When Kao had come to Paris to introduce me to Alexandre de Marenches, he was in receipt of a top secret coded message from a senior leader of the Congress (I), a Kashmiri, who was known to be close to Indira Gandhi. It was about the worrisome situation in India as a result of the agitation against Indira Gandhi carried on by Jayaprakash Narayan and others.
The Congress (I) leader felt that there was a concerted attempt, allegedly funded by the CIA, to destabilize the country and teach a lesson to her for her independent policies. He also said that he and some others had advised her to impose a State of Emergency and ban all political activities and agitations for a while, but she was hesitant to do so. The message added that since she greatly valued the advice of Kao, he should also advise her on similar lines.
Kao sent a coded reply to the Congress (I) leader disagreeing with his views. He cautioned against taking any hasty step such as proclaiming a State of Emergency as it might prove unwise and counter-productive. He also repeated to Indira Gandhi the message, which he had received from the Congress (I) leader and his reply to it. Thereafter, Kao returned to India after his talks with Alexandre de Marenches were over.
On June 27, 1975, Indira Gandhi had imposed a State of Emergency, banned all agitations and other political activities and ordered the arrests of her critics and opponents. Did she reject Kaos advice against it?
On June 27, 1975, early in the morning, I heard over the French radio that Indira Gandhi had imposed a State of Emergency, banned all agitations and other political activities and ordered the arrests of her critics and opponents. Did she reject Kao’s advice against it? Or, did Kao change his mind and support it after he returned to New Delhi from his foreign tour? I could never find the answers to these questions. I never posed these questions to Kao. He never on his own talked about them.
Even before the proclamation of the Emergency — in fact, almost since 1972 — there were indications of unease mixed with jealousy in some senior bureaucratic circles over the emergence of Kao as a highly trusted adviser of Indira Gandhi. These indicators were evident in matters such as instances of expression of unhappiness in the Joint Intelligence Committee over the habit of the R&AW and the IB sending their assessments directly to Indira Gandhi without having them vetted by the JIC; not sharing with other senior bureaucrats such as the Home, Defence and Foreign Secretaries the advice directly given by Kao to Indira Gandhi so that they could express their views on the advice; the rapid expansion of the R&AW’s presence abroad, which was suspiciously viewed by some officers of the Ministry of External Affairs as an attempt by Kao to create a parallel Foreign Service by taking advantage of Indira Gandhi’s trust in him etc.
This unease, now mixed with distrust, spread to political circles opposed to Indira Gandhi too after the proclamation of the Emergency. Just as Indira Gandhi and her political associates saw the hand of the CIA in every development adverse to her, her opponents saw the hand of Kao and the R&AW in every action taken by her against them. Some accused him unfairly of being the brain behind the Emergency. Others asked why the R&AW, which was an external intelligence agency, required so many offices inside the country in places such as Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Patna, Cochin, Bangalore etc. They did not realize that these offices were set up not for keeping a watch on Indian political leaders and others as they suspected, but for looking for possible sources among those visiting India from abroad.
The R&AW also lost some of its shine as an intelligence collection agency because of the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August, 1975, and the subsequent developments in Bangladesh, which resulted in an erosion of the Indian influence there.
It was a fact that there was a needless expansion of the R&AW after 1971, which picked up further momentum after 1975. The expansion was in the R&AW’s presence abroad as well as in the strength of its staff in its headquarters at New Delhi. This rapid expansion led to the induction into the organization of a large number of officers from other services and direct recruits from the market, many of whom subsequently proved themselves to be ill-suited to the intelligence profession. The result: a dilution in the quality and motivation of the officers at the middle and higher levels and of supervision. This, in turn, led to a dilution in the quality of the produce. This rapid expansion also led to allegations of nepotism and favouritism in the recruitment of officers, arising from the fact that some of the new recruits were related to some serving officer or the other in different Government departments and the Armed Forces.
This rapid expansion tarnished the image of the organization to some extent. However, it had no sinister motive as was alleged by the opponents of Indira Gandhi. Unfortunately, her opponents had convinced themselves, without justification, that this expansion was intended to enable the R&AW to keep a watch on her opponents and critics.
Their suspicions were further aggravated by the action of Vidya Charan Shukla, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, in inducting two officers from the R&AW and the IB into his Ministry to work as Joint Secretaries. This was a totally unwise move and the IB and the R&AW should not have agreed to send their officers to the Ministry. Rightly or wrongly, many suspected that the task of these officers was to make the media behave. Many critics of Indira Gandhi started alleging that after the proclamation of the Emergency, the R&AW had been converted into the KGB of India.
There was a widespread perception that the R&AW was associated with many wrong-doings during the Emergency. This perception prevailed even in sections of the bureaucracy, including in the Foreign Service.
It is not correct as was alleged during the Emergency and immediately thereafter that the R&AW let itself be misused by Indira Gandhi to harass her opponents and to spy on her critics. Kao, who never got along well with the late Sanjay Gandhi, maintained a distance from him and ensured that the R&AW was not associated with any of the excesses allegedly orchestrated by Sanjay Gandhi. Indira Gandhi had such high esteem and affection for Kao that the fact that Kao and Sanjay Gandhi did not get along well had no influence on the trust reposed by her in Kao. During the entire Emergency, I remained posted in Paris. During this period, the only instruction from the headquarters, which made me feel uncomfortable, was to make enquiries regarding the whereabouts of Leila Fernandes, the wife of George Fernandes. The Government of India suspected that she had been given shelter in France by the French Socialist Party. I did make enquiries about her, but could not locate her. Apart from this, there was no circular of a questionable nature from the headquarters. Despite this, there was a widespread perception that the R&AW was associated with many wrong-doings during the Emergency. This perception prevailed even in sections of the bureaucracy, including in the Foreign Service.
The R&AW also lost some of its shine as an intelligence collection agency because of the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August, 1975, and the subsequent developments in Bangladesh, which resulted in an erosion of the Indian influence there. This was projected by the critics of the R&AW as an instance of a serious failure of intelligence. The Indian Ambassador in Paris, who was a close personal friend of Kao, was very critical of the R&AW after this incident. He used to ask me: “How did the R&AW remain totally oblivious of the anti-Mujibur plot?”
I had written a personal letter to Kao about the criticism of the R&AW, which was prevalent not only in the Embassy, but also among senior officers visiting Paris from New Delhi. Some weeks after the assassination, Kao had come to Geneva on an official visit. He called me to Geneva for a discussion on my letter. He said that there was no failure of the R&AW in Bangladesh. According to him, it was aware of the growing unpopularity of Mujib, particularly in the Bangladeshi Armed Forces, and of the plots being hatched against him. Indira Gandhi had been kept informed by Kao of these developments. She had also been told that there was a threat to Mujib’s life.
Indira Gandhi had these reports and warnings conveyed to Mujib through an intermediary, but he dismissed them derisively. He had convinced himself that he continued to be as popular as he was in 1971 and that there was no threat to his life. Kao asked: “How can the R&AW be held responsible if Mujib won’t take our warnings seriously?” He added that there was no need for me to be defensive and asked me to convey to the Ambassador whatever he had told me. I did.
Despite this, an impression persisted even in the R&AW that it had lost touch with Bangladesh and that it was no longer as well-informed about Bangladesh as it was about East Pakistan. Its analysts had a better feel for Pakistan than for Bangladesh. Over the years since then, the R&AW’s assessments on Pakistan had proved correct more often than its assessments about Bangladesh. One remembers how in 1991, an assessment prepared by the Bangladesh analysis branch in the R&AW about the likely outcome of the elections there proved to be wrong. Fortunately, the then chief of the R&AW, who had some reservations in his mind about the objectivity of the branch, did not forward it to the Prime Minister. This saved the organization from embarrassment.
Failure to diversify contacts in Bangladesh, pockets of hostility in its security forces and intelligence community towards India and the R&AW, suspicion and resentment in the non-Awami League political circles over what was perceived as Indian favouritism towards certain sections of the political spectrum and a lack of objectivity in the Bangladesh analysis branch contributed to the decline in the R&AW’s performance in Bangladesh during the Emergency. This has continued since then.