The Indian intelligence system: meeting the challenges of a new world

Vikram Sood

Globalisation and international terror have altered the scope and meaning of intelligence collection and operations all over the world. The meaning of the word ‘security’ is now larger than ever before. While global powers with global interests, such as the US — with their resources to match — have ‘gone massive’ in their intelligence overhaul, with a disproportionately huge reliance on technical means of collection and in the privatisation of the means of both collection and analysis, countries such as India — although threatened in the neighbourhood with one hostile neighbour and another with global ambitions — have been slow and limited in how they have overhauled systems to combat new threats because of limited resources and interests.

The changing nature of threats and the technological revolution have altered not only the targets of intelligence operations, but their very core — that is, the process of intelligence collection. Smart phones, satellites and cyber tools have usurped humint — the traditional intelligence tradecraft, made popular by the realistic fiction of Graham Greene and John le Carre. Despite the glamour and promise of technology, the man on the ground still remains the critical link between the real and virtual world of intelligence operations and the core of classical intelligence. This is unlikely to change in any intelligence organisation. The Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, like other similar agencies elsewhere, suffers from paucity of appropriate human talent.


Intelligence operations go back a long way in India’s recorded history. But for the present examination, it would suffice to speak of the birth of modern intelligence operations in India from 1885, when Major General Sir Charles MacGregor, Quarter Master General of the British Indian Army and an authority on Russian plans for India, was made the head of the new intelligence department at Shimla. General MacGregor — himself, an authority on Afghanistan — was given the principal objective of keeping an eye on the Russian troop movements in Afghanistan. In 1909, the unit was officially designated as the Indian Political Intelligence Office, forerunner of the present-day Intelligence Bureau (IB), which later became India’s main domestic intelligence agency.

At the time of independence, intelligence collection symbolised ultimate and secret imperial power that helped its British masters hunt down Indian nationalists or keep a watch on dissidents. It was an agency firmly controlled by the British, with Indian employees to serve imperial interests, and was, therefore, viewed as a successor to imperial power — and, for the people and politicians then in power and even later, an abhorrent legacy. This seemed all too real as the new masters took over from the former masters, but the systems remained the same, both in the district administration and the police at the centre and in the states of the new nation. Not surprisingly, even several years after independence, intelligence agencies and their activities have continued to be suspect and feared by the common man and even by the politician.

The main charter in the early days for Indian intelligence was the communist threat as it was in the British system. Pakistan soon appeared high on the list, especially after the invasion of Kashmir by the Pakistan Army-led tribals. The Telangana uprising became the second threat. The 1962 war with China led to the creation of the Aviation Research Centre for air reconnaissance and electronic intelligence, or Elint, and the Special Service Bureau, a guerrilla unit to counter any future Chinese attacks in the Himalayan region, whose role was later altered to become a border patrol force. A Special Operations group was also established. It was felt after the 1965 war with Pakistan and the Mizo uprising in the north-east that the IB had far too many internal responsibilities and that it was necessary to create an external intelligence agency. In September 1968, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) was created, which became the key external intelligence arm of the Indian state through an executive order of the government and not through any legislative enactment. Years later, the Kargil War of 1999 led to the creation of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the National Technical Facilities (renamed Research) Organisation for the collection of technical intelligence on the pattern of National Security Agency (NSA) of the US and GCHQ of the UK. Several other intelligence coordination and assessment units had been created following the reports of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and the GC Saxena Task Force on Intelligence. The terror attacks in Mumbai (2008) led to the creation of the National Investigation Agency. A National Counter Terror Centre planned after November 2008 has been stillborn as has been the National Intelligence Grid.

Since R&AW was born of the IB, most of its officers were the IB who were — almost without exception — from the Indian Police. However, it was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the R&AW’s founding fathers, Rameshwar Nath Kao and Sankaran Nair, who repeatedly stressed that the R&AW should not become just another police organisation, and should have talent from wherever they could find, including other services of the Government of India. Recruitment to what would be a new service began in 1971 and many other lateral entrants later got absorbed in a service that became their new life. The R&AW went through its roller coaster fortunes with Morarji Desai, an impractical moralist who single-handedly went about denigrating and curtailing an agency barely six years old and a successful one at that. It set back the agency by several years and a restive staff in the early 1980s added to their problems. It began to get back into recognition from the mid-1980s because the good fortune of having both an able organisational leadership and a political leadership that had a strategic mindset that felt the need for a sharp external service was matched by professional performance in handling the external linkages of the Sikh insurgency.

Another important intelligence agency that needs mention is the Military Intelligence (MI), set up by the British in 1941. Its task was primarily to collect field or tactical intelligence for operating units. Although its mandate was confined to a 50-km radius in the earlier years, the

Ml soon expanded its operations into neighbouring countries. Some of its technical and assessment operations have since been taken over by the newly formed DIA. It, however, continues to focus on counter-terrorism operations in the north-east besides field and tactical intelligence on the border with China.

Threat perceptions and operations

Intelligence operations are driven by threat perceptions, strategic interests and capabilities. Threat perceptions in the early days were military threats and subversive activity from Pakistan, a vague suspicion about the West, arising from a socialist-nationalist ethos of the government and a more or less undefined threat from communism while seeking friendship with the Soviet Union. China was considered a threat by sections of the Indian leadership, such as Sardar Valabhbhai Patel, but Nehru tried to keep the Chinese at bay through what he hoped would be conciliatory diplomacy, which at that time appeared irritatingly condescending to the Chinese.

Since the IB was the only central intelligence agency, much of its threat perception was a legacy of the British India — communist Russia and communal elements within India. Pakistan soon became another priority following the 1948 Pakistan attempt to forcibly take over Kashmir through a limited proxy war, precursor to a prolonged one in Kashmir since the 1990s. China came on the radar with its occupation of Tibet in 1950 and the Indian government’s decision to give refuge to HH The Dalai Lama and his followers. Over the years, the IB developed considerable analytical capabilities about China and operational capabilities about Pakistan. This was the l<&AW’s inheritance. It was, however, a Left-wing revolt in what is now Telangana that became the first internal crisis of the new government. Ethnic revolts in north-eastern India in the 1950s and 1960s added to the IB’s lists of security threats.

The revolt of the Nagas in 1956, the flight of their leader A. Z. Phizo and grant of shelter in the UK, assistance to him by Pakistan from East Pakistan, and later, by the Chinese to the Nagas in the 1960s were all India’s first taste of international terrorism, where other nations had connived together or allowed them to operate from their soil or assisted them in other ways. The Naga uprising, India’s China debacle, the India—Pakistan war of 1965 and the revolt of the Mizos in 1966 convinced the government that a separate agency was needed to cover external intelligence and the pressures on the IB were far too heavy for it to be able to deliver adequately on matters of external security. The army had complained that the IB had not kept them informed adequately about Pakistan’s military preparations. As subsequent enquiries established, the IB had, in fact, reported on issues such as the Pakistan Army having raised a new armoured division and constructed anti-tank defences facing India’s Punjab. So also with the trouble brewing among the Mizos, but these reports were also not taken seriously by the political leadership.

The R&AW had been created out of the external division of the IB and almost all the officers that joined R&AW were from the Indian Police Service. Kao firmly believed, and quite rightly, that external intelligence collection and operations were not a police function and that talent had to be drawn from other parts of the civil service in the initial formative years, and subsequently, from the open market. Indira Gandhi agreed with this, and virtually, from the beginning, talent was drawn from other departments and the process for open recruitment had begun. The idea also was not to create what is known in India as a Central Police Organisation (paramilitary organisation), but an intelligence organisation with its own elite core and its own esprit de corps comprising men and women who spend their entire lifetime in the business of intelligence collection. Only then would the agency have true experts and not be run by transient personnel.

India's security structures and the role of intelligence

There is an elaborate structure laid down for handling security and intelligence matters. Principally, the R&AW reports to the prime minister while the IB reports to the home minister. The newest agency, the DIA, should have been reporting to the Chief of Defence Staff, had there been one, but this in now left to the nature of intelligence. Heads of both R&AW have access to the prime minister and any other cabinet member, should they feel the need.

At the apex is the Cabinet Committee on Security, headed by the prime minister with the external affairs minister, home minister, finance minister and defence minister as members, which takes the final decision on security matters. Heads of the armed forces, intelligence agencies and foreign secretaries are required to make presentations from time to time. The National Security Advisor acts as the ex-officio member of the committee.

In India, the role and function of intelligence agencies has varied in importance and relevance, depending more on the inclinations of the chief executive of the country. Bhola Nath Mullick was a powerful intelligence chief in his time and he had the ear ofjawahar Lal Nehru, who was somewhat vague about the value and need of intelligence agencies. As the head of R&AW and because of his personality, Kao was Indira Gandhi’s main intelligence advisor and one of her closest confidantes, who later, was security advisor till her assassination in 1984. He was careful, though, not to involve his organisation in internal security matters and whatever advice he gave on such issues was his own. Kao’s successor had to contend with Morarji Desai, but he handled this well. G. C. ‘Gary’ Saxena was the head of R&AW during both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s time; both were supportive and the son was even more enthusiastic about what R&AW could — and did — achieve. Post-Rajiv Gandhi, there was a virtual drought for a decade as none of the successors were interested in what the R&AW did.

It was during the NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the R&AW and IB regained lost ground. Although the NSA system was introduced, the first NSA, Brajesh Mishra, functioned more as Vajpayee’s principal secretary and the R&AW did not report to him as NSA. The NSC met perhaps once during the Vajpayee term. Mishra’s successor, Mani Dixit, was the first full-time NSA during UPA1 of Manmohan Singh from 2004. After his premature death in January 2005, it was M.K. Narayanan. It was during his term that the NSA became the government’s chief intelligence officer, micromanaging the intelligence agencies instead of dealing with the big picture and the two intelligence chiefs were denied regular access to the prime minister. The NSA had become an intelligence provider instead of being an intelligence consumer, and therefore, an adviser.

Manpower issues and challenges

From its inception in 1947, the IB has remained an exclusively police organisation with all middle and higher management posts manned by officers of the Indian Police Service. This does lend to an esprit de corps, but also keeps other talent and expertise out of the system in the modern age, where threat perceptions have altered considerably. The R&AW had its share of manpower woes — disinterest among the educated youth in pursuing a career in intelligence, turf war among various police, military and civil services for plum postings and positions, absence of review mechanism, in-service training and disconnect with the talent pool available outside the services.

The most serious problem — common to all agencies — has been the shortage of staff. IB, for instance, with a vast mandate of gathering intelligence on internal security, economic and political intelligence in a country of 1.2 billion people, had a staff strength of a few thousand with even fewer field operatives and the rest were support staff. The R&AW, an even smaller organisation, has had similar manpower shortages.


A different problem marks the hunt for senior officers — that of an insufficiently deep-skilled human capital pool. The fact that Indian agencies do not use an open and direct recruitment channel, and follow staffing of personnel through the civil services examination, does not give much scope for checking out the aptitude for intelligence or early recruitment. Those who join could be too old for in-service career or aptitude moulding.

Recruitment to the intelligence agencies through the civil services is not a selection process, but merely an elimination process, and not an assessment of merit or aptitude. Besides, the wages are not attractive enough nor is career advancement any better. The civil service no longer provides men and women of the requisite talent, ability, commitment and expertise. The R&AW and the IB need more and more professional intelligence officers who are homegrown, who are assisted by a never-ending supply of qualified economists, scientists, computer whiz kids, mathematicians and experts in international banking and finance. Area and subject expertise gets built in-house over a period of time. Such talents do not come cheap, nor do security or preservation and enhancement of the country’s interest. Recruitment has to be from the open market, offering competitive remunerations, fast tracks for the efficient and an exit for others.

The other problem has been recruitment of part-time intelligence officers. The age of the generalist and the bird of passage is surely over. An officer on secondment from other departments comes without area expertise, language skills and does not necessarily have the attitude, time or incentive to acquire these skills during his tenure, long or short. His temporary stay in the intelligence service brings no permanent skill or help build esprit de corps. With newer opportunities in the corporate world, there is difficulty in attracting the right talent to the civil service and to the R&AW.

Handling international terror and intelligence cooperation

In the early days, the R&AW received assistance from the CIA, SIS, BND and KGB. There were close relations with the DGSE, Mossad and Khad, the Afghan Agency. In a triangular arrangement, KGB and Khad cooperated with R&AW to provide information relating to assistance given by the Pakistanis to Khalistani terrorists in their camps in the NWFP (now known as ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’, KPK).

This was also the time of the Afghan jihad and the CIA had trained the 1SI on how to fabricate high-tech explosive devices for use as vehicular bombs and other sabotage techniques, accompanied by a generous supply of explosive ancillaries. The IS1 diverted some of these techniques and supplies for use by the Khalistanis. It was through the Khad and KGB that R&AW learnt of the techniques used by the Afghan mujahideen and Arab volunteers, which were taught to the Khalistanis. It was these techniques that the Khalistanis used in the Golden Temple during Operation Blue Star in June 1984.

Despite reservations about operational assistance relating to Pakistan, the CIA’s assistance was available for training Indian intelligence officers in methods of dealing with hijacking, hostage negotiations and so on. Expectedly, like all intelligence agencies, the CIA trained Indian intelligence officers in counter-terrorism techniques while it also helped Pakistan in sharpening its skills in terror techniques.

It would be decades before the world took international terrorism seriously and intelligence cooperation to cover this threat was desultory, and on occasions, simply not there. The attack on USS Cole and the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania were rude shocks, but the real wakeup call was 11 September 2001. In many ways, this was a bit late and the cooperation did improve, but there were continual backslides and obfuscation, especially when it came to handling Pakistan’s role in fomenting terror.

India had been at the receiving end of terror and insurgencies from the start, so the role of intelligence remained not just conventional threats, but subconventional and unconventional as well. International terror and internal insurgencies, many of them operating from outside India, became a threat from the very beginning. The IB handled issues relating to ethnic insurgencies operating from bases outside India and Kashmiri insurgents residing in Europe and the UK. Later, they became the R&AWs tasks. Sikh insurgency, supported by expatriate Sikhs living mostly in the UK, Canada and the US, was one of these security issues.

Naturally, tracking their activities required assistance from the intelligence agencies of these countries. Sadly, this was not forthcoming. The CIA, SIS (MI6) and RCMP did assist in providing training and even equipment to Indian intelligence agencies, but intelligence on the activities of Indian security malcontents was never anywhere near adequate. The KGB, Khad and Mossad were always more cooperative in providing assistance.

It was only after the Air India Kanishka crash (June 1985), as a result of sabotage by Canadabased Sikhs, that both the Canadians and the British began to start cooperating, perhaps because there were many Canadians among the 329 who died. As was subsequently found out, the RCMP had received a threat assessment from Indian intelligence, which it failed to transmit to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The Babbar Khalsa terrorist, Taiwinder Singh Par-mar, fled Canada after this incident and escaped to Pakistan. The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 had prompted Margaret Thatcher to instruct the British intelligence to help Indian intelligence on the Khalistan issue.

It took the US and many European agencies much longer to share intelligence on such matters. Evidence produced repeatedly to the US was ignored or disregarded. When Lal Singh, a Sikh terrorist and hijacker, who had operated from Canada and the US was arrested when trying to enter India in 1990, the Canadians were willing to interrogate him, but the US refused, fearing that if the statements he made to the US were the same as those he made to the Indians, it would be difficult to reject these and then face the possibility of having to hold Pakistan responsible.

In the hunt for terrorists, globally, after the ISI planned the Mumbai serial blasts, in 1993 with assistance from gangsters such as Dawood Ibrahim, the R&AW came across some vital evidence about Pakistani involvement. Some hand grenades and a timer were recovered from the blast sites. The Austrians confirmed in writing that these hand grenades were manufactured with Austrian technology in one of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories. The Americans admitted in an unsigned report on plain paper that the timer was of US origin, was manufactured in the US and was part of a consignment sent to Pakistan in the 1980s. This, according to them, was not adequate evidence and the original timer was never returned.

The British were more helpful. They helped R&AW establish that the AK-47 rifles and ammunition recovered were indeed manufactured in China, even giving the place and date of manufacture. Like the Americans, the Chinese also obfuscated.

Reform and intelligence failures

The early days were exciting and R&AW covered itself with glory, assisting in the Bangladeshi struggle for freedom from Pakistan. Apart from the usual role of providing intelligence to the

Indian armed forces, the agency also trained Bengali freedom fighters from East Pakistan, kept close contact with Bengali freedom fighters and civil servants and Bengali officers from the armed forces, launched psy-war campaigns against Pakistan to highlight the atrocities committed by the West Pakistan Army in East Pakistan and the flow of millions of refugees into India. Separately, the R&AW also launched special operations against insurgents who had taken shelter in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. It must, however, be remembered that the R&AW was making use of the assets and links built by the IB prior to the bifurcation in 1968. The Mizo leader, Laldenga managed to escape to Rangoon, Burma, from where the Pakistan intelligence agency, the IS1, took him away to Karachi. It would not be the last time that the Pakistanis gave shelter to Indian malcontents.

There would few opportunities to match this achievement, but there were many successes, and inevitably, failures too. Barely a year into its independent existence, in 1969, the R&AW had to handle the problem of Naga insurgents using the Northern Kachin State as transit to Yunnan for training and weapons acquisition from the Chinese.

The R&AW had barely begun to settle down to the more routine activity of building a new organisation and collection of intelligence when it received a setback following the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the January 1977 elections. Her successor, Morarji Desai, an austere and acerbic Gandhian, had different ideas about intelligence, especially the R&AW, which he presumed had been used by Indira Gandhi to spy on her political rivals and was not really meant to collect external intelligence. Personally suspicious of Kao, Moraiji ordered closure of several operations on moral grounds, scaling down of functions and stopped further recruitment or filling of vacancies. Kao resigned as Head of R&AW and morale plummeted in the midst of uncertainties of individual careers and even the organisation.

The work of intelligence is not an end in itself. Quite often, the product is as good as the consumer wants to make it. If the consumer fails, or refuses to acknowledge or use intelligence, then the best intelligence is useless. It has been that, in the past, the easiest target in case of failure to act is blamed on intelligence whereas subsequent enquiries have proved otherwise. There could easily be cases where the consumers — policymakers and law enforcement agencies — suffer from an inability or lack of capacity to act or failure to share intelligence, and develop leads at the street level. This is perhaps not unusual to the Indian case.

Faulty or imprecise analytic judgements of intelligence analysts, inability to read behind the curtain, operational flaws or inadequate or imprecise intelligence warning are some of the common faults. In todays context and India’s security interests, production of accurate intelligence by intelligence agencies relating to terrorism is politically considered to be the most important aspect of its functioning. Long-term strategic forecasts have become less important. However, intelligence collection relating to terrorism is an extremely complicated and hazardous task, the intelligence community strongly feels there has to be a different yardstick measuring success or failure to warn or pre-empt a terror attack or destroy a terror cell.

Indian intelligence review committees set up in India have tended to omit making a thorough study of the problems of the intelligence community and usually end up making suggestions for the creation of new organisations, or methods for career progression as a measure to attract talent. Reviews have generally been the result of a security debacle and led to the creation of new organisations. Besides, many of the reforms suggested never get implemented, or are delayed or implemented partially.

Usually, the Bangladesh war is cited as the success of the R&AW for its role and it is true that nothing else so dramatic has happened thereafter. As with all intelligence agencies, the R&AW is remembered in the public mind for its failures or attributed failures. There was immense success in tracking and eliminating the Naga gangs of Mowu Angami and Vedai Chakesang, who led their

Naga hostiles to China and back for training in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was the R&AW that first gave reports on clandestine Pakistani purchases from the UK and Germany for its nuclear weapons programme.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had encouraged R&AW to assist the African National Congress in their anti-apartheid struggle and the SWAPO in their struggle for Namibian independence. Other African nations were also given intelligence training assistance by R&AW. Strong networks established by the R&AW lasted throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and had to be wound down only after the Taliban takeover in 1996. The R&AW’s covert capability is something that Pakistan came to recognise over time.

The Sri Lanka setbacks to the Indian Peacekeeping Forces were not just because of intelligence operations and intelligence provided by the organisation. There were just too many players in the field — not only from New Delhi, but also from the state of Tamil Nadu and the various Tamil and Sinhala groups from Sri Lanka. Obviously, the result was contradictory and confusing signals leading to incoherent policy.

Both the Kargil war (1999) and the Mumbai terror attacks (2008) are cited as failures of intelligence. This is only part of the story. The reality was that while there were intelligence lacunae, both resulted because of systemic failures in the Indian security and administrative systems — some of which persist even today.

The Pakistani onslaught on the Kargil heights threatened to be a disaster for India. As it happened, it did not. The KRC did apportion some of the blame on the intelligence agencies, but the truth is more complicated. The intelligence agencies did not have any representative as a member of the KRC. Obviously, the intelligence story was never heard and the narrative was tilted heavily in favour of the army. Attempts by the army chief of the day to justify nonchalance and inaction to begin with and then to shift the entire blame on the intelligence has been challenged. It was known to the Pakistanis that the Indian Army used to withdraw from its forward locations along the Line of Control every winter and return soon after spring. The Pakistan Army under General Musharraf took advantage of this in the winter of 1998—9. There had been indications of activity as early as June 1998 and reported to the government. There were reports from within one of the Kargil Brigades, who warned of likely Pakistani moves, but these were ignored. The entire higher command of the Northern Command remained preoccupied with other activities throughout the Pakistani build-up and the army chief was himself on a rather inconsequential tour of Poland while a future army chief was holidaying in France that summer. Obviously, the army was not taking this build up seriously.

Accountability and control

There cannot be accountability without a charter for the intelligence organisations and there must be empowerment of the heads of intelligence by providing the means to deliver, including human and financial resources. Only when there is a legal charter, accompanied by powers vested in the man leading the organisation to deliver the results, can one think of accountability. Empowerment, trust and charter have to work in tandem. Unless this is ensured, the real danger is that the government could end up with new power centres and vested interests that will act as a deterrent to intelligence organisations and serve no other purpose beyond exercising control. The attempt to draw an Intelligence Accountability Act through a private members’ bill was destined to be ignored. It had proposed far too many controls and systems of oversight that would have rendered all intelligence agencies shackled into non-performance. The zeal was not for reform, but control to control and supervise through multiple controls.

The desire to control arises from the fear or misconception that intelligence is considered evil because it is secret, and therefore, it must be controlled. This leads to the bizarre expectation among some wise people that intelligence agencies and their collection methods should be made transparent. This is obviously an oxymoron. There cannot be a transparent secret organisation.

So, while oversight and coordination are good catch phrases, multiple controls tend to confuse rather than solve problems of coordination among agencies. This has been the experience in countries such as the US with its multiplicity of intelligence organisations, combined with privatised services. Besides, particularly in India, intelligence agencies work best under a single chain of command. They work even better when the chief executive of a country takes an active interest in their output and their well-being — something that has been sporadic in India.

Improving the inner working of intelligence agencies should not lead to a blanket adoption of a human rights approach, which is usually the pattern in other departments. Intelligence agencies work in an autocratic, occasionally ruthless, regime to preserve that autocracy and secrecy. Intelligence agencies in a democracy are required to preserve democracy and the nation. It is not in the nature of their work ethos to practice internal democracy or human rights.

In-house accountability and procedures have to be created without hampering functions. Reforms and accountability cannot be effective without empowerment and autonomy of function for the head of the organisation. In the Indian context, it also means easy access to the prime minister for the intelligence heads, and any prime minister who isolates himself from direct interface with his intelligence heads does himself, his own government and the agencies a great disservice. An agency needs a degree of financial independence and flexibility, a surge capacity to redeploy all resources in times of changed security threats or emergencies and mere financial control as an audit function only strangulates a system that has to work in unorthodox ways.

A private bill (The Intelligence Services — Powers and Regulation — Bill 2011) was introduced in order to codify parliamentary oversight on R&AW, IB and NTR.O, but has not been put up for debate. The bill envisaged a clear charter for each agency to prevent crossing of wires. The IB, for instance, was to strictly restrict itself to ‘collection and management of intelligence within the country’. Quite obviously, this was designed to curb its creeping foreign presence. There were also restrictions with regard to coverage of political parties. There would be a ‘National Intelligence and Security Oversight Committee’ (similar to the British Intelligence and Security Committee), whose reports would be available publicly and tabled in parliament. There would also be an Intelligence Ombudsman to address departmental grievances and a National Intelligence Tribunal, chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge to investigate public complaints.

Preparing an intelligence system for the future

An intelligence system, to remain relevant and effective, must take into account the security threats that India would face over the next two decades and the capabilities of the R&AW to provide intelligence at that time to secure and promote the country’s interests, which would prevent others from upstaging us, or, if required, reversing the trend among India’s rivals. The question to be asked is do the present organisational structures have the ingredients to deliver and what is required to be done to attain that capability. This has to be done in India by Indians and it cannot be a copy of another system.

The R&AW, like other intelligence agencies in democratic systems, provides inputs to policy formulation and is an aid to decision-making. It may, thus, assist in preventing wars, but cannot by itself win wars. It is necessary to have periodic reforms to ensure that the country has the best intelligence apparatus it can afford.

Reforms should not be episodic, usually following a debacle, but based on futuristic threat assessments. In-house reviews that deal merely with career enhancements are inadequate. Reform has to be more fundamental and far deeper, have to be done in the fullness of time and not when a crisis has begun to loom.

National threats have changed. There are other transnational threats that no single agency or single country can handle. Besides, there is no knowing how the new threats will evolve. The rapidly changing technological applications bring their own threats. Catastrophic terrorism, cyber terrorism, remote control missile attacks and virtual wars are the other new threats.

They all have access to sophisticated denial and deception techniques. The skills required are so varied, and the price to be paid for such skills so high, that the R&AW, like other agencies, will need to think of ways and means of attracting and retaining this talent. This, perhaps, will be the biggest challenge for the government while preparing an intelligence organisation for the future.

As the CIA used to say, ‘The secret of our success is the secret of our success’; there are no heroes and the medals are secret. What is the price the government is willing to pay a band of men and women who sacrifice their individuality for anonymity and go against the grain of human nature, is a question that needs to be asked and replied all the time.

Add to this, radical religious terrorists who are affecting India and the rest of the world most dramatically, supported not only by Pakistan, but a number of new players in the Arab world who see themselves as threatened either by Israel or Iran. Intelligence organisations not only need language skills, interrogation skills, ability to deal with hostages, area and issue expertise, apart from operational skills of a special kind individually, but also are aware that there can be no hope for victory without international cooperation. So far, this has been sporadic in time and selective in content. This cannot be so, and there has to be total cooperation if the intention is to succeed.


Raman, 13. 2002. Intelligence — Past, Present and Future. New Delhi: Lancer.

Raman, B. 2006. ‘Should We Believe Gen Malik ?’ Red iff, 5 May, may/05raman.htm.

Raman, B. 2007. The Kaoboys of R&AW. New Delhi: Lancer.

Sood, Vikram. 2007. ‘Intelligence — Reform or Perish’, Indian Defence Review, 1 June.

Sood, Vikram. 2010. ‘NSA-PM’s Adviser, Not Superspook’, Asian Age, 29 January.

Sood, Vikram. 2011. ‘Intelligence — How Not to Reform’, Hard News, 11 April.

Sood, Vikram. 2011. ‘National Security and Intelligence Reform’, Mid-day Mumbai, 10 November.

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