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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/ Claude Arpi

India's Kaoboys: In the shadow of history

August 06, 2007

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In the sixties, one heard about the Kaulboys, a few generals gravitating around Lieutenant General B M Kaul who took over as chief of the general staff at army headquarters with Jawaharlal Nehru's blessings.

They quickly became great China policy experts with the tragic consequences of October 1962. Henderson-Brooks is said to have pointed out that from the beginning of 1961 'crucial professional military practice was abandoned. From this stemmed the unpreparedness and the unbalance of our forces.'

Today we are introduced to the Kaoboys. While the Kaulboys were flamboyant, rash and braggart, the Kaoboys were discreet, efficient, often grey but professional to the tips of their fingers.

Unfortunately so far they have remained in the shadow of history. Thanks to B Raman, who worked for 26 years for the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India's external intelligence agency, we know more about Rameshwar Nath Kao and his boys today.

Raman's book The Kaoboys of the R&AW, Down Memory Lane (published by Lancer Publishers) is not the first book written by an intelligence officer. B N Mullick, who served for 16 years as the director of the Intelligence Bureau, wrote My Years with Nehru, his memoirs in three volumes. But this was before the bifurcation of the Intelligence Bureau into two separate agencies: one looking after internal intelligence (IB) and the other after the external (R&AW).

Raman's work is exceptional because for the first time we get an insider's analysis of the success and failures of the secretive Indian external intelligence agency. The book covers the history of R&AW since its inception in September 1968 till Raman retired from service in August 1994.

In many ways, Kao was a remarkable officer. Alexandre de Marenches, the legendary French external intelligence Chief, is supposed to have said about Kao: 'What a fascinating mix of physical and mental elegance! What accomplishments! What friendships! And yet so shy of talking about himself, his accomplishments and his friends!'

Through the book, one notices Indira Gandhi's [Images] absolute confidence in her external intelligence chief and this for one reason: his professional competence. Kao was responsible for setting up R&AW practically from scratch.

Raman remembers some of his qualities: 'He gave credit to his colleagues and subordinates when things went well and took the blame when things went wrong. He was liked by the high and the mighty not only in India, but also in many countries, but throughout his life never once did he drop or use their names.'

It seems that the name Kaoboys stuck to Kao and his team when George Bush [Images] Sr was the CIA chief in the 1970s. He was told by his chief of station in Delhi about the Kaoboys of R&AW (the name may have originally been given by the diplomat Apa Pant). When Kao visited the CIA HQ in Washington DC, Bush Sr presented him a small bronze statue of a cowboy.

But Kao's team were no cowboys, their work was silent, no question of showing off, no tall claims ('tall claims have a nasty way of coming back home to haunt you'), no weekly appearances on television panels commenting on every topic under the sky! However, under Kao's leadership, the 'boys' managed, amongst other feats, to free Bangladesh from Pakistan's yoke.

It was R&AW's hour of glory, though Kao's name was hardly known. Raman recounts an incident which occurred in 1996. Celebrations were held in Delhi to mark the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh. While politicians were speaking, a Bangladeshi gentleman 'noticed a tall, handsome and elegant man sitting inconspicuously at the back of the audience. The Bengali went and told the man (Kao): 'Sir, you should have been sitting at the centre of the dais. You are the man who made 1971 possible.'

Kao replied: 'I did nothing. They (resumably the boys) deserve all praise.' Embarrassed to have been recognised, Kao left. Through the 290 pages of the Kaoboys, Raman goes into some details on the Bangladesh war and several other operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Sri Lanka [Images] as well as his postings in Paris and Geneva.

There are two ways to go about reviewing a book like the Kaoboys. One is to pick up a few 'scoopy' details and highlight them. This has been done by many reviewers. However, as Raman himself pointed out in one of his Rediff columns, the 'breaking the news' type of commentators are often illiterate and what they perceive as the scoop is simply due to their appalling ignorance.

For example, headlines about 'French intelligence penetrating the PMO' became recurring. What was known as the Coomar Narain case in the early eighties remained in the press for several weeks at the time of its discovery. French intelligence officers used to visit the prime minister's office on Sundays and other holidays, select thousands of documents and take photocopies of whatever files interested them, of course on the PMO's machine.

What Raman does not mention is that when it was discovered, the French ambassador was declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country. He was later promoted to director general of the French ministry of external affairs (equivalent to foreign secretary) for his 'good work'.

Dr P C Alexander, Indira Gandhi's principal secretary whose office was looted, was not rewarded, but only 'kicked up' as high commissioner in London [Images]. The operation is analysed by Raman as the greatest failure in counter-intelligence.

Many of such stories found in Raman's book have been reported in the Indian press. I would therefore prefer to highlight some more important aspects of Raman's memoirs which are the only available views by an insider, not 'a bird of passage', on the functioning of the R&AW (Mullick's books were more a personal justification for the IB's failure in the fifties to envisage and anticipate the Chinese threat).

One quality of Raman which probably helped him in his career as a spy is his honesty. He often records his personal or his organisation's mistakes or failures. Just to cite one, when in 1969, the Naga threat was a serious issue in the Northeast, the IB and R&AW had assessed that 2,100 Nagas had managed to go to Yunnan to be trained by the Chinese.

Sam Manekshaw, the then army commander, contended that they were not more than 450. A year later, after arresting and interrogating a Naga leader they found out that the army was right.

Raman readily acknowledges it. Of course there were far more serious failures, particularly the intelligence 'black hole' before the Mumbai blasts after the Babri Masjid demolition or the Sri Lankan messy story. All are honestly analysed. To be able to assess its failure is certainly one of the most indispensable qualities of an intelligence analyst. Raman admits 'like all living organisations, (R&AW) has had the best times and it has had the worst of times.'

From the prologue of the book till the last chapter, one issue comes again and again: The non-cooperation (to say the least) of the United States to help India handle its security threats. This is not something new, though Raman gives several shocking factual examples.

On the day of his retirement in 1994, a man known for his poker face, 'who showed no emotions or passion' shouted 'bastards' as he entered his flat in Chennai. It was the anger and bitterness that he had kept suppressed during 26 years of service. It was not directly addressed to R&AW's US counterpart, the CIA, but rather at the State Department.

The reader will have the occasion to go through scores of examples of US 'un-cooperation,' whether it was in the support to the Khalistani movement or the insurgency in J&K, all instigated by the ISI and directly sponsored by the United States which only discovered the meaning of terrorism in September 2001.

It is unfortunate that tragedies have been necessary to open the eyes of the West to the difficulties faced by India (for example, Canada [Images] started collaborated when its nationals were killed in the Kanishka bombing).

The only time the US agencies collaborated with India was when they needed India's help to counter the advances of Communist China. Once after R&AW was given some equipment to spy on China, the then director of the US Intelligence told Kao: 'Ramji, we all cheat in this profession. I know that the R&AW will cheat and use the equipment given by us for the collection of TECHINT (Technical Intelligence) about Pakistan. Make sure that our State Department does not come to know of it.'

Paradoxically, it is when the CIA was ferocious in its PSYWAR campaign against Indira Gandhi that the agency was 'cordially' collaborating with R&AW for controlling China.

Extremely useful insights are given by Raman on the relations between R&AW and the IB which never really 'digested' the bifurcation of 1968. Cooperation, for example during the Sri Lankan episode, has often been lacking. A similar rivalry existed (and probably still exists) between the intelligence officers posted abroad and Indian diplomats who often blamed R&AW to just prepare 'copy and paste' reports from open sources and were probably jealous of the lack of parliamentary and public oversight on R&AW's work and their easier access to head of governments.

Fascinating is Raman's sharp analysis of the relations of successive R&AW chiefs with the different Indian prime ministers. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Chandra Shekhar seem to have been the favourites and Morarji Desai who ordered a strict budget reduction, left less of an impression on Raman, except for the nuts he was eating while others were lavishly banqueting in Paris one day.

One sad confirmation is R&AW's weakness in accessing China. A large percentage of the agency's officers have specialised either in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Arab countries but very few in China. During its nearly 40 years of history, only one of R&AW's chiefs has been a 'China hand'. This is probably due to the fact that Enemy No 1 has always been Pakistan and not China. One can hope that it will be rectified in the years to come.

One can, of course, regret that Raman did not speak more about the some of the agency's covert operations, for example the role of Tibetan troops under Kao during the 1971 operations, the role of the Aviation Research Centre or covert actions 'to bleed' Pakistan.

Raman's book, apart from being full of juicy stories will remain a textbook for those interested to study and understand the first years of India's external intelligence agency. The nuggets and the 'scoops' will soon be forgotten, because India is 'a nation without memory' as Raman wrote, but this will remain.

One last regret. Raman says that the Historical Division at R&AW is no more. Can we hope that the government will take the timely decision to reopen it, so that our children can one day read the equivalent to the 'family jewels' (about CIA covert operations) recently released by the CIA?


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