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November 8, 1999


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The Rediff Interview/ Girish Chandra Saxena

Gary's People

Varsha Bhosle

Girish Chandra 'Gary' Saxena

Barely four days after slamming our intelligence agencies ("The maverick mind cannot exist in there, and our 'Intelligence' agencies are nothing bureaucratic"), I had an opportunity to get an insider view from the other side -- that of the former chief of RAW and now Governor of Jammu & Kashmir, Girish Chandra 'Gary' Saxena.

It is not easy for me to interview a governor: The office commands respect, and tact has never been one of my few virtues. And if the governor has also been a spymaster, an occupation I absolutely venerate, it's curtains... For, lip just won't do. Thus, to say that my knees were shaking when I entered Raj Bhavan, is putting it very mildly.

But you don't want to hear about me, right? Ok, here's what I know about His Excellency, the governor: IPS cadre; may be alumna of Mount Abu's Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy. Joined RAW in 1969; ran it from 1983. Was security advisor to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 71 years old. Came out of retirement a second time to take up his second tenure as governor of J&K in May 1998. Addressed the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in 1998... Period. There is no other governor about whom such little information is available. In short, you'll have to put up with my I-disease a while longer.

For starters, I disagree with Chindu: Mr Saxena didn't seem "diminutive" to me at all. Nor would I say that he "just cannot be as powerful as he is made out to be." Unless, of course, one has Arnold Schwarzenegger in mind as the epitome of power and stature. Mr Saxena looks, well... average. Someone who could easily blend in anywhere... an imperative for a spook. But when he laughs -- and he does that a lot -- sparks fly. Between that and his extremely affable manner and wicked sense of humour and knowledge of things "in the loop," Mr Saxena leaves no room for attention to wander. So much so that your favourite lecher would be hard put to describe his aide de camp, a species which is always tall, young and gorgeous.

True, I didn't have the nerve to cross Mr Saxena's statements, even those on the bureaucratic aspect of our intelligence agencies. I couldn't ask him how he knew the exact number of snow-shoes if he didn't know the information. But guess what, once we got rolling, I didn't want to. What I really wanted was to get away from all the blighted politics, and sit at his knees and just listen to his true-life spy stories. I lost interest in Kashmir; I didn't want to know about the damn LoC; and Brigadier Surinder Singh could hang himself. I just kept thinking over and over again: God, WHY can't I have him as my grandfather?

So, this interview is a turkey: I didn't follow through with what I came seeking. And, what I eventually did get -- let's call it "aura" for now -- is off the record. Too, I'm feeling so possessive about it, that I refuse to share. What happened was, the journalist died and the thriller-buff came alive... the governorship melted away and I entered Smiley's world for a short, short time. Damned if I'm going to let anybody take that away from me.

What, exactly, is "intelligence failure"? Where does the problem lie?

At any moment of time, there will be many gaps in intelligence collection since it is not possible to get information on everything. When such a gap in intelligence leads to some major incident or set-back, then you start calling it an intelligence failure.

This failure has to be viewed in a proper perspective. For instance, was it easy to get that kind of information? What is the nature of the terrain in which the information was to be obtained? What is the environment in which it was to be obtained? How hostile, tight and difficult was it to operate in? You get pieces of information; you form hundred and thousands of sources. You cannot straight-away come to a conclusion how reliable these are and what the whole picture means. This takes time. You have to weigh every aspect: What is the access of the person? In what circumstances did he acquire the information?

Such things are taken into consideration in vetting the information. If the information does not appear reportable, it is kept on hold. And when a picture starts emerging, or the degree of reliability of the information becomes high, then it is reported. It's a very complicated view. If we report everything that comes to us through different sources, we would have to shoot off hundreds of reports everyday!

Isn't there some authority which takes all these bits and pieces to put together?

In RAW, one wing is concentrated on only the collection and production of information; the other is concentrated completely on evaluation and analysis. There are very good officers who are in charge. But having said that, no country can say that they will get prior intelligence about every important event that occurs.

Before Kargil, there was a piece in the international press about Pakistan buying snow-mobiles and snow-shoes. Shouldn't that have tipped us off?

I don't know whether that intelligence is true, whether it was acquired by some intelligence agency, and what they made of it. This is something that the Kargil Committee, chaired by Mr K Subrahmanyam, will go into. Whether this kind of shopping was really done. If it was done, whether it was picked up or not picked up. And what a person could have made of it.

You should also know that a conflict has been going on in Siachen since long. There is a brigade worth of troops on both sides. Of course, any intelligence agency officer would have known that 50,000 snow-shoes [chuckles] could not have been bought for sports. But it could have been for their Siachen troops. It could have been for the hundreds and thousands of persons who have infiltrated into Kashmir valley and Jammu region. It could have been for anything.

But with something already going on...

All these regions are mountainous. The Valley Range, Shankhlabari Range, Pir Panjal, they remain snow-covered throughout winter. You can't really say: No, no, now they are going to head for Kargil. This kind of thing needs further information. The pieces have to fall in place for a picture to emerge and for you to come to a conclusion.

Where are the officers recruited from? Is it from the civil services?

The recruitment is done directly and on deputation.

Supposing I want to work...

Well, ah, the thing is, at what level do you want to enter? In what field? If you want to enter as a political analyst, then there is a political division. If you have economic expertise, there's an economic division. For a scientist, there's a research and development division. It depends on what expertise you are going to bring.

Then there is a procedure for selection at various levels. At the highest levels of RAW, the general rule is that people who are already qualified in Union Public Service Commission examinations and have entered central services, are sounded whether they would like to join. Then there is a board, which includes the foreign secretary, the security personnel, etc, that interviews them. This is a high-powered probe which selects at the top echelon. At the level of research officers, there are different procedures for recruitment. Some are even advertised.

Can any civilian be picked up?

Yes. There are scientists, academics, economists. There are political strategy thinkers. And you have a lot of people from all-India services, army, navy, air force.

So they are not essentially bureaucrats?

When RAW was started, and it was split from the Intelligence Bureau, the dominant percentage of officers was police. That is no longer the case; the police domination has been diluted over the years. We have hundreds, maybe over a thousand people from the defence services. Not all are officers; there are JCOs, signal-men...

In RAW, too? That is not a part of Military Intelligence?

No. There will be brigadiers, colonels, majors, group captains, wing commanders, squadron leaders in RAW also. This is a cosmopolitan organisation which has people from various walks of life.

MI is now being blamed for the lapse. It's said that RAW and IB did their job, but MI goofed up.

That is not true. They all work in tandem.

Are there any territorial jealousies between the agencies?

Well, there is a bit of competitiveness which is healthy. But there is not too much of one-upmanship.

Say I have a piece of information, which should go to a colleague to make the picture whole; instead, I go with it to my boss. This kind of thing...

Well, some of these personality or ego hassles you cannot really wish away completely. But it is not much of a problem. There is a lot of interaction and co-operation between these sources. These things are often exaggerated.

But it happens. Sometimes, problems like the same source working for more than one intelligence agency, or somebody wanting to project that the intelligence which was found useful was mostly his effort, can occur. It is human nature. But people at the higher levels see through these things. And they do not encourage it. When such things come to their notice, they shoot it down.

Like Brigadier Surinder Singh?

Brigadier Surinder Singh's is a separate case.

Is he being used by political parties?

I cannot comment on that.

Earlier, RAW had said that there were no Pakistani regulars in Kargil. And right from the beginning, MI had said that they were there.

That is wrong. As a matter of fact, it took us quite a few days to realise the composition of the intercourse, whether they were infiltrators or whether they had come to occupy territory and hold on to certain peaks. It took a week or more after the first detection of the infiltration. This type of intrusion was such a blatant breach of the Simla Agreement, it was not expected.

It is a different thing that we have to prepare for every eventuality because we should know the adversary with which we are dealing. Having said that, the thing is that even after the people were detected at the sites, it was not known whether their intention was to come down as infiltrators or to hold their place. The picture started emerging by and by.

So it is not correct that a particular agency said they are all mujahideen... as a matter of fact, there were hardly any mujahideen. I see reports from both [agencies]. I'm briefed by both - on a very regular basis, as the situation develops. So nobody can say this, because I've been talking to senior army officers and to RAW officers. This kind of controversy is not good.

Then why is the Kargil Commission required?

The Commission is there to go into all the circumstances surrounding the intrusion, how it came about, and the connected issues. It is not starting with a preconceived notion or on a basis of a charge sheet or allegations. It is not a witch-hunt.

Some writers are already castigating Mr Subrahmanyam.

That is very unfair. He's a professional through and through and one of our top strategy thinkers. Their reference is very wide, and it is not pointed at fixing somebody, or finding the truth or untruth of a specific allegation. But if they find that somebody was very culpable, they will put it their report.

Is Brigadier Singh culpable?

I'm not privy to such information.

How did his report reach the Congress?

I really don't know what report has reached whom. And [evil grin] I don't believe everything that comes in print. In fact, I tend to dismiss it. I read some insinuation that he had sent the report to the Chief of Army Staff. There was a categorical denial of this. I'm really not in a position to be judgmental about this.

So this intelligence-failure scandal could well be a canard.

There must have been some pieces of information indicating some trouble, but what it all meant may not have been clear at the time. The point of more concern is, in these unheld and unmanned areas at heights of 15,000 to 18,000 feet, what is to be done? To see that a thing like this doesn't happen again, and to ensure that if an intrusion takes place, it is detected quickly and our response is quicker still, we will have to take care. We have to examine our surveillance effort, our intelligence effort and how they should interact and co-ordinate with each other. And what role technical means can play in upgrading the collection of intelligence; what role air reconnaissance will play. So that the chances of detecting incursions at good time get maximised.

Aksai Chin in 1962, Operation Gibraltar and Grand Slam in 1965 were not detected. And now Kargil. Is this not a non-stop intelligence failure?

This is all speculative reporting by people who really are not in the loop, who are not even in the fringes of knowledge. But they have to write something or other. And sometimes it is motivated. In the sense of some retired person wanting to write something in a self-serving and self-projecting way. Such books are there in the market. But this is not right. I have been in the game since 1969. There have been failures. And there have been great successes.

Tell us some of the successes.

[Laughs] No, no, no. You are asking for too much.

But it's interesting! And is it going to harm India now?

RAW came about only in 1968; what you are talking about happened earlier. The '71 war was a great success. We had very useful intelligence on all developments and deployments, and very few things turned out to be wrong. Whatever was reported was checked on the ground, on the battlefield itself.

For example?

Take the case of the Battle of Longowal, which has been filmed in Border. Of course, the film is fictional and heavily dramatised. But the fact of the matter is, when one infantry battalion and one armoured regiment were found at a particular place on their side, the first reaction was: Hey, what are they doing there? It doesn't make sense! Why, of all places, at an area which is of no great strategic value, have they deployed one battalion and armoured regiment...? This information was given by RAW. To check it out, they sent TacAR (tactical air reconnaissance) and they found the tanks inside our front. And the air force went into action.

When war takes place, the reserve formations move. You have to know, where have the armoured divisions come? Where have the infantry battalions been positioned? Where is the concentration? You are expected to tell all this to the end-users, ie, the army. And it is checked out on the ground itself. In a war, what you have reported, better turn out to be correct.

Where does the romance of intelligence end and reality begin?

Mostly it is frustrating, in that you put in a lot of work and get very little returns. And sometimes a nugget of gold just falls into your lap. It's a very chancy thing. Every time you collect a piece of hard intelligence, or make a very good assessment which saves some of the national interest, you get immense satisfaction. You find that whatever level you may be working on, you are contributing to the national welfare. Sometimes you are working in a very hostile environment...

In the sense...?

In target countries. You are all alone, and you have to watch your back. You may be going undercover.

Do you read spy novels? Which author comes closest to reality?

Certainly not James Bond [laughs]. But Le Carre comes closest. He captures the atmosphere and the pulls and pressures of the job. He dramatises it, of course, but not much. Most of it is plausible; it could have happened in intelligence agencies. He's a story-teller, a plot weaver, so the dramatisation is there. It is not all that a glorified world he shows.

ISI creates all this upheaval here. Do we do anything abroad...?

Well, RAW is a professional agency under political control. It doesn't have an agenda of its own. It has to do things under proper clearance, in line with its charter. There are some rules of the game we have to observe, and we have to work within certain parameters and discipline.

Secondly, though we have to be aggressive and go-getting type, we cannot be brazen. We can't be caught with our pants down. Even in intelligence collection, there has to be benefit of deniability. You can't play the fool like the bull in a china shop.

You know what happened in Kargil and what's happening in the valley. We have captured thousands of people who have told us everything: Who recruited them, who armed them, who trained them -- everything. And the intelligence agencies on that side are not bothered! This kind of thing is brazen and crude. They feel that they can get away with it because of the restraint that we exercise in the matter of not enlarging the conflict.

Who gave us the Musharraf tapes?

[Laughs] I know but I can't confirm that.

East or West?

Why don't you sometimes give the credit -- it might have been an indigenous effort! [Laughs] Is that too good to be true?

In a Chinese hotel. It has to be China.

That is a canard that can be spread to some advantage [laughs]. But it will make some people in China fume. Certainly, all that has appeared in the press is not correct.

Are you happy with the withdrawal of troops from J&K?

No; it has created a temporary problem. But we are getting over it, and trying to get an alternative mechanism in place. Whatever gaps resulted in the security due to the thinning of the troops, we will take care of it, one way or the other.

Haven't we had enough of this proxy war? Can't we just go in and get it back?

This can't be looked at in an emotional way. You have to see where it could lead to, whether it is something you find acceptable diplomatically, militarily and economically.

One is getting tired of the diplomatic part...

But it does play a part. If you are not at each other's throat, then diplomacy is the only weapon available. These options of [chuckles] a more hawkish variety can lead to very unsavoury and unpredictable consequences.

How does China do whatever it wants? It's preparing for Taiwan now.

But is it going through? Sometimes you just flex your muscle, and that's all. Sometimes you do a little more, and then stop. It takes a very compelling reason, or foolhardiness, to cross a certain line. Even if it is the LoC.

Are you hosting the Prithvi here?

What's that? Mr Prithvi-something [laughs]? No, I'm not aware of it. There is a need-to-know basis. What good will it do for the governor to know of it?


'Pakistan doesn't worry whether it has the benefit of deniability'

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