Om­nipresent

The Hindu Business Line - - FRONT PAGE - AV­INASH PALIWAL

The case of Com­man­der Kulb­hushan Jad­hav, a re­tired (ac­cord­ing to New Delhi) In­dian naval of­fi­cer un­der ar­rest in Pak­istan since March 2016, has at­tracted tremen­dous pub­lic at­ten­tion. Pak­istan has ac­cused Jad­hav of work­ing for the Re­search and Anal­y­sis Wing (R&AW) —In­dia’s premier ex­ter­nal in­tel­li­gence agency — and in April 2017, a court mar­tial sen­tenced him to death for abet­ting “ter­ror­ism” in­side Pak­istan.

In­dia de­nies this claim and has se­cured a stay on Jad­hav’s ex­e­cu­tion from the In­ter­na­tional Courts of Jus­tice. A rel­a­tively less dis­cussed case is that of re­tired Pak­istani of­fi­cer Lieu­tenant Colonel Muham­mad Habib Zahir, who mys­te­ri­ously dis­ap­peared from Lumbini in Nepal. Al­legedly in In­dian cus­tody, Zahir was “picked up” just days be­fore Jad­hav was sen­tenced. Ac­cord­ing to In­dian me­dia re­ports, the two cases are linked. Such in­ci­dents are not sur­pris­ing in In­di­aPak­istan re­la­tions. What does sur­prise, how­ever, is the scope of de­bate on this is­sue in In­dia.

Un­like the 1999 Kargil con­flict and the 2008 Mum­bai at­tacks, which raised ques­tions about the pur­pose and ef­fi­cacy of In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, this time most dis­cus­sion is fo­cused on the di­plo­matic, le­gal, and po­lit­i­cal as­pects of the case. In­dian of­fi­cials and Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi have made ag­gres­sive state­ments re­gard­ing Pak­istan’s in­ter­nal trou­bles, in­sin­u­at­ing a new phase of in­tense covert war­fare.

The bi­na­ries

These state­ments raise ques­tions about the role of the R&AW in for­eign pol­i­cy­mak­ing pro­cesses, and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and its po­lit­i­cal class. Two nar­ra­tives dom­i­nate pop­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of In­dia’s ex­ter­nal in­tel­li­gence agency.

The first is the bi­nary of the ex­tremely ca­pa­ble ver­sus highly dys­func­tional agency. The R&AW is con­sid­ered highly ca­pa­ble in un­der­tak­ing covert op­er­a­tions abroad, al­legedly in­clud­ing the pro­mo­tion of un­rest in Pak­istan; mil­i­tary train­ing to Ti­betan ex­iles; ini­tial sup­port of and sub­se­quent war with Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka; de­liv­ery of vic­tory in the Bangladesh War of 1971; build­ing a for­mi­da­ble pres­ence in Afghanistan; and de­vel­op­ing ad­vanced tech­no­log­i­cal in­tel­li­gence ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

That R&AW can in­crease the cost of en­mity for In­dia’s ad­ver­saries has be­come an ar­ti­cle of faith among mem­bers of In­dia’s strate­gic cir­cuit. But when in­ci­dents such as the 1999 Kargil con­flict, the 2008 Mum­bai ter­ror at­tacks, or de­fec­tion of of­fi­cers oc­cur, the agency is con­sid­ered dys­func­tional and cor­rupt. This bi­nary be­tween of­fen­sive suc­cess and de­fen­sive fail­ure on the one hand cre­ates an easy and un­ac­count­able scape­goat that re­mains in the shad­ows when In­dia faces a cri­sis from out­side. On the other, it as­suages mass anx­i­eties about In­dia’s trou­bles such as ter­ror­ism from Pak­istan and the con­straints posed by an in­tran­si­gent China.

The sec­ond nar­ra­tive — dove­tail­ing with the first — is that the R&AW was de­fanged or un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated by soft prime min­is­ters such as Mo­rarji De­sai, In­der Ku­mar Gujral, and Man­mo­han Singh. De­sai is seen as be­ing mis­trust­ful of R&AW, whereas Gujral and Singh are viewed as soft on China and Pak­istan. Even Narasimha Rao and Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee used these as­sets to a lim­ited ex­tent. Only Indira and Ra­jiv Gandhi, and now Modi, al­legedly, un­der­stood the value of of­fen­sive covert ca­pa­bil­i­ties and utilise(d) them ef­fec­tively. This nar­ra­tive has be­come folk­lore in In­dian strate­gic cir­cles. This is a flawed propo­si­tion, be­cause of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions are only a small el­e­ment of the role of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies in for­eign pol­icy. The nar­ra­tive thus risks re­duc­ing R&AW to a car­i­ca­ture of hired as­sas­sins and agent provo­ca­teurs, in­stead of a pro­fes­sional in­tel­li­gence arm meant to as­sess and shape In­dia’s strate­gic en­vi­ron­ment. At the same time, it risks brand­ing a non-of­fen­sive ap­proach as weak even if the for­mer is the cor­rect re­sponse in a given sit­u­a­tion.

Even if valid, the sec­ond nar­ra­tive raises ques­tions about the politi­ci­sa­tion of In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity as well as the im­pact of R&AW’s un­ac­count­abil­ity on In­dian democ­racy. The Emer­gency, for in­stance, was the pin­na­cle of the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship’s mis­use of and pub­lic’s mis­trust in the R&AW. The lat­ter was re­flected in a 1988 in­ci­dent when a se­cu­rity guard at Palam Air­port in New Delhi un­cov­ered a cache of weapons in the baggage hold of an Air In­dia flight from Kabul. Al­legedly whisked away by an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer be­fore air­port se­cu­rity could in­ves­ti­gate, these weapons were found with Khal­is­tani mil­i­tants a few weeks later. The in­ci­dent cre­ated a storm in the Par­lia­ment where op­po­si­tion par­ties al­leged that Ra­jiv Gandhi and R&AW were mis­guid­ing the pub­lic.

Did the ISI in­fil­trate In­dian and Afghan in­tel­li­gence net­works to such an ex­tent that they used an Air In­dia plane to send arms for Khal­is­tani mil­i­tants? Or was In­dia fram­ing Pak­istan as such? Pak­istan’s sup­port to Khal­is­tani mil­i­tants more gen­er­ally stands cor­rob­o­rated in ret­ro­spect. How­ever, this in­ci­dent un­der­lined how lit­tle pub­lic con­fi­dence R&AW en­joyed as a re­sult of such ex­treme se­crecy on one hand, and why In­dia’s neigh­bors are of­ten wary of New Delhi on the other.

The way for­ward

The Jad­hav-Zahir case marks a con­ti­nu­ity rather than change in how in­tel­li­gence has been un­der­stood and treated in In­dia. Whether or not Jad­hav truly is an In­dian spy is im­ma­te­rial. His mil­i­tary back­ground and forged iden­tity doc­u­ments fit Pak­istan’s pro­file of an In­dian spy. The un­spo­ken as­pect, how­ever, is that he also fits the im­age among many In­di­ans of a ca­pa­ble covert op­er­a­tive fo­ment­ing vi­o­lence in Pak­istan. Modi’s state­ments on Balochis­tan, and the al­leged kid­nap­ping of Zahir, en­sure that this case en­trenches old nar­ra­tives in pub­lic mem­ory. The ex­is­tence of such bi­nary nar­ra­tives is symp­to­matic of the fail­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate the larger pur­pose of in­tel­li­gence as a tool of state­craft. Un­like other democ­ra­cies, In­dia has been shy to de­clas­sify in­tel­li­gence dossiers, or even au­tho­rise an of­fi­cial his­tory of the R&AW.

A ris­ing power in an in­creas­ingly com­plex geopo­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment such as In­dia ur­gently re­quires se­ri­ous study of in­tel­li­gence be­yond op­er­a­tional mat­ters. The ar­gu­ment that a so­phis­ti­cated conceptual un­der­stand­ing among the pub­lic of the role of in­tel­li­gence in for­eign pol­i­cy­mak­ing is not es­sen­tial for R&AW to op­er­ate ef­fec­tively over­seas is er­ro­neous. It over­looks the fact that ef­fec­tive over­seas op­er­a­tions re­quire sound struc­tural base at home. Few civil ser­vice aspirants in In­dia want to join R&AW to­day.

In­dian in­tel­li­gence prac­ti­tion­ers are of­ten blamed for be­ing ob­ses­sively se­cre­tive, yet the po­lit­i­cal class is equally cul­pa­ble. Wor­ried about po­lit­i­cal lega­cies, few politi­cians want clas­si­fied files to be­come the sub­ject of pub­lic scru­tiny. What peo­ple think about these mat­ters may not seem im­por­tant in op­er­a­tional terms. How­ever, de­clas­si­fy­ing his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments for pub­lic con­sump­tion and ac­cept­ing par­lia­men­tary over­sight is crit­i­cal to en­sure that the func­tion­ing of the agency is op­ti­mised.

The writer is a lec­turer in diplo­macy and pub­lic pol­icy at the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies and Diplo­macy, School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies (SOAS), Univer­sity of Lon­don. This ar­ti­cle is by spe­cial ar­range­ment with the Cen­ter for the Ad­vanced Study of In­dia, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Suc­cess sto­ries of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies are sel­dom known

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