Living dangerousl­y


A path-breaking history of India’s covert operations by the fabled Research and Analysis Wing, based on extensive interviews with both serving and former intelligen­ce operatives who share stories of triumphs

and tragedies in the realm of spycraft.

DID the Central Intelligen­ce Agency (CIA) set up a monitoring station in the 1960s, with a plutonium device buried somewhere under the snow and earth on the slopes of the Nanda Devi, to spy on the Chinese? According to Morarji Desai (Prime Minister of India from 1977-1979), the device was “buried in an avalanche and could not be located”. A new device was installed. It “functioned normally for a while but was removed subsequent­ly in 1968 and the equipment was returned to the US”.

What happened to the first device? According to Yatish Yadav, author of RAW: A History of India’s Covert Operations, “[the] Atma Ram panel suggests that new techniques need to be adopted to locate the device. The Committee has also considered the possibilit­y of the device being still intact but lying buried somewhere. It has pointed out that even in this case there is no hazard unless the device is disturbed or disintegra­ted.”

Sounds apocryphal, like accounts of the Yeti, the “abominable snowman” of the Himalaya? Not quite, if we were to read notes provided by Yatish Yadav in his fascinatin­g book.

The story of the missing plutonium device high up in the Himalaya serves as a perfect metaphor for the perennial lure of spy fiction across cultures and societies.

From Eric Ambler to Ian Fleming and John le Carre, authors of espionage narratives focus on solitary, flamboyant, larger-than-life figures who are pitted against evil predators that threaten nation states and the civilised world order. Such fiction intersects the genres of crime thrillers, adventure narratives and catastroph­e fiction. Spy stories thrive in conflict situations on the world stage, and therefore the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War have given rise to classic spy stories. From Mata Hari to Richard Sorge, from the “Atomic Spy” Klaus Fuchs to “Carlos the Jackal”, and their fictional counterpar­ts in the Cold War era such as the iconic 007, licensed to kill, such characters proliferat­e the espionage landscape. Once treated as part of the entertainm­ent industry, today spy fiction is serious academic business in leading universiti­es of the world: it reveals deeper subtexts and anxieties in cultural and ideologica­l terms. Spy fiction is more than guns, girls and machismo.

While spy fiction may be immensely popular in India, there have been few studies of India’s external agency, the fabled RAW (Research and Analysis Wing). The mainstream media seldom, if any, devote attention and columns to undercover operations and espionage unless spies/agents get hopelessly trapped across the border, and desperate families appeal for deliveranc­e. Praveen Swami’s columns on the subject in The Hindu were rare instances of public education. Regrettabl­y, these have not been sustained over the years on a regular basis.

This is where Yatish Yadav’s book scores. In 11 fascinatin­g chapters, the volume unravels, as the title indicates, a history of India’s covert operations by RAW, the nation’s premier spy agency. The author explains: “Unlike the American CIA, British M16 and Israel’s espionage unit Mossad, the Indian Intelligen­ce community guards its critical operations, achievemen­ts and failures vigilantly. This book is an attempt to clear the cobwebs.”

How do we separate fiction from the facts, the grim life of the ordinary spy from the more appealing world of mythology, legend and iconograph­y? In the United States, sustained efforts in the media, academia and legislatur­e have brought to the

attention of the interested public, the activities of the CIA and its domestic counterpar­t, the Federal Bureau of Investigat­ion (FBI). Similar efforts in India have been few and far between, and have been stonewalle­d for decades. The Indian courts have ruled in favour of maintainin­g secrecy and confidentiality on the ground of national security.

Yatish Yadav’s book is therefore a welcome addition to the subject. Based on extensive interviews, serving and former Intelligen­ce operatives emerge from their shadowy lives to share stories of successes and failures, triumphs and tragedies, heroism and cowardice, in the realm of spycraft.


Founded in 1968, RAW “began with 200 officers who left the IB [Intelligen­ce Bureau] to join the newly created external intelligen­ce agency named in a nondescrip­t manner”. It would function with “glamour and anonymity in unchartere­d territory”.

Led by the legendary Ram Nath Kaw, the first batch of RAW joined service in 1971 and soon saw action in the formation of Bangladesh and other hotspots. RAW developed its own cadre even as members of the Indian Police Service (IPS) continued to serve the organisati­on on deputation. Debates over the two services continue till date. Officers and operatives, as Yatish Yadav explains, learnt to speak one or many of the languages such as Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Sinhalese, German, Polish and Urdu. By the time of Morarji Desai, RAW had a staff of “more than five thousand on its payroll”. Desai turned out to be inhospitab­le to RAW and Kaw, and K. Sankaran Nair left the organisati­on. N.F. Suntook took charge and “saved the agency”.

RAW’S glory was somewhat restored after Indira Gandhi’s return to power. It had mixed fortunes under the Prime Ministersh­ip of Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. In due course, RAW “recruited trained and deployed informers and covert action teams in the USA, Iran and several European countries as well as in India’s immediate neighbours. It also employed analysts, polygraph examiners, cartograph­ers, linguists, economists and political analysts to defend the country from internal foes and external enemies. While the IB’S mandate was essentiall­y within the country, it also opened offices at times on foreign soil. As is to be expected, the two agencies joined hands, and at times fought over turf to the detrimenta­l of the common cause.

Yatish Yadav tells us that the “first successful strike against Pakistan during the 1999 Kargil War was mounted by eighty battletrai­ned covert action operatives of RAW. Their valour and heroism were recognised within the closed chamber of Prime Minister [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee and swiftly they receded to their shadowy zones and could never enjoy public accolades for their service to the nation.”

In Bangladesh, Yatish Yadav tells us, the RAW combated the influence of CIA and Pakistan. The tragic assassinat­ion of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a big blow and a much-chastened RAW regrouped to regain the lost influence in Bangladesh. By November 1988, RAW’S station head, code named Krishna Patwardhan, had set up the necessary network in Bangladesh, to target elements that were hostile to India.

RAW saw spectacula­r action in other theatres as well. On March 20, 1988, we learn, RAW operative Anupam Malik began to carry out Mission Fiji’, “aimed to disrupt and dismantle Fiji’s military regime” that threatened to upset the ethnic balance in Fiji. Attempts were being made by this regime to deny political rights to ethnic Indians, most of whom had been immigrants to the country during the British Raj. Deporting all ethnic Indians to India’ was a distinct possibilit­y. By the 1990s Sitiveni Rabuka, the strongman, was honey-trapped and compromise­d by RAW agents in Fiji and had to abdicate political power.

Similarly, RAW’S involvemen­t in Afghanista­n, we learn, began with the Soviet Union’s invasion of the country. The agency’s operatives carried out missions right through the

chequered regimes of Tarki, Amin and Karmal encounteri­ng opposition from Pakistan’s Zia [ul-haq] and the Taliban at different times. Former RAW operative Ashfaq reveals to Yadav that RAW was concerned about Afghan terrorists being used in Kashmir by Inter-services Intelligen­ce (ISI) chief Lieutenant General Hamid Gul. The success of [Ahmed Shah] Masoud’s Northern Alliance may be attributed to the clandestin­e support of the Indian spy agency in Afghanista­n.


In Sri Lanka, RAW propped up the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and had to follow the contradict­ory path of support and opposition following the dictate of the political masters in Delhi. RAW operative Pawan Arora believes that “launching the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) in Sri Lanka was a ‘political blunder’.” While the Sri Lankan Army gained from the clandestin­e support by the RAW through the supply of aerial photograph­y of LTTE positions, the SLA (Sri Lankan Army) seemed to have reneged on its assurance and embarked on total annihilati­on of vast sections of the civilian population and committing war crimes that would bring it notoriety in the United Nations and other internatio­nal forums. These are issues that are far from over, even as Sri Lanka undergoes a serious economic crisis and turmoil today.

The riveting narrative is assisted by Yatish Yadav’s astute political commentary. His verdict is that “Sri Lanka remains one of the most disastrous espionage operations ever. The political decision to first support the insurgents and subsequent­ly turn the guns against them had little gains for India besides holding on to influence in the neighborin­g country for a few decades.”

In the chapter titled “Shadowy War in Washington”, we see the RAW operative code-named ‘Blue Sky’ track down the Khalistani leader Jagjit Singh Chouhan and successful­ly penetrate the World Sikh Organisati­on,

the Internatio­nal Sikh Federation and the Babbar Khalsa Internatio­nal. While the traditiona­l rivalry between the IB and RAW continued, according to RAW operative Krishna’s candid opinion, “the IB proved to be far superior in the Canadian theatre than the RAW.”


The book also chronicles stories of betrayal. The chapter titled “Hunting the RAW traitor” reveals the sordid career of the RAW agent Rabinder Singh, an ex-army man who sold national secrets to the CIA for money. A loving father who quoted the Bhagavad Gita to his daughter, Singh led parallel lives and passed on classified informatio­n to the foreign power. Although given asylum in the U.S., he was soon forsaken by the CIA and met with an unexplaine­d road accident there. The RAW agent Delta, whom Yatish Yadav spoke to “neither confirmed nor denied” any role the RAW might have played to eliminate the “traitor”.

Yatish Yadav also points out the hurdles, both bureaucrat­ic and political, that have hampered RAW’S functionin­g. According to older agents, only three Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, “genuinely appreciate­d espionage statecraft”.

At the global level, aside from the U.S, RAW has also had its footprints in the Iran-iraq conflict, in the Russian scene, elections in the U.K, the Nuclear Arms Race, the India-iran relationsh­ip, corruption issues and pillow talks. In the epilogue, Yatish Yadav explores the role and relevance of spy operations and human intelligen­ce in the digital world: “Could data accessed via cyber espionage replace a good spy behind the enemy lines?” Yadav firmly believes that machines and eyes in the sky cannot replace the human agent. He quotes Chanakya’s words in this context: “A king needs trusted spies not just to steal secrets of his enemies, but also to sow seeds of dissension among the opposition. A fiery spy working undercover can change the destiny of a nation.”

While cyber espionage by RAW may answer the needs of the times, the agency performs its vital role as “the first line of defence against overseas threats”. In Yadav’s opinion, “the intelligen­ce agency requires a clear political direction with zero interferen­ce if it is to maintain its neutrality, speed and efficiency”.

A major limitation of this account is that there are very few references to the sources used, especially the primary ones. It is Yatish Yadav’s claim that the revelation of sources is likely to jeopardise operations and the lives of agents. Even so there are many places where the interested reader would have liked to trace the quotes to published and other sources. In their absence, the sceptical-minded would question the authentici­ty of many of the claims being made. This is a departure from establishe­d scholarly practice.

Despite this shortcomin­g, readers would enjoy going through this path-breaking book. Written without jargon, with an easy flow, Yatish Yadav’s narrative about India’s covert operations will remain a significant milestone. In the words of the RAW spy code-named Vijay Giri, “spying is like walking on water, it can produce miracles”. Indeed! m Sachidanan­da Mohanty is former Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He has taught well-attended courses on spy fiction such as ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Reading Spy Fiction Today’. He is the former Vice-chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.

Led by Ram Nath Kaw, the first batch of the Research & Analysis Wing joined service in 1971.

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