Spy Reforms

When the Home Ministry charts out changes in national security apparatus, it is time they include Indian espionage in the review

Since P Chidambaram became the Home Minister, the government has been busy setting up what it calls ‘the new architecture of national security.’ AP PHOTO/GAUTAM SINGH
01 March, 2010

VERY RARELY DO WE HEAR wise words from Indian vice-presidents. This is because the position is often occupied by our not so successful politicians, who, once ensconced at the two and a half hectare VP’s bungalow on Maulana Azad Road, remain careful to avoid uttering anything to upset their chances for a potential ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan—138 hectares and of far greater standing in history. So VPs often stay out of debates, let alone start them. But on 19 January 2010, Hamid Ansari, career-diplomat-turned Vice-President said something that I thought was very wise of someone from that position. He spoke of the need to democratise our Intelligence. Ansari was addressing senior intelligence officers at the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) headquarters, India’s external espionage service, in an annual lecture.

Ansari uttered three words that all spies detest: scrutiny, accountability, and liability. In the first of any such official call, the VP proposed the need for political, financial and legal scrutiny and setting up a Standing Committee of Parliament on Intelligence to make the agencies accountable to the legislature, like in dozens of other democracies. If and when this happens, it would mean significant changes to the way Indian spies operate.

Ansari’s call came at a crucial time. After the Mumbai terrorist attack in November 2008 and since PC Chidambaram became Home Minister, the government has been busy setting up what it calls ‘the new architecture of national security.’ Changes included the formation of some new agencies to sizeably reduce the scope of some old-guard offices, like that of the National Security Advisor. There are at least a dozen intelligence and enforcement services operating under different ministries, which the ministry has proposed to bring under one central command, the National Counter Terrorism Centre. And, of course, further changes would involve removals, transfers and new appointments. Thus, in some 14 months, PC Chidambaram has created the image of an ultimate saviour of national security.

Some of this hype must be true. Like what I’ve been seeing with my neighbour, an under secretary in the Home Ministry. He used to leave for the office around 11 am with me, a journalist, when Shivraj Patil was still Home Minister. En route to the office, a small black bag around his wrist contained only his lunch box. Since Patil was removed on accusations of inefficiency and Chidambaram was appointed, I’ve been spotting my neighbour leaving as early as 8 am. He’s upsized to a shoulder bag that now carries bulky bundles of papers. He’s clearly begun bringing his pending work home.

So at least some of what Chidambaram is doing must be good. But what he hasn’t addressed—besides actually making his men work, cutting to size the powers of a few old offices, and creating new agencies—is the key question of reforming the Intelligence, an important factor in the success of any country’s security. Chidambaram’s speeches on the new architecture are full of buzzwords like ‘efficiency,’ ‘fast response,’ and ‘law enforcement,’ which can only achieve so much, since he doesn’t demonstrate any critical understanding of the way intelligence services work—yet he shows full faith in them. This was where I thought the Vice-President’s speech was wise, since he argued for ‘accountability,’ ‘scrutiny,’ and ‘liability.’ And those calls are more in line with what is wrong with India’s Intelligence.

Like so many other institutions, our Intelligence traces its lineage to British colonialism. Our federal agency, the 122-year old Intelligence Bureau (IB) was originally created to spy on men like Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Azad and Nehru. In the intervening century and a quarter, we’ve done little to de-colonise it. The highly localised network of the District and State Special Branches operate independently under each state government.

The foreign espionage agency, RAW, was created in 1968 as a result of India losing the war to China. Then there are the numerous military and financial intelligence units. All these agencies continue with the same working principle, culture and purpose, comfortably positioned as esoteric services with high rates of impunity and infallibility.

This was perhaps the attitude of Intelligence agencies the world over until a few decades ago. (Most notably, in the case of the CIA’s myriad proxy wars.). Most democracies have since moved on, bringing their Intelligence under Parliamentary oversight: Intelligence in the UK is accountable to the legislature on policy and finance; Intelligence in the US on policy and operations; in Norway, it is governed by rule of law and rights.

Now with all these safeguards, one should rightly ask, how better off are US and UK intelligence agencies than India’s? Hasn’t their false information resulted in two wars since 9/11? It’s true, I agree; but at least their faulty Intelligence was brought under public scrutiny, and there are some mechanisms in place to examine such Intelligence failures (like the ‘US Senate Select Committee on Pre War Intelligence’ in 2004), and to hold trials (like the ‘Iraq Inquiry’ now in progress in London, whose chief is empowered to call any British document or any British citizen before the Inquiry— including, most recently, former Prime Minister Tony Blair). In India, since there is no legislative body overseeing Intelligence, there is no way for the public to scrutinise the political, ideological and financial aspects of our intelligence operations.

India’s Intelligence failures aren’t perhaps resulting in its Army invading another country (that may be due to our limited imperial aspirations at this point in history), but even on India’s relatively smaller canvas, the public should know the extent of our Intelligence’s role in arming the vigilante groups in Chattisgarh and West Bengal, conducting covert operations in Kashmir and the Northeast and the working of the Special Branch in the climate of caste and religious tensions in Haryana, Gujarat and Karnataka. The transgressions of our intelligence services are arguably worse than invading another county because we’ve allowed public agencies to operate outside the framework of law and turn this against our own people, with no public scrutiny whatsoever.

The financial side of our intelligence service is even more appalling. Something that comes to my mind easily is a 2006 incident, involving the Director General of Police of Jharkhand, Vishnu Dayal Ram, who withdrew, in cash, 56 million rupees from the Secret Service Fund (SSF). Taken from a treasury in Ranchi, he put the money in sacks and stored them in the boot of his car. Now a local citizen has filed a PIL against him, which is being heard in the Jharkhand High Court. If one small state’s chief cop was found doing this, I can’t imagine how much our Special Branches, IB, RAW and other agencies are spending a year, how this money is used on the ground, and of course, at the end of the day, what this money ends up achieving? The third question is polemic, but if I apply for details regarding the first two questions under the Right to Information Act, I’ll have no luck. It’s classified.

There is also gross negligence from the Parliament on this issue. Until today, RAW doesn’t have its formation approved with an act, which is mandatory for setting up even a university. That means governments for 42 years incurred expenses to a body that is not approved by the Parliament.

The Vice-President’s call for ‘accountability,’ ‘liability,’ and ‘scrutiny,’ therefore, to me, sounded like a very wise and long-overdue call. Minister Chidambaram, however, is caught up in what seems like the business of tweaking the structure. But, what if it is the foundation itself that needs some even larger shake ups.