This is not what India’s premier intelligence agencies should be doing

27 June 2014
The appointment of former solicitor general Gopal Subramanium as a Supreme Court judge was blocked on the basis of a questionable intelligence report, one of several such recent reports.
AP Images
The appointment of former solicitor general Gopal Subramanium as a Supreme Court judge was blocked on the basis of a questionable intelligence report, one of several such recent reports.
AP Images

On 20 June, the front page of the Indian Express had three stories sourced from the Intelligence Bureau or the Central Bureau of Investigation. The flier on the page stated that Raghu Raman, the CEO of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), was not being given an extension due to an IB report documenting his “misconduct” with foreign nationals. The lead story dealt with a “categorical opinion” by the CBI arguing against Gopal Subramaniam’s elevation as a judge of the Supreme Court, and the third was a follow up of the impact on Greenpeace of the IB’s report that NGOs were stalling India’s economic growth. In each report the agency concerned seemed to echo the government line, and the news reports had faithfully reproduced the tenor of the allegations. Sceptism, if any, about the quality of intelligence, the veracity of the information or the convenience of the allegations, was relegated to a few opinion pieces carried on subsequent days.

The Indian Express was only reflecting a long-term trend in the media that is being exploited by the current government. Praveen Donthi, reporting on India’s “compromised security beat” in the December 2013 issue of The Caravan, had noted: “The price of access to early and ongoing information is a willingness to report it more or less as it comes, without too much regard for its provenance.” But even that does not explain the tendency of editors to go along with what their reporters bring back, even when the evidence seems to suggest the government had arranged to make the report available widely.

Editors in Delhi largely come in two shades. The first, and this is particularly true of television, consists of those who have been correspondents but over the years developed a far too easy access to Delhi’s power elite, which includes senior IB officials, and have become willing tools in the hands of a powerful ruling dispensation. The second consists of those who have never reported—though some may have spent their time writing on food or music, others have been restricted to the desk for much of their careers. Neither is good preparation for understanding how the IB functions.

I first encountered IB operatives while reporting in Punjab for the Indian Express from districts such as Ludhiana and Jalandhar. Everyone knew these inspector-level field operatives. They had been based in these towns for a long time and, perforce, had developed a good working relationship with most journalists and politicians. Often their demands extended to no more than knowing what had transpired at a press conference behind closed doors.

They were, for the most part, men who were good at their work, but though the border state was just recovering from militancy, much of their time was spent tracking political activity because their superiors had very little interest in the work the agency was really supposed to do. The reports they filed—and this is true even for the reports that have so conveniently begun surfacing after Narendra Modi has taken charge—were based as much on gossip and innuendo as they were on facts that could be substantiated. Leave alone meeting the standards of evidence in a court, if these reports were filed as news reports without the crutch of the IB name, any good editor would toss them aside.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

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