN and other international organizations and, concurrently, to function as the Consul-General of India. The Standing Instructions of the R&AW lay down that in order to protect what is called the diplomatic cover—-that is, their story that they are officers of the Indian Foreign Service— of the R&AW officers when they are posted in the Indian diplomatic missions abroad, they should not be given security or criminal investigation related duties.
These instructions were not strictly followed in Geneva due to the enhanced threats to the security of visiting Indian dignitaries because of the Khalistani terrorism and due to the investigation into the Bofors scandal. I was closely involved in the co-ordination of the security arrangements for Rajiv Gandhi when he visited France and Switzerland in June,1985, and Holland in October,1985. I was also directly involved in the co-ordination of security arrangements for President R.Venkatraman, when he visited Switzerland in 1987. I had to liaise closely with the intelligence and security agencies of France, Switzerland and Holland in this connection.
I was also involved with the visit of the team of investigating officers sent to Geneva by the JPC on the Bofors Affair. As a result, my cover was blown and it became an almost open secret in Geneva that I was a police officer belonging to the R&AW and not an IFS officer from the MEA. In fact, some mischievous members of the Indian community in Geneva used to refer to the house near the Geneva airport where I lived as the “R&AW House”. Fortunately, the Swiss authorities were not bothered about my being from the R&AW so long as I did not work against their interests and I was not worried so long as the Swiss authorities were not.
There were no restrictions on my running operations to collect intelligence about other countries such as Pakistan, China, Iran etc so long as I did not use French nationals or public servants.
The R&AW post in Geneva was one of the first to be created by Kao immediately after the R&AW was formed in September,1968. His idea was to use the post for secret liaison with the MOSSAD, Israel’s external intelligence agency, and as a secret rendez-vous point for sensitive meetings with sources and political, military and diplomatic contacts from India’s neighbourhood. There was resistance from the MEA to the creation of the post on the ground that Switzerland was of no interest from the point of view of India’s national security. Kao explained to Indira Gandhi why the R&AW needed this post. These reasons could not be spelt out in the proposal sent to the MEA for its creation. After listening to Kao, Indira Gandhi asked the Foreign Secretary to sanction this post.
The post served as the contact point with the MOSSAD for about 10 years after its creation. Thereafter, the need for this diminished since the MOSSAD posted one of its officers in New Delhi under the cover of a businessman from one of the South American countries. For nearly 12 years, successive MOSSAD officers posted under the cover of businessmen in New Delhi acted as the contact point between the R&AW and the MOSSAD. After the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Israel in 1992, the need for a non-diplomatic cover diminished.
Many sensitive meetings were held in Geneva such as those with Bengali-speaking diplomats of Pakistan before 1971 in order to motivate them to support the independence struggle by staying in their posts till Bangladesh was liberated and keeping the R&AW and the leaders of the liberation movement informed of the goings on in the Pakistan Foreign Office and in its diplomatic missions abroad. The initial negotiations with Laldenga, the leader of the MNF, were held in Geneva in 1975 by a joint team of senior officers from the R&AW and the IB.
…instructions were not strictly followed in Geneva due to the enhanced threats to the security of visiting Indian dignitaries because of the Khalistani terrorism and due to the investigation into the Bofors scandal.
By the time I took over at Geneva in 1985, such needs had considerably diminished. The R&AW had started using other cities outside Switzerland too as contact points. Despite this, Geneva acquired a new importance as a listening post on Tibet, the Xinjiang region of China, South Africa and Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, it used to have the largest community of Tibetan refugees after India. Some of them were very well informed on developments in Tibet. Germany, bordering Switzerland, had a small, but politically active community of Uighurs from Xinjiang, who had initially fled to Turkey and from there migrated to the then West Germany. Some of these Uighurs used to work as translators and broadcasters for the CIA in the radio station run by it from Munich under the name Radio Liberty. These Uighurs often used to come to Geneva to attend meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission.
While many of the overseas-based leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were mostly operating from the Scandinavian countries, they often used to come to Geneva for attending meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission and the World Council of Churches, both of which have their headquarters in Geneva. After the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) started its independence struggle in Sri Lanka in 1983, there was an exodus of Sri Lankan Tamils to foreign countries. Switzerland was their favoured destination in West Europe. Many of their leaders too used to come to Geneva for attending meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission and the World Council of Churches and for interactions with the officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had an active programme of humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka.
Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi took an active interest in assisting not only the newly-independent countries of Africa, but also the liberation movements such as the ANC of South Africa and the SWAPO of Namibia. The assistance extended by India to the newly independent African countries was not only for their economic development, but also in security-related matters such as the training of their police and intelligence officers. The project to help the African countries had been started even before the formation of the R&AW. The IB played a role in helping newly-independent Ghana in strengthening its capability in the fields of intelligence and security. It had deputed Kao and Sankaran Nair—one after the other—to Accra for this purpose.
Such work was intensified after the R&AW came into being. The R&AW played an active role in organizing training assistance in Uganda after the overthrow of Idi Amin Dada, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi. Very often, Indira Gandhi preferred senior R&AW officers for sensitive missions of a political nature to African countries. When President Milton Obote of Uganda sought India’s guidance for putting his country back on its feet after the exit of Idi Amin Dada, she asked the R&AW to take the initial steps. In such matters, she and Rajiv Gandhi had greater confidence in the R&AW than in the MEA.
Today, the Indian influence has been replaced in most countries by that of China. You will need a powerful magnifying glass to locate India in Africa.
The R&AW played a very active role in helping the ANC in its anti-apartheid struggle and the SWAPO in its struggle for the independence of Namibia. Many of their cadres were trained either in India or Zambia. Geneva and Lusaka played an active role as contact points with the leaders and cadres of the ANC and the SWAPO. It is a great tragedy that the R&AW has not built up a record of its role in Africa. It does not even have a list of all its officers, who distinguished themselves in Africa.
The African leaders looked at Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi with respect and admiration. They never hesitated to ask her for any assistance. They were confident of a positive response. Those were the days when India and Indian officials stood 20 feet tall in Africa—-thanks to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. The decline in Indian interest and influence in Africa started under V.P.Singh and has continued non-stop since then. Today, the Indian influence has been replaced in most countries by that of China. You will need a powerful magnifying glass to locate India in Africa.
The meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva attract the intelligence officers of many countries, who are included in the delegations of their countries. Dissident, separatist and insurgent groups from all over the world, which have the money for travel, send their representatives to Geneva to canvass support for their cause. Interactions with them used to provide useful intelligence.
When the Khalistan movement was started in 1981, the Khalistani leaders did not realise the importance of human rights work to project their cause. It was the LTTE more than any other organization in Asia, which started paying attention to human rights work—with rich dividends. Others, including the Khalistanis, started emulating it. The LTTE had organized its human rights network in a professional manner—-with separate organizations for human rights work. It took care to see that office-bearers of the front organizations floated by it were not involved in its acts of violence.
The Khalistanis did not take a similar precaution. Very often, the same people, who were involved in acts of violence, also exercised responsibilities as office-bearers of the front organizations for human rights work. As a result, whereas the front organizations of the LTTE had easy access to the meetings of the Human Rights Commission, the Khalistanis faced difficulty in getting permission to attend the meetings.
They, therefore, adopted the tactics of getting themselves included as members of delegations of organizations of Red Indians from the US and Canada, which were accredited to the Human Rights Commission through the UN Economic and Social Council. While the Red Indian members of the delegations would criticize the Governments of the US and Canada for violating the human rights of the Red Indians, the Khalistanis would attack the Government of India for allegedly suppressing the Sikhs.
If an officer of the CIA or the ISI or any other intelligence agency wants to find out whether there is any R&AW officer posted in an Indian mission, all he has to do is to ask the wife of one of the IFS officers.
By constantly interacting with the leaders of these Red Indian organizations, I managed to persuade them not to include the Khalistanis in their delegations. This prevented them from gaining access to the meetings of the Commission, but they were still able to interact with delegations from the other countries in the lobbies and cafeterias. I did not mind it since I felt it was advisable that they had an opportunity of letting out steam against the Government of India through such interactions. There is less chance of people taking to violence if they are able to let out steam. Generally, only people who keep boiling inside take to violence. The terrorist movement in Jammu & Kashmir had not yet started when I was in Geneva and, hence, no Kashmiris used to come.
Even before I joined at Geneva, Switzerland had started becoming an important centre for the activities of Pakistan. The Pakistani Army had started procuring artillery pieces and sophisticated communication equipment from Zurich. Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear procurement work was being co-ordinated from Geneva. The BCCI had a large branch in Geneva mainly staffed by Pakistanis. The Habib Bank had an active branch in Zurich, again staffed by Pakistanis. The payments for the nuclear material procured in the UK, West Gemany and other countries used to be remitted from these branches. A Pakistani shipping company, which was being used by Pakistan’s nuclear establishment for the clandestine transport of the military and nuclear equipment procured in West Europe, had its head office in Geneva. There was an increasing flow of political refugees from Pakistan into Zurich—-mainly Ahmadiyas and supporters of the Bhutto family, who were being harassed by the Zia-ul-Haq military regime in Pakistan.
Professionally, for an intelligence officer under cover, Geneva was a challenging station
After I joined in Geneva, a number of Afghan political exiles close to ex-King Zahir Shah, who himself was living in Rome, settled down in Geneva and Zurich and started interacting with the Human Rights organizations. Geneva was chosen as the venue for the UN-sponsored proximity talks between the Afghan-Soviet authorities and the Pakistanis and the Mujahideen. These talks paved the way for the exit of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Many important delegations from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the USSR used to visit Geneva for the proximity talks.
I developed a reputation as a fairly well-informed Indian in Geneva on the proximity talks. I had some good contacts amongst the Pashtun as well as the Tajik exiles. During this period, K.Natwar Singh, who was the Minister of State for External Affairs, visited Geneva. As the Indian Consul-General, I was taking care of the arrangements for his visit.
This incident illustrates the difficulties often faced by the R&AW officers in their relations with their heads of missions, when they are posted abroad.
He had a reputation in his own service for being abrasive and somewhat uppish, but I had a lot of personal admiration for him. He was one of the few intellectuals with wide interests produced by the Foreign Service. No other Foreign Service officer was better known and respected in the Third World countries—particularly in the African countries—than Natwar Singh. After Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, he was the most respected Indian public servant in Africa. He had served as the Indian High Commissioner in Zambia at a time when the interactions of the R&AW with the ANC were increasing. He encouraged them. He was totally loyal to Indira Gandhi and her family. How do you judge loyalty to a leader—– not when the leader is shining, but when he or she seems down and out. When Indira Gandhi appeared down and out once and for all between 1977 and 1980 and was being harassed and humiliated by the Morarji Desai Government, there was only a small number of public servants , who resisted the temptation to throw stones at her in order to ingratiate themselves with the Morarji Desai Government—- Natwar Singh was one of them.
When Natwar Singh came to Geneva, the Afghan political exiles with whom I was in touch came to know of his visit. All of them knew him and respected him. One of them told me that he would like to make a discreet courtesy call on him without the Pakistanis and other exiles coming to know of it. He said: “ We are unhappy with the Government of India for not supporting the Afghan people and for supporting the Soviet troops. But that has not lessened our admiration and affection for Indians, who were close to us and who had helped us before the Soviet invasion and occupation. Natwar Singh is one of them.” I told Natwar Singh about it. He asked me to bring him for breakfast in his hotel suite.
Friction creeps into personal relations if the R&AW officer declines to reveal the identity of the source.
I took him to Natwar Singh’s suite, left him to have a one-to-one breakfast with him and went back to my office. As the Afghan exile left Natwar Singh’s suite after the breakfast, the Minister came out to see him off. Just then, Ambassador J.S.Teja, who was the Indian Permanent Representative in Geneva, reached there. He saw the warm and cordial manner in which Natwar Singh and the Afghan were taking leave of each other. Later, he enquired from Natwar Singh’s staff who was that visitor. They gave him his identity and said I had brought him.
After meeting Natwar Singh, Teja came to his office and rang me up: “ You never told me you know this man. Please bring him to my office for a cup of tea. In future, I will remain in touch with him. You need not.” I avoided taking him to Teja. He reminded me on two or three occasions. I gave him some excuse or the other. He understood that I was reluctant to introduce him and stopped reminding me. Teja was a very fine gentleman. He took my reluctance in the right spirit and did not hold it against me. He was very cordial to me throughout my stay and did not allow this to affect the high opinion in which he held me. At a farewell party hosted by the staff on the eve of my transfer, Teja said in his speech in the presence of many Foreign Service officers: “ I wish we had officers like you in our Foreign Service.” I was greatly touched.
As a result, the time available for intelligence work was limited. Moreover, the fact that I had to work under two senior Ambassadors based in Geneva and Berne created some tension. Unfortunately, intelligence officers cannot be choosers.
This incident illustrates the difficulties often faced by the R&AW officers in their relations with their heads of missions, when they are posted abroad. There are clear instructions laid down since the days of Kao, with the approval of Indira Gandhi, regarding these relations. These instructions lay down that immediately after joining a diplomatic mission, the R&AW officer working under diplomatic cover in a mission would meet the Ambassador and show to him a written note on his story regarding his previous career, which he would be telling the local people, and request him that he and his officers should corroborate his story and protect his cover.
Many IFS officers rarely do. The worst threat to an R&AW officer posted abroad comes from the wives of the IFS officers. Many of them take a sadistic delight in going around telling people. “This officer is not from the IFS. He is actually from the R&AW.” If an officer of the CIA or the ISI or any other intelligence agency wants to find out whether there is any R&AW officer posted in an Indian mission, all he has to do is to ask the wife of one of the IFS officers. Without any hestitation, she will reveal the identity. Once, when I was in Paris, at a party the wife of an IFS officer got totally drunk, came and stood by my side and announced to the gathering: “Ladies and gentlemen, meet the most charming officer from India’s external intelligence.” Fortunately, all the guests were from the local Indian community. There were no foreigners.Indiscreet IFS officers and the even more indiscreet wives of some of them are constant occupational hazards for R&AW officers posted abroad.
R&AW officers posted abroad do not collect TECHINT. They collect only HUMINT and send them to their headquarters. They also prepare analytical reports based on open information. The instructions to them are that all these reports should be shown to the head of mission without revealing the identity of the source where it is a HUMINT report and that any comments made by him—– positive or negative— should be conveyed to headquarters. Generally, most heads of missions do not make enquiries about the source. However, some, when they find a particular HUMINT report good, try to find out the identity of the source and insist that they should handle him or her. Friction creeps into personal relations if the R&AW officer declines to reveal the identity of the source. I was, therefore, impressed when Teja took my hesitation to introduce my source to him in his stride and did not allow this to affect his positive opinion of me. Such instances are rare.
Professionally, for an intelligence officer under cover, Geneva was a challenging station—-with considerable scope for job satisfaction. Despite this, I enjoyed my stay in Paris better than my tenure in Geneva. In Paris, my Embassy-related work was light. I had all the time I needed to devote to my intelligence tasks. In Geneva, my Permanent Mission related work was quite heavy. Moreover, my additional charge as the Consul-General kept me busy with protocol related work such as receiving and seeing off dignitaries and fulfilling social responsibilities. As a result, the time available for intelligence work was limited. Moreover, the fact that I had to work under two senior Ambassadors based in Geneva and Berne created some tension. Unfortunately, intelligence officers cannot be choosers.
My three-year term was to end in May,1988. In October, 1987, I received a message from A.K.Verma, the then chief of the R&AW, that he had decided to extend my stay by one more year till May,1989. Three weeks later, I got another message from him saying that my presence in headquarters was needed to deal with a very important and sensitive project. Therefore, the extension was being cancelled and I should return in May,1988.
I handed over to Subbiah in May,1988. I was 52 years old, with six more years of service left. I knew I would not get any more field postings. On the flight back home, I was thinking of all the interesting things I had done during my 20 years in the R&AW—- a little over seven of them abroad. Little did I realise that in the remaining six years, I would be doing even more interesting things than I had done till then—- administering to the ISI some of its own medicine. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction. I felt 10 years younger.