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Beyond the legacy of secrecy

RAW, the external intelligence agency of the country, can only benefit from being made accountable in the legal sense.

I RECENTLY had the great privilege of being the first outsider, unconnected to the security community, to deliver a lecture within the premises of RAW, our country's external intelligence agency. The occasion was the first R.N. Kao Memorial Lecture, on of the fifth anniversary of the death of the legendary Rameshwar Nath Kao.

Moving force

I had never met the man in whose honour I spoke. But his story is a compelling one — from joining the Police as a 22-year-old in 1940, moving to the Intelligence Bureau in 1947, winning numerous honours and medals and serving in 1963 as the first director of the Aviation Research Centre, India's first technological intelligence agency. In 1968 Kao took charge as the first head of a new external intelligence agency with the innocuous name of Research and Analysis Wing. (I am told that many of the agency's professionals prefer to speak of it as "R & AW", whereas like others infected by the media, I like the sound of "RAW".)

Kao and RAW proved themselves in the lead-up to and the conduct of the 1971 war with Pakistan; his bureaucratic reward came with elevation to the level of Secretary to the Government in 1973. After his formal retirement at age 58, Kao continued to advise the Government at the highest levels, providing invaluable advice on various issues relating to the country's national security. Between 1981 and 1984 he served as Security Advisor to the Cabinet, in effect as the first National Security Advisor. His role in setting up the Policy and Research Staff as an in-house think-tank became the forerunner to today's national Security Council Secretariat. He was a pioneer in intelligence co-ordination, that bugbear of so many national security systems. The personal links Kao maintained with foreign intelligence chiefs served the country well in many ways that most of us will never learn about. (Kao even set up the intelligence service of Ghana.) And he had a sense of humour — when critics in the bureaucracy described RAW agents as "Kao-boys," he promptly commissioned a fibreglass sculpture of a cowboy and installed it in the foyer of the RAW building.

Kao's own interest in sculpting was, appropriately enough, in iron, and he was known for his fine collection of Gandhara paintings. As a writer, my one regret is that he never wrote his memoirs, despite earning his Masters in English Literature at Allahabad University. Rather like the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, the legend goes — I heard it from one of his juniors — that R.N. Kao has been photographed in public only twice. There might be an element of exaggeration there, but there is no doubt that his death in January 2002 robbed the country of one whose contribution to building the nation — a safe and secure India — is immeasureable and yet will never be widely known. It is as a consequence of his tireless efforts that the foundations of modern intelligence in India were laid and an edifice constructed that protects the nation to this day. Kao made an enduring impact on the training and professional development of an entire generation of intelligence professionals.

Part of the profession

Some of the secrecy that is part of Kao's legacy is natural and understandable. Some of it may merit greater debate. As the Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat, RAW is not a separate department of the Government and is therefore not answerable to Parliament. The funds allotted to it are not audited in the usual way, again for understandable reasons, but equally any form of public judgement or performance audit that it faces is almost always political rather than professional, with the agency regularly being blamed and traduced in the media without any objective means of defending itself. I suspect that many of the professionals in RAW would benefit from the agency being made accountable in the legal sense, so that they can do their assigned work as a legitimate government body and receive appropriate recognition and criticism for their performance.

A puzzle

I am sure that many would disagree with this, and would celebrate the fact that RAW is relatively little known to the informed international public. Nonetheless, RAW's exact locus within the Indian strategic establishment has remained a puzzle even to many well-informed observers. Our diplomats are not always noted for valuing intelligence inputs in foreign policy making; our internal intelligence institutions, including the police and the army, do not want RAW's expertise in counter-terrorism to amount to meddling in issues of internal security. Indeed, RAW's contribution to Indian foreign policy and national political objectives has never been properly documented: even the study commissioned by R.N. Kao of RAW's work on the 1971 war has never seen the light of day. In any country, an external intelligence organisation should always serve as an effective, even if necessarily hidden, arm of foreign policy. But part of that effectiveness comes from a knowledgeable sense of the organisation's performance. I think it is a great pity if it is true that, as I am told, secrecy has gone to the point where many who serve in RAW themselves do not have a sense of their own history.


Today, informed knowledge about external threats to the nation, the fight against terrorism, a country's strategic outreach, its geopolitically-derived sense of its national interest, and the way in which it articulates and projects its presence on the international stage, are all intertwined, and are inseparable from its internal dynamics. There can no longer be a watertight division between intelligence and policy-making, external intelligence and internal reality, foreign policy and domestic society. Indeed even the very image of our intelligence apparatus contributes to the way India is perceived abroad. This is why I welcomed the invitation to speak at RAW. I hope that, in the years to come, its doors will open even wider.

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