Geopolitics

Role of R&AW in Liberation of Bangladesh
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By B Raman
Issue Book Excerpt: The Kaoboys of R&AW | Date : 13 Oct , 2018

In addition to stepping up the supply of arms and ammunition to the Pakistani Armed Forces and expediting the construction of the Karakoram Highway, the Chinese also wanted to destabilize India’s North-East by helping the Naga and Mizo hostiles in their insurgencies against the Government of India. However, their interest in the North-East was not the outcome of the events of 1971 in East Pakistan. It began in 1968.

While the intelligence agencies of the US and Pakistan co-operated with each other in creating difficulties for India and Indira Gandhi in Punjab, the ISI and the Chinese intelligence co-operated with each other in creating difficulties for them in India’s North-East. The Pakistani aim in destabilizing the North_East was to keep the Indian security forces preoccupied with counter-insurgency duties in the North-East, in the hope of thereby reducing any Indian threat to their position in East Pakistan. The Chinese aim was, in addition to helping Pakistan retain control over its Eastern wing, to weaken the Indian hold in this area in order to safeguard their own position in Tibet and to facilitate the eventual achievement of their objective of integrating India’s Arunachal Pradesh with Tibet.

Even as the Indian Army—ably assisted by the Air Force and the Navy—was moving towards Dhaka , covert action units of the R&AW and the Directorate-General of Security (DGS), which also came under Kao, raided the CHT in order to put an end to the insurgency infrastructure of the Naga and the Mizo hostiles. They found that the Nagas, anticipating the raid, had already shifted their infrastructure to the Burma Naga Hills area. The Mizos had not shifted, but they managed to escape capture by the units of the R&AW and the DGS and crossed over into the Chin Hills and the Arakan Division areas of Burma. Laldenga, the head of the MNF, proceeded to Rangoon from where he was taken to Karachi by the ISI. Apart from destroying the physical infrastructure of the hostiles, the only other useful outcome of the raid was the capture of all the documents kept in the MNF headquarters, which gave a lot of valuable intelligence about the contacts of the MNF with the ISI and the Chinese intelligence.

The Naga and the Mizo hostiles lost their safe sanctuaries, but their manpower remained intact. However, the loss of the sanctuaries and an important source of funds and arms and ammunition created doubts in the minds of their leadership about the continued viability of their insurgent movement. As will be discussed in a subsequent chapter, this ultimately led to peace in Mizoram and partial peace in Nagaland.

The 1971 war and our counter-insurgency operations against the Naga and the Mizo hostiles once again highlighted the importance of Northern Burma from the point of view of the security of India’s North-East. To explain this, I have to go back to my entry into the intelligence community.

In the year before the 1962 war, the IBs trans-border sources in the North-East were repeatedly reporting about a tremendous increase in the number of mules and Chinese muleteers in the Kachin State and the Burma Naga Hills.

I joined the IB in July 1967. After my training, Kao, who then headed the external intelligence division of the IB, told me that I had been selected to head the Burma Branch. The branch was created after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and he felt that it was as important as the branches dealing with Pakistan and China. He wanted me to acquire expertise not only on Burma, but also on the Yunnan province of China.

I continued to be in charge of the Burma branch for nearly five years — handling analysis as well as clandestine operations — and acquired such expertise that people used to refer to me as ‘Burma Raman.’ 

After taking over, I thought I would familiarise myself with the background to the creation of the Branch, and sent for the relevant file. It was there that I saw a one para hand-written note by B.N. Mullik, who was the Director of the IB at the time of the Chinese invasion of India. The note had been recorded by him shortly after the war with China had come to an end.

The note said: “I have discussed with the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. They have agreed that we must urgently create a Burma Branch. It should start functioning from today without waiting for a formal approval from Finance. Action for obtaining approval from Finance may be taken separately.”

In order to understand why the Branch was created in such an urgency — almost in panic — I then requisitioned all Burma-related files of 1962 and the years before from the Record Room (Archives).

From the various notings in those files, I noticed that Mullik and others felt that the Indian Army was so badly taken by surprise in what today is called Arunachal Pradesh because some Chinese troops had entered Arunachal Pradesh not directly from the North, but from Yunnan in the East.

They had clandestinely moved across the Putao region of the Kachin state of Burma without being detected by the IB. The Kachin State and the Burma Naga Hills were a no-man’s land in those days, with practically no Burmese administrative or military presence outside the towns of Myitkyina and Putao. The Chinese had taken advantage of this.

I then went through all the pre-1962 source files in order to understand how the IB’s sources in North Burma had missed this. In those days, whatever roads were there in the Kachin State and the Burma Naga Hills had been blown up by the anti-Rangoon insurgents. The only way of moving about and carrying goods from one place to another was on the back of mules. North Burma had a large Chinese population of Yunanese origin. Many of them earned their living as muleteers.

In the year before the 1962 war, the IB’s trans-border sources in the North-East were repeatedly reporting about a tremendous increase in the number of mules and Chinese muleteers in the Kachin State and the Burma Naga Hills.

Towards the end of 1968 and throughout 1969, R&AW sources in the Kachin State of Burma started reporting…

The then officers of the IB had sent out a wake-up call by drawing the attention of the policy-makers to the national security implications of this development in the areas adjoining the Indian border in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. But they were ridiculed and accused of nursing imaginary fears.

It was realised only belatedly that these muleteers were actually Chinese Army and intelligence officers based in Yunnan, who had taken up position across our border in Burmese territory in the months before the invasion. After the war was over, there was a steep drop in the number of mules and Chinese muleteers in North Burma.

In 1968, the Governments of India and Burma agreed to set up a Joint Commission for the Demarcation of the Indo-Burmese boundary except in the northern and southern trijunctions.

Kao spoke to the then Foreign Secretary and persuaded him to include me in the Commission under the cover of a Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs dealing with the North-East.

By that time, Indira Gandhi had decided to bifurcate the IB and create the R&AW under the charge of Kao. It was, therefore, decided that I, along with the Burma Branch, would stand transferred to the R&AW, but I would keep the late MML Hooja, the then Director, IB, in the picture regarding my work.

Our concern was that the continued intrusions might be linked to the developments in East Pakistan and might have been intended to deter any Indian action in East Pakistan.

Kao, therefore, took Hooja’s concurrence for my being the joint representative of the R&AW and the IB in the Commission. My membership of the Commission gave me an opportunity to travel frequently and widely in remote areas of North Burma.

The Commission used to meet alternately in India and Burma. Normally, joint aerial photography of the border areas is the starting point for the demarcation work. At a meeting of the Commission in Rangoon, the Indian delegation proposed that such aerial photography be undertaken. We added that since the Burmese Air Force might not have a plane capable of good aerial photography, we would be happy to request the Indian Air Force to do this job for the Commission and that we would not charge the Burmese Government for it. A Burmese officer could be attached to the IAF for guiding in the aerial photography mission, we said.

The Burmese replied that they already had aerial photographs of the Indo-Burma bordering areas, and that we could use them as the starting point.

The photographs were of excellent quality. Totally surprised, we asked them how they took them since their Air Force did not have a plane capable of taking such aerial photography. To our shock, they replied: “Our Chinese friends helped us. We sought their help. They sent a plane of their Air Force to fly over the Indo-Burmese border to take the photographs.”

When we strongly protested against their allowing a Chinese Air Force plane to fly over our sensitive border areas and take photographs without our permission, the Burmese replied: “We will never let down our Indian friends. We did take your prior permission.”

They then showed us a note from the then Indian Ambassador in Rangoon to their Foreign Office, stating that the Government of India would have no objection to their requesting the Chinese for assistance in the aerial photography.

On my return to Delhi, I briefed Kao about this, and suggested that he should advise the Prime Minister to order an enquiry into how a matter having serious national security implications was handled so casually, and fix responsibility.

Kao replied: “Raman, the R&AW has only recently got going. We will need the goodwill of the Ministry of External Affairs for functioning in the Indian embassies abroad. By raising this with the Prime Minister, we will unnecessarily be creating hostility to the R&AW in the MEA. I will mention this breach of security to the Foreign Secretary and let him decide what further needs to be done.” Nothing further was done.

Towards the end of 1968 and throughout 1969, R&AW sources in the Kachin State of Burma started reporting that taking advantage of the absence of Burmese military presence in the areas of the Kachin State to the East and the South-East of Myitkyina and also in the Bhamo area—-all adjoining the Yunnan border— a large number of Chinese troops from Yunnan had infiltrated into the Burmese territory in these areas and set up camps. The sources also reported that the Burmese Government had not taken any action against these intrusions.

One of my tasks as the head of the Burma branch was to closely monitor these intrusions should there be indications of these troops moving further Westwards towards the Indian border. Some of these troops went back into Yunnan in 1970, but others stayed put in Burmese territory till the 1971 war in East Pakistan was over.

Our concern was that the continued intrusions might be linked to the developments in East Pakistan and might have been intended to deter any Indian action in East Pakistan. But, further enquiries indicated that this was not so.

After the Chinese Communists extended their control over Yunnan post-1949, the surviving remnants of the anti-Communist Kuomintang (KMT) troops had crossed over into the Kachin and Shan States of Burma and set up bases there. Beijing was exercising pressure on Rangoon to expel them from Burmese territory. We assessed that the troop intrusions into the Burmese territory were meant to reinforce that pressure and had nothing to do with the developments in East Pakistan.

There was concern in the intelligence communities of India as well as the US that the Chinese might establish their control over North Burma by exploiting the weaknesses of the Burmese Government. This did not happen. The Chinese troops withdrew from the Burmese territory in the 1970s after the KMT remnants were airlifted to Taiwan.

Two questions often posed are: Indira Gandhi could have at least ordered the liberation of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan), which India considers as an integral part of its territory under illegal Pakistani occupation. Why she did not do so?

This shared concern brought about a close working relationship between the R&AW and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in North Burma. Thus, one saw the curious spectacle of the US intelligence colluding with the ISI in assisting the Khalistan movement in Indian Punjab, with the Chinese intelligence for preventing a break-up of West Pakistan by India and with the Indian intelligence for preventing a possible Chinese take-over of North Burma. This may appear strange and incomprehensible, but such things are normal in the intelligence profession.

As the war in East Pakistan was reaching its climax, Nixon, reportedly as advised by Kissinger, ordered the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier of the US Navy, to move into the Bay of Bengal. It reached there on December 11,1971. What was the purpose of the movement? The generally accepted assessment held that it was meant to convey a warning to India to stop the war after the liberation of Bangladesh and not to break up West Pakistan. Pressure from the policy-makers for more intelligence about the US intentions increased on the R&AW.

The R&AW felt handicapped in meeting the demands for intelligence about the movement of US ships and about the US intentions since it had very little capability for the collection of hard intelligence about countries other than India’s neighbours and its capability for the collection of maritime intelligence was very weak. The follow-up action taken to remove these inadequacies will be discussed in a subsequent chapter.

Contrary to the fears of Pakistan, the US and China, Indira Gandhi had no intention of breaking up West Pakistan. She knew it would be counter-productive and antagonize large sections of the international community, which appreciated the compulsions on India to act in East Pakistan. Moreover, the only area of West Pakistan ripe for supportive action was Balochistan, but it did not have a contiguous border with India. Any Indian support could have been only by sea. This was not feasible. Moreover, any support to the Baloch nationalists would have sounded the alarm bells in Iran and antagonized the Shah of Iran. For these reasons, the idea of a possible break-up of West Pakistan was not even contemplated by her. Any intervention in West Pakistan would have added to the feelings of humiliation of the Pakistani Armed Forces and large sections of its people. This would not have been in the long-term interests of India.

As the war ended, the R&AW and Kao were the toasts of the policy-makers.

Two questions often posed are: Indira Gandhi could have at least ordered the liberation of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan), which India considers as an integral part of its territory under illegal Pakistani occupation. Why she did not do so?

India had taken 93,000 Pakistani military personnel prisoners of war in East Pakistan. Why did she hand them over to Pakistan under the Shimla Agreement of 1972, without insisting on a formal recognition in writing by Pakistan that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India?

Nobody knows the definitive answers to these questions. My assessment is that she wanted to be generous to Pakistan at the hour of its greatest humiliation due to the misdeeds of its army and to strengthen the political leadership of Pakistan and enable it to stand up to the Army.

If this was her expectation, it was belied. Within five years of the Shimla Agreement, the Pakistan Army headed by Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the elected Government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had him executed after a sham trial. Misplaced generosity should have no place in our relations with Pakistan.

As the war ended, the R&AW and Kao were the toasts of the policy-makers. During 1971, Kao emerged as one of the most trusted advisers of Indira Gandhi. He enjoyed this trust till her assassination on October 31,1984. During 1971, she did not take any important decision regarding the crisis in East Pakistan and her conduct of the war without consulting him.

The Armed Forces had nothing but the highest praise for the performance of the R&AW in East Pakistan, but its performance on the Western front, where the Army did not do as well as in the East, came in for some criticism.

Kao and the officers, who contributed to the success of the R&AW in 1971, came to be known as the Kaoboys of the R&AW. No one knows for certain, who coined this title. Some say Indira Gandhi herself…

Despite this, everyone was agreed that 1971 was the R&AW’s finest hour. There were dozens of officers of different ages and different ranks, who contributed to its brilliant performance under the leadership of Kao and K.Sankaran Nair, his No.2.

Kao was 53 years old in 1971 and Nair 50. Nair was an Indian Police officer from the undivided Madras cadre and succeeded Kao as the head of the organization in 1977, but quit after a few months due to reported differences with Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister. He was considered one of the outstanding operational officers produced by the Indian intelligence community since India became independent in 1947. He and Kao became legends in their time in the R&AW.

Kao and the officers, who contributed to the success of the R&AW in 1971, came to be known as the Kaoboys of the R&AW. No one knows for certain, who coined this title. Some say Indira Gandhi herself; others say Appa B.Pant, the former Indian High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to Italy; and some others say T.N. Kaul, former Foreign Secretary.

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Whoever coined it, it fitted those magnificent officers, who participated in the operations of 1971. George H.W. Bush, the father of the present US President, held office as the Director of the CIA for a brief period under President Gerald Ford from November,1975 to January,1977. He became a close friend of Kao. He had heard from the CIA station chief in New Delhi about Kao and his officers being fondly called the Kaoboys of the R&AW by Indira Gandhi and others.

It is said that during a visit paid by Kao to the CIA headquarters in Washington DC, Bush gifted to him a small bronze statue of a cowboy. Kao always used to keep it on his table in his office.

He had a large replica of this statue made by Sadiq, a sculptor from Kolkata, and gifted it to the R&AW. If you happen to visit the headquarters of the R&AW, you will find this statue of the cowboy in the foyer as you enter the building. Kao, who was himself a good sculptor, was a student of Sadiq. Sadiq made the face of the cowboy resemble that of Kao.

It stands there as Kao’s tribute to the magnificent, but unknown to the nation and unsung Kaoboys of 1971.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

B Raman

Former, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai & Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. He is the author of The Kaoboys of R&AW, A Terrorist State as a Frontline Ally,  INTELLIGENCE, PAST, PRESENT & FUTUREMumbai 26/11: A Day of Infamy and Terrorism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

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3 thoughts on “Role of R&AW in Liberation of Bangladesh

  1. Sir,

    I am a Bengali born in 1971 and work as a writer/director in Mumbai. The creation of Bangladesh and the involvement of RAW in the entire episode and that periiod in the history of the subcontinent haunts me as a writer and a creative person. I would be really grateful if I could get some assistance from you on some work that I plan to do on 1971.

  2. Indira Gandhi lost the war during negotiations with the crafty cheater Bhutto after the spectacular victory in Dec1971 in the closed confinesof the room of Indian Institute of Advanced studies Shimla CALLED RASHTRAPATI NIWAS where the meeting was held with no advisers. SOME SAY THE CRYING BHUTTO FOOLED HER , by saying AS A mother , women , sister daughter she should leave the POWS who have their FAMILIES WAITING FOR THEM. some say he blackmailed her . The BJP pm later on Atal Bihari Vajpayee DESCRIBED HER AS A DURGA , inthe parliament hall. whatever the truth it went with her and zulifiqar bhutto as both are no more . The pakistani CODE FOR the success of the fruitful meeting was ladka hua hai typical in subcontinental male expression of domination . perhaps Raw and IB would know the truth as if they were professional the room would have been bugged and analysis done later of the transcriptions . Her kashmiri advisers KAO , HAKSARS AND KAULS CERTIANLY WERE NO FOOLSand if they were not privy to the full spectrum of discussions later on it is possible she kept the secret away from them also and took it with her to her grave . Public declassification ofthe documents and record of the minutes of the meeting now should make a interesting reading to the old timers who were young boys and girls in 1971.

  3. Excellent work. All Indians must be grateful to these officers and men of R&AW for what they did for the sake of our mother land.

    I am afraid that openly writing in detail about these matters in a book may adversely affect the performance of our intelligence agencies in future. As I am not a professional I do not know for sure. Patriotic intelligence experts like Mr. Raman should know and even if there is a semblance of doubt they should refrain from writing such details.

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