Originally Published 2004-05-17 11:03:58 Published on May 17, 2004
On The RAW Hunt
Ever since Major Rabinder Singh, a Joint Secretary of the Research & Analysis Wing, fled the country, it is the RAW season in the media. Not a day passes without some article or the other appearing in some newspaper or the other, describing in worrisome detail what the writers project as the rot that has set in the organisation over the years, which enabled alleged traitors like Rabinder Singh to flourish. Some of the writers are close relatives of serving and retired officers of the organisation. 

Unfortunately, there is no conflict of interest rule in the media which could force them to identify their relatives so that the readers could judge for themselves whether the articles are objective or influenced in any manner by the personal interests, prejudices or anti-RAW grouse of their relatives. In some instances, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the writers may be batting for their relatives.

This is not the first time that the media has been on a RAW hunt. It did so in 1977 after Indira Gandhi and her Congress Party were routed in the elections and the coalition led by Morarji Desai came to power. Go back to the media of those heady days. What allegations were not made against it--having a torture chamber in the basement of its office where Indira Gandhi's opponents were supposed to be tortured; passing on secret service funds to the sister of the Shah of Iran without the permission of the Government; harassing the NRI community abroad and collecting funds from them for Indira Gandhi and such like.

Before the election, Morarji Desai had described the RAW as the praetorian guard of Indira Gandhi and had promised that after coming to power he would wind it up. He did not. When he called for the files, he realised that these allegations were not true. His Government made a statement in the Parliament absolving RAW of any suspicion of wrong-doing in connection with the payment of money to the sister of the Shah of Iran. The late Charan Singh, the then Home Minister, had the generosity to send for the late R.N. Kao, who was the head of the RAW during the Emergency, and tell him that after coming to office they realised that the allegations made by them against the organisation during the election campaign were wrong. Kao used to be moved to tears every time he narrated this incident.

The second RAW hunt 

The second RAW hunt took place in 1983. The late N.F.Suntook, an officer of the Indian Frontier Administration Service, was to retire as the head of the RAW on March 31 and a farewell party was arranged in his honour. The previous day Mrs. Gandhi asked him to proceed to a friendly foreign country on a sensitive mission. To enable him to do so, his service was extended by a few days and the farewell party was postponed without giving any reason.

Suntook was disliked by some lower members of the staff against whom he had taken disciplinary action. One of them planted on a New Delhi correspondent of the Telegraph of Calcutta a story that there was panic in the government because the Intelligence Bureau had found that Suntook was a mole of the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and that, before he could be arrested, he had fled to the USA via Kathmandu carrying a large number of top secret files.

The Telegraph carried it on the front page under an eight-column banner headline. Other newspapers picked up the story and went to town about the rot they claimed to have discovered in the organisation. Suntook returned from his foreign assignment on April 7 and retired the next day. A farewell party was held in his honour. 

The media would not accept that they had erred in their reporting, despite the government taking up the matter with the Press Council.

After his retirement, Suntook served for two years as a member of the Minorities Commission and then settled down to a life of retirement in a small house in Gurgaon. His wife died in 1991 and he was living alone with none to help him. In 1993, his health started deteriorating. A leading national daily of New Delhi, which came to know of this, carried a report accusing the RAW of failing to take care of a former distinguished head of the organisation in his failing health.

The RAW pointed out to the paper that in 1983 the media had projected him as a CIA mole who had fled to the US and asked how come they were now describing him as a former distinguished chief, who was living alone, uncared for. There was no reply.

In 1986-87, an Indian Police Service officer of the RAW posted in Chennai was found by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to have been working for an officer of the CIA posted in the US Consulate in Chennai. On receipt of the IB report, the RAW not only interrogated him in association with the IB, but also had him dismissed under Article 311 (2) (b) of the Constitution and jailed in Tihar for a year though Rajiv Gandhi advised it against the extreme step of jailing him lest it prove counter-productive.

After V.P.Singh took over as the Prime Minister in 1989, Arun Nehru and Ram Jethmalani wrote to him complaining that on the orders of Rajiv Gandhi, the RAW had harassed them during their travels abroad and kept them under surveillance. Singh ordered Vinod Pandey, the then Cabinet Secretary, to enquire into the matter. Pandey could not find any evidence in support of the allegations.

There is no government department or private company without instances of misdeeds by some members of the staff or the other. Intelligence agencies, not only in India, but also in other countries have had their share of such misdeeds. The RAW is not an exception. It is not an organisation of saints, but of human beings, like you and me. Where there are human beings, there is bound to be frailty in some of them.

The question is not whether there was frailty in some elements in the RAW. The RAW would be the first to concede that there were instances of frailty in the past and there have been instances of frailty recently, the Rabindra Singh case being one of them. The question is whether such instances were sought to be covered up by the organisation by taking advantage of its cloak of secrecy. No. To my knowledge, there was not a single instance in the past when the RAW had tried to cover up such instances. In fact, it was the organisation which took the initiative in bringing the misdeeds of some elements in its staff to the notice of the government and the political leadership and initiated action against them, where called for.

In its 36 years of existence, there were six serious instances of misdeeds or suspected misdeeds in the 1970s--one each involving officers of the Army, the Navy and the IPS and three involving ministerial staff. 

The Army officer, along with his wife, went to Canada to visit his sister on a month's leave and did not come back. They sought political asylum claiming that there could be threats to his life if they returned to India because he was a critic of Indira Gandhi. The Canadian Government rejected their request and expelled them. They ultimately settled down in a Latin American country. 

The naval officer, during a posting abroad, developed relationship with an American girl, much younger than him. He returned to India on the completion of his assignment and the organisation suspected that after resigning, he was planning to go abroad and marry her. 

It had his passport seized and had him banned from travelling abroad. 

The IPS officer returned to India on the completion of his assignment, resigned and returned to his country of posting to settle down there and take up a job, initially, as a textiles importer and subsequently in a provincial government. 

The three members of the ministerial staff did not return to India on the completion of their tenure abroad--two in West Europe and one in North America.

Barring the IPS and the Naval officer, the remaining four projected themselves to leading members of the Morarji Desai government, including A.B. Vajpayee, the then Foreign Minister, as victims of the Emergency who were being persecuted because they had refused to carry out the orders of Indira Gandhi. The Morarji Desai government ordered that no action should be taken against them. It also ordered the restoration of the passport facilities to the naval officer so that he could travel abroad.

The RAW was remiss in action only in the case of the IPS officer. The fact that he belonged to a fairly well-known ex-princely family and had good social relations with leading lights of New Delhi stood in the way of any action against him. In none of these cases, was there any evidence to suggest that they might be working for any foreign intelligence agency.

In the 1980s , there were four instances of serious misdeeds or suspected misdeeds--two involving Army officers, one an IPS officer and the fourth a scientist. 

The two Army officers, who were posted abroad, turned out to be alcoholics and created considerable embarrassment for the organisation. On their return, they were debarred from any other foreign posting and faded away. 

The IPS officer was the CIA mole referred to above, who was got dismissed and jailed. 

The scientist, given to many bad habits, came under pressure from a suspected CIA officer to work for the CIA. He had the good sense to tell his superiors about it and was withdrawn. 

There was no suspicion against the two Army officers of working for any foreign agency.

In the 1990s , there were allegations against three IPS officers, two Army officers, one from a Central Service and one from the ministerial cadre. 

The allegations against two of the IPS officers related to their drinking habits and they had to be withdrawn from their posting abroad and one of them was reverted to his cadre. The allegation against the third IPS officer, who had taken premature retirement and entered the world of business in association with the Central Service officer, related to their using their contacts in the organisation for promoting their business interests. The Central Service officer had been reverted to the parent service following allegations of wrong-doing. In none of these cases, was there any suspicion of contacts with foreign intelligence agencies. 

One of the two Army officers, while returning to his country of posting after a vacation in West Europe, was caught by the local Customs while carrying a revolver in his baggage without declaring its purchase by him in West Europe. Unfortunately, this was the second instance in which the organisation was remiss in action, presumably because of his connections in Delhi. However, in the case of the second Army officer there was suspicion of possible contacts with the intelligence agency of a Gulf country. He was sent on premature retirement. 

The member of the ministerial staff had taken premature retirement on the ground that he had to help his elder brother in running their family business in Mumbai. He left for Mumbai after retirement. Some months later, the Indian Tourism Office in the US reported that he had applied for a job there. 

There was some suspicion as to why he concealed from the organisation his intention to go abroad and how he managed to get a visa. No concrete evidence of his working for a foreign agency could, however, be found. 

The RAW did make an effort to have his passport impounded in order to force him to return to India for interrogation, but the then political leadership felt that the fact that he went abroad after retirement without the knowledge of the organisation was not sufficient ground for impounding his passport. Hence, no further action was taken.

A perusal of the above would show that except in the case of the IPS officer belonging to a well-connected ex-princely family and the Army officer caught smuggling a revolver, the RAW had been honourable and prompt in acting against misdeeds whenever they came to its notice. And it had kept the political leadership of the day informed of the misdeeds and the action taken by it. There has been no instance of a cover-up in the history of the RAW.

On coming to office in 1989, V.P.Singh had initiated a move to set up a parliamentary intelligence oversight committee, as suggested by Jaswant Singh, then Chairman of the Estimates Committee. Vinod Pandey, the then Cabinet Secretary, had asked the heads of the IB and the RAW for their views. The then head of the RAW had convened a meeting of his senior officers to discuss the proposal. All of them, without exception, strongly supported the establishment of a Paliamentary Oversight Committee so that they could take advantage of their interactions with the committee to remove misperceptions about the organisation. However, for reasons which were not clear, V.P.Singh decided not to go ahead with his proposal.

If the RAW and its officers are as rotten as they are projected to be, they would not have taken the initiative to urge that they be subjected to parliamentary oversight.

All this should not detract from the gravity of the case of Rabinder Singh. In the history of the Indian intelligence since 1947, there has not been a single instance of the penetration of either the IB or the RAW by the intelligence agencies of our adversaries, namely, Pakistan and China. Hopefully, there would be no such instance in future. Nor has there been any instance of penetration by the intelligence agencies of friendly countries, other than the USA.

All intelligence agencies, friendly or adversarial, try to penetrate the various departments of our government. The Soviet and Russian agencies have penetrated many departments. The French agency even penetrated our Prime Minister's office when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister. But, generally, agencies of friendly countries do not try to penetrate each other because penetration of the intelligence agency of a friendly country could have serious negative implications for State-to-State relations.

The US agencies are an exception to this rule of good conduct in the intelligence profession. For the CIA, there is no Lakshman rekha. It is all the time looking for opportunities to penetrate not only other government departments, but also the IB and the RAW. It had succeeded in penetrating the RAW in the 1980s and the IB in the 1990s. It had been thwarted twice by the RAW and the IB in its efforts to penetrate them.

Rabinder Singh's case is their third success in their penetration of the Indian intelligence since 1947. The case raises a number of questions. When did they recruit him? Through money or blackmail? What secrets did he betray? Did they plant disinformation on the RAW and the Govt. of India through him? What damage to the organisation and the nation did he cause? When were his contacts with the CIA first detected? Why was the organisation not able to prevent him from fleeing the country?

The most worrisome aspect of the case is--why did he flee? Generally, intelligence officers who betray their country flee only when in their own mind they realise that they had caused serious damage to the country or when they were working for the intelligence agency of an adversary. Is there any ground for suspicion that in addition to working for the CIA, he might have also been working for the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan? Is that the reason he fled? He had served in field postings where he could have come under pressure from the ISI.

It is hoped that the RAW and the IB, which has the leadership role in counter-intelligence, would be looking into all these questions carefully.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai chapter.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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