Over the last few months of 2013, some interesting writing appeared on the state of Indian intelligence. This is historically an opaque subject, but it sits at the heart of some of the most pivotal moments in Delhi's foreign policy as much as any overt use of hard power. Consider, for instance, India's initially covert support for Tibetan guerrillas against China in the 1960s, insurgents in East Pakistan in 1971, and Sri Lanka's LTTE in the 1980s.
In September, the historian Srinath Raghavan, writing about a spat between the army chief and government (which I described in an earlier post for the Interpreter), noted that India did not have any legislation governing how its intelligence services, including military intelligence, could act .
Put simply, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) – India's primary foreign and domestic intelligence agencies respectively – are creations of the executive branch, and have no legal foundation. This means minimal oversight by either parliament or the public. Many Indian intelligence officers have repeatedly called for reform and greater oversight, but despite the explicit support of figures as senior as India's vice-president, this has never amounted to much. An editorial just after Christmas in Livemint again urged more legislative oversight to curb what it called 'abuse of the intelligence machinery...for partisan ends'.
In November, the veteran national security journalist Praveen Swami wrote a fascinating article revealing the endemic staffing shortages afflicting those Indian agencies. The IB is 30% short of its sanctioned staff strength, a gap amounting to over 8000 employees in an institution that can only train 6-700 people a year. Remarkably, the IB's operations directorate is reported to have just 30 analysts and field staff, with only another 30 dealing with the Maoist insurgency.
RAW is 40% understaffed and 30% short of cryptanalysts. Moreover, 'key positions in the RAW's Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh divisions are now being staffed by officers who have never served in those countries' (the first of those being an especially dangerous posting for Indian officers). Swami quotes a former RAW officer as asking, 'why should skilled technical people come to RAW when there are far better prospects in the private sector?' This hardly a problem confined to India (the UK’s GCHQ is a good example, and Australia identified a similar problem a decade ago) but the public-private salary gap is likely to be especially high in India.
That it was Praveen Swami who recorded these institutional failings is ironic, given that he was one of the primary targets of a long, detailed December essay by Praveen Donthi in India’s Caravan magazine. Donthi argued that Indian national security journalists have been wholly compromised by a pathological, uncritical intimacy with Indian intelligence agencies over decades: 'many Indian journalists refer to intelligence officers, and even agency chiefs, not as sources but as friends, calling them by their first names or nicknames, and inviting them to Diwali celebrations and other family events', resulting in a tendency to publish unreliable information from a small number of unnamed sources.
Among the consequences, argued Donthi, was that 'anti-Muslim bias...seems to pervade most reporting on internal security and acts of terrorism', thereby underplaying terrorism committed by Hindu extremists and allowing abuses of authority to go unreported and uncorrected. Donthi concluded by quoting former RAW chief (and amiable Twitter regular) Vikram Sood: 'Every journalist should ask himself a question before publishing any report...Will it make India safer or the enemy wiser? Does it serve my country or not? Am I prepared to bend the truth a bit if it does?'
Earlier, in October, former Indian and Pakistan intelligence officials (the latter far more politically powerful than their Indian counterparts) had authored a joint paper as part of the Track II Ottawa Dialogue bringing together retired officials and thinkers. Former RAW chief CD Sahay and Wajahat Latif, former head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, argued that Indo-Pakistani 'political or diplomatic channels' should be supplemented by intelligence contacts:
Intelligence links between neighbours are obviously desirable. It is better to institutionalise them now, rather than trying to activate them in times of crisis. In due course, both sides would understand the need for ‘open' intelligence posts in diplomatic missions. In the meantime, petty harassment of each other's officers and staff could end. Intelligence links can succeed where all others fail. What agencies can achieve is not at times even conceivable in political or diplomatic channels.
Another former RAW chief, AS Dulat, wrote a separate piece in the same series with former ISI chief Assad Durrani on 'untangling the Kashmir knot'.
Indian and Pakistani spy chiefs have met over the years both as part of Kashmir diplomacy and crisis management – during the Punjab insurgency in the 1980s and in the aftermath of the 2001-2 military standoff, to give two examples. These cooperative noises might be dismissed as being no more than the musings of retired officials who have little to lose in advancing politically unrealistic proposals, but for veterans of two adversarial intelligence services to converge in their thinking is nevertheless noteworthy.
As Indian hard and soft power grows, its intelligence capabilities will continue to play an important role in India's domestic and foreign security policies. The trickle of writing on this subject remains patchy and incomplete, but observers of India should follow this area as closely as they would purely diplomatic or military developments.
Photo by Flickr user vj_fliks.