Covert action capability is an indispensable tool for any State having external adversaries. Its purpose is not just collection of intelligence, but the protection of national interests and the safeguarding of national security through deniable actions of a political, economic, para-diplomatic or para-military nature. A State resorts to covert action if it finds that its national interests cannot be protected or its national security cannot be safeguarded through conventional political, economic, diplomatic or military means or if it concludes that such conventional means are not feasible.
Any intelligence agency worth its salt will have a covert action capability ready for use, when necessary. The Governments of some countries openly admit the availability of such a capability in their intelligence agencies, but not the details of their operations, which have to be secret and deniable. Others don’t admit even its existence.
In India too, the IB, under the foresighted leadership of the late B.N.Mullik, its second Director, had a limited covert action capability for possible use. The covert action division of the IB played a notable role in the then East Pakistan to counter the activities of the ISI in India’s North-East.
The R&AW had inherited from the IB its intelligence collection and covert action capabilities relating to Pakistan and China. These were not up to the standards of the intelligence agencies of the Western countries and Israel.
In India, one tends to think that Pakistan’s use of terrorism against India started in 1989 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It is not so. It started in 1956 in Nagaland. The ISI trained the followers of Phizo, the Naga hostile leader, in training camps set up in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of East Pakistan. It also provided them with safe sanctuaries in the CHT from which they could operate in the Indian territory through northern Myanmar.
In the 1960s, it started providing similar assistance and sanctuaries to the Mizo National Front (MNF) headed by Laldenga in the CHT. The ISI’s set-up in East Pakistan also enabled the Naga and Mizo hostiles to establish contact with the Chinese intelligence. This paved the way for the training of the Naga and Mizo hostiles in training camps set up by the Chinese intelligence in the Yunnan province of China.
It was partly to put an end to the activities of the ISI in India’s North-East from East Pakistan that Indira Gandhi decided to assist the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan in their efforts to separate from Pakistan and achieve an independent State to be called Bangladesh. This was in the wake of the widespread disturbances in East Pakistan in the beginning of 1971 following the refusal of the military regime of Pakistan headed by Gen. Mohammad Yahya Khan to honour the results of the December,1970,general elections in which the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a majority in the Pakistani National Assembly.
When the people of East Pakistan rose in revolt in March,1971, the R&AW was two and a half years old. It was still in the process of finding its feet as a full-fledged external intelligence agency, with a hardcore of professional intelligence officers capable of operating under cover in foreign territory as well as across the border in the neighbouring countries.
The poor sense of communications security in the Pakistani Armed Forces was evident from the careless use of telephones by senior officers, including Gen.Yahya Khan, for conveying instructions to their officers in East Pakistan.
The R&AW had inherited from the IB its intelligence collection and covert action capabilities relating to Pakistan and China. These were not up to the standards of the intelligence agencies of the Western countries and Israel. They had many inadequacies, which had become evident during the Chinese invasion of India in 1962, during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 and during the counter-insurgency operations in the North-East.
The late Rameshwar Nath Kao, who headed the external intelligence division of the IB, was appointed by Indira Gandhi as the head of the R&AW when it was formed on September 21,1968. In the first few months after its formation, he gave it two priority tasks— to strengthen its capability for the collection of intelligence about Pakistan and China and for covert action in East Pakistan.
A little over two years is too short a time to build up an effective covert action capability, but the R&AW managed to do so. It went into action the moment Indira Gandhi took the decision to help the people of East Pakistan achieve their independence from Pakistan.
The 1971 war against Pakistan was not a war won by India alone. It was a war jointly won by India and the people of East Pakistan. It would be wrong to project that India was the architect of an independent Bangladesh. India’s role was more as a facilitator than as a creator.
Without the desire and the will of the people of East Pakistan to be independent, there would have been no Bangladesh. Their sacrifices for their cause were immense. How many of them were brutally killed by the Pakistan Army! How many of the Bengali intellectuals were massacred by the Pakistan Army and by terrorist organizations such as Al Badr and Al Shams created by the ISI! It is their sacrifice, which laid the foundation for an independent Bangladesh. What India did under the leadership of Indira Gandhi was to make sure that their sacrifices were not in vain.
The Indian Armed Forces under the leadership of Field-Marshal (then General) S.H.F.J. Manekshaw and the Border Security Force (BSF) headed by the late K.F.Rustomji overtly and the R&AW and the IB covertly ensured this. But, they would not have been able to succeed as well as they did without the political leadership provided by Indira Gandhi and the phenomenal work done by the civilian officials of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura in organizing humanitarian relief for the millions of refugees who crossed over into India from East Pakistan.
Indira Gandhi’s dramatic decision to ban all Pakistani flights over India to East Pakistan in retaliation for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by two members of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) to Lahore in January,1971, paved the way for the ultimate victory in East Pakistan. When the Pakistani aircraft tried to fly round India over the sea by availing of re-fuelling facilities in Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi pressurized the Government of Sri Lanka to stop providing the re-fuelling facilities. This greatly weakened the ability of the headquarters of the Pakistani Armed Forces in West Pakistan to send reinforcements to East Pakistan and to keep their garrisons in East Pakistan supplied.
The R&AW’s role was five-fold: Provision of intelligence to the policy-makers and the armed forces; to train the Bengali freedom fighters in clandestine training camps; to network with Bengali public servants from East Pakistan posted in West Pakistan and in Pakistan’s diplomatic missions abroad and persuade them to co-operate with the freedom-fighters and to help in the freedom struggle by providing intelligence; to mount a special operation in the CHT against the sanctuaries and training camps of the Naga and Mizo hostiles;and to organize a psychological warfare (PSYWAR) campaign against the Pakistani rulers by disseminating reports about the massacres of the Bengalis in East Pakistan and the exodus of refugees.
Indira Gandhi’s dramatic decision to ban all Pakistani flights over India to East Pakistan in retaliation for the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight, paved the way for the ultimate victory in East Pakistan.
The flow of intelligence to the policy-makers from the R&AW and the IB was continuous and voluminous. This was facilitated by the co-operation of many Bengali public servants of East Pakistan and by the poor communications security of the Pakistani Armed Forces. One of the first acts of Kao after the coming into being of the R&AW was to set up a Monitoring Division headed by a distinguished retired officer of the Army Signal Corps to collect technical intelligence (TECHINT) from Pakistan and China and a Cryptography Division, headed by a cryptography expert from the IB. While the performance of the Monitoring and Cryptography Divisions in respect of China was unsatisfactory, they did excellent work in intercepting electronic communications within West Pakistan as well as between West and East Pakistan and in repeatedly breaking the codes used by the Pakistani authorities for their communications.
The poor sense of communications security in the Pakistani Armed Forces was evident from the careless use of telephones by senior officers, including Gen.Yahya Khan, for conveying instructions to their officers in East Pakistan—-without even taking basic precautions such as the use of scrambling devices to make their conversations unintelligible to anyone intercepting them. Almost every day, Indira Gandhi and others entrusted with the conduct of the war had at their disposal extracts from the telephonic conversations of Yahya Khan and others with their officers in East Pakistan.
1971 in East Pakistan was a dream situation for professional intelligence officers. Often, they did not have to go after intelligence. It came after them. There was such a total alienation of the people of East Pakistan that many were eager and willing to convey intelligence to their own leaders as well as to the Indian intelligence agencies. Co-operation with the Indian intelligence agencies was looked upon by them as their patriotic duty in order to facilitate the liberation of their country.
The IB before 1968 and the R&AW thereafter had built up a network of relationships with many political leaders and Government officials of East Pakistan. They were helped in this networking by the sense of humiliation of the Bengali leaders and officials at the hands of their West Pakistani rulers. This networking enabled the R&AW and the leaders and officials of East Pakistan to quickly put in position the required infrastructure for a liberation struggle consisting of a parallel government with its own fighters trained by the Indian security forces and its own bureaucracy.
The only sections of the local population, who were hostile to India and its agencies, were the Muslim migrants from Bihar. These Bihari migrants were loyal to their West Pakistani rulers and co-operated with them in carrying out the brutal massacre of the Bengalis. However, since their number was small, the Bihari migrants could not come in the way of the liberation movement.
The main hostility to India was from the US and China. Neither of them wanted India to succeed in what they perceived as its designs to break up Pakistan.
1971 also saw the coming into being of the R&AW’s Psychological Warfare (PSYWAR) Division, euphemistically called the Information Division. Media professionals from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting as well as from the Army were given by Kao the task of ensuring that international spotlight was kept focused on the brutalities being committed by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan and the resulting exodus of millions of refugees into India.
They did excellent work, but if the international community became aware of the seriousness of the ground situation and of the compulsions on India to act, the real credit for it should go to Indira Gandhi. She was a born Psywarrior. Through her travels across the world to draw attention to the situation in East Pakistan and the bordering States of India, she managed to create an atmosphere, which would not have been hostile to the ultimate Indian intervention—-even if it was not supportive of it.
The main hostility to India was from the US and China. Neither of them wanted India to succeed in what they perceived as its designs to break up Pakistan. They had convinced themselves that what they saw as the Indian designs was not the immediate outcome of the disturbances in East Pakistan and the resulting exodus of refugees. Instead, they tended to agree with the military rulers of Pakistan that the disturbances and the refugee exodus were the outcome of the Indian designs. India’s perceived closeness to Moscow under Indira Gandhi added to their hostility.
Those were the days of the first covert contacts between the administration of President Richard Nixon in Washington DC and the regime of Mao Zedong in Beijing. These contacts were facilitated by the military rulers of Pakistan. Yahya Khan earned the gratitude of both the US and China by making possible the first secret visit of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, to Beijing in July,1971, for talks with Mao and his associates.
To counter the perceived Indian designs, the Chinese stepped up the supply of arms and ammunition to Pakistan.
The developing Washington-Beijing understanding was mainly directed against Moscow, but India too, which was perceived by both the US and China as the USSR’s surrogate, came under their scan. There was an undeclared convergence of views between Washington DC and Beijing that Pakistan should be protected from India and that India should not be allowed to emerge as the dominating power of the South Asian region.
In view of the widespread revulsion across the world over the brutalities of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan, both Nixon and Mao realized that there was not much they could do to help Pakistan retain its control over East Pakistan. Even while mentally reconciling themselves to the inevitability of Pakistan losing its eastern wing, they were determined to thwart any designs of Indira Gandhi to break up West Pakistan after helping the Bengali people of East Pakistan in the liberation of their homeland. They had convinced themselves that Indira Gandhi had such designs and that after Bangladesh, she would turn her attention to Balochistan on the Iranian border, where there were already signs of growing alienation of the people against what they perceived as the Punjabi domination of their homeland.
To counter the perceived Indian designs, the Chinese stepped up the supply of arms and ammunition to Pakistan. They also expedited the construction of the Karakoram Highway, which would link the road network of the Xinjiang region of China with that of Pakistan, and thereby enable the Chinese Armed Forces to intervene in support of Pakistan, if necessary, in future. However, this could be completed only in 1978. The Nixon Administration colluded with the Yahya regime by initiating a covert action plan for the destabilization of India. This plan envisaged the encouragement of a separatist movement among the Sikhs of India’s Punjab for an independent State to be called Khalistan.
There was a Sikh Home Rule Movement headed by one Charan Singh Panchi in the UK even before 1971, but it had practically no support from the Sikh diaspora and was ignored by the international community and media. In 1971, one saw the beginning of a joint covert action operation by the US intelligence community and Pakistan’s ISI to create difficulties for India in Punjab. US interest in this operation continued for a little more than a decade and tapered off after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by two of her Sikh security guards on October 31,1984.
In 1971, as Indira Gandhi and the R&AW’s Psywar Division stepped up their campaign against Pakistan on the question of the violation of the human rights of the people of East Pakistan, one saw the beginning of an insidious Psywar campaign jointly mounted by the US intelligence and the ISI against the Indira Gandhi Government, with dissemination of stories about the alleged violations of the human rights of the Sikhs in Punjab.
After Indira Gandhi came back to power in the elections of 1980, the US suspected that India supported the presence of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and that the Indian intelligence was collaborating with its Afghan counterpart.
Dr.Jagjit Singh Chauhan, a Sikh leader of Punjab with not much following, went to the UK, took over the leadership of the Sikh Home Rule movement and re-named it the Khalistan movement. The Yahya regime invited him to Pakistan, lionized him as the leader of the Sikh people and handed over him some Sikh holy relics kept in Pakistan. He took them with him to the UK and tried to use them in a bid to win a following in the Sikh diaspora in the UK. At a press conference at London in September,1971, he gave a call for the creation of an independent Khalistan.
He also went to New York, met officials of the United Nations and some American journalists and voiced allegations of the violation of the human rights of the Sikhs by the Indira Gandhi Government. These meetings were discreetly organized by officials of the US National Security Council Secretariat then headed by Kissinger.
With American and Pakistani encouragement, the activities of Chauhan continued till 1977. After the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the elections of 1977 and the coming into power of a Government headed by Morarji Desai, Chauhan abruptly called off his so-called Khalistan movement and returned to India.
After Indira Gandhi came back to power in the elections of 1980, the US suspected that India supported the presence of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and that the Indian intelligence was collaborating with its Afghan counterpart. Chauhan went back to the UK and resumed the Khalistan movement.