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Home > News > Columnists > B Raman

A nation with no memory

July 26, 2007

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We are a nation with no memory. That is why national security lapses keep overtaking us at regular intervals and we keep drifting from one disaster to another.

In my book The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane, I have referred to a number of past instances of penetration of our intelligence agencies and other government departments by foreign intelligence agencies in order to highlight the continuing weaknesses in our counter-penetration and counter-intelligence capabilities and to underline the need for removing them. This is not the first time I am writing on it.

I wrote the first article on this subject for The Hindu in 1996, after the detection of the penetration of the Intelligence Bureau by the Central Intelligence Agency at a high level. Since then, I must have written at least 20 articles on this subject

One of the past cases mentioned by me in the book is the penetration of the Prime Minister's Office by the French intelligence in the early 1980s. I was surprised by the kind of excitement or scepticism this evoked among the anchors of our TV channels and journalists from our media.

'Prime Minister's Office penetrated by French Intelligence, says an ex-R&AW spy', screamed the headlines.

'A claim without corroboration,' commented an anchor of NDTV.

A commentator of the same channel sarcastically compared my reference to this to Jaswant Singh's claim of a mole in P V Narasimha Rao's office.

'Is he trying to embarrass the prime minister?' asked the Jumping Jack anchor of another channel.

'Has he violated the Official Secrets Act?' wondered another.

My dear friends in the world of journalism, this sensational case of penetration -- considered one of the most sensational anywhere in the world -- was detected in 1985 shortly after Rajiv Gandhi had taken over as the prime minister. The penetration had taken place when Indira Gandhi [Images] was the prime minister and was detected after Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her.

The whole world was shocked by the ease with which two French intelligence officers, assisted by their Polish counterparts, had penetrated the PMO and removed tonnes and tonnes of documents. It was alleged that they were so sure that nothing would happen to them that they used to go to the office of the PMO on Sundays and other holidays, go through all the files and papers, take out what was of interest to them and took out photocopies using the photocopying machine of the PMO using the photocopying paper of the PMO.

It was a scandal of unbelievable proportions. It was found that these people had not only penetrated the PMO, but also the office of President Zail Singh and other sensitive ministries of the Government of India,.

The scandal and the speculation about it created such a furore in the Lok Sabha that Rajiv Gandhi had to make a statement on the subject on the floor of the house and Dr P C Alexander, who was Principal Secretary to Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, had to resign. He did not accept responsibility for the shocking state of negligence in his office, but attributed his resignation to high moral principles.

The investigation brought out that the French and other collaborating intelligence agencies operated through Yogesh T Maneklal, then managing director of Maneklal Industries Limited of Mumbai, who had extensive contacts at the lower levels of the PMO, the President's office and other ministries and persuaded many government servants to work for the French intelligence. He was sentenced to 14 years rigorous imprisonment on July 18, 2002.

The spy ring consisted of S Sankaran, then senior PA in the President's Secretariat; Jagdish Chandra Arora, then PA to the then Secretary, Defence Production; Jagdish Mittar Tiwari, then senior PA to then Additional Secretary, Ministry of Defence; Amrik Lal, then senior PA to erstwhile Joint Secretary (Supply) MoD; V K Palaniswamy of the Ministry of Shipping and Transport, H N Chaturvedi, then Assistant, Ministry of Commerce; T N Kher, then PS to Dr P C Alexander; P Gopalan, then senior PA and K K Malhotra, then PA to Dr Alexander; Swaminath Ram, UDC in the office of Dr Alexander; K C Sharma, then PA in the Planning Commission, and S L Chandra (official position not known). All of them were sentenced to 10 years RI each.

The court found all of them guilty of the charge that 'they had entered into a criminal conspiracy with foreign agents, including Lt Col Mexi Morvan and Lt Col A Bain Bioley of the French embassy and some officials of the Polish embassy and the embassy of the then German Democratic Republic here and collected, obtained and communicated secret official codes, secret and classified documents and information pertaining to defence, shipping, transport, finance, planning, Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau reports, official codes and other classified top secret and confidential information and passed the same to foreign agents.'

They had communicated to the French intelligence not only copies of a large number of classified documents, but also the code books used by the Government of India.

All these details are available in the records of the Lok Sabha and the court of the additional sessions judge, R K Gauba, before whom they were tried.

One is surprised and disturbed that within 25 years of this disgraceful betrayal, most of our national security managers and so-called strategic analysts have forgotten about it. When I draw attention to this, some in the media accuse me of disseminating claims without corroboration, others ridicule me by comparing me with Jaswant Singh, and some others attribute motives to me.

This is why we face national security disasters again and again and again. A nation, which has no memory for the past, is bound to repeat its mistakes in the future.

The other comment, which has amazed me, relates to my mention of an alert received from a mole of the R&AW in Yahya Khan's office regarding a pre-emptive air strike planned by the Pakistan Air Force on the forward air bases in the Western sector. An anchor of NDTV said this air strike was meant to divert attention from the fighting in the Eastern Sector. Manoj Joshi, the journalist, pooh-poohed my statement and said when the Indian Army entered East Pakistan it was expected that the PAF would make a diversionary air strike in the West. According to him, a general alert was, therefore, sounded. He implied that the R&AW was trying to take credit for this.

Well Mr Anchor, well Mr Joshi, you apparently do not remember or know how the 1971 war started. In 1967, the Israeli Air Force had launched pre-emptive air strikes on the Egyptian Air Force planes parked in its Air Force bases and destroyed them on the ground. Then, the Israeli Army went into action. The Egyptian Army had to fight without air cover. It surrendered.

The Pakistanis studied what the Israeli Air Force had done and decided to emulate it. Their calculation was that if they destroyed a large number of IAF planes on the ground, it could affect the operations of the Indian Army in the East by damaging the air cover available to it. The R&AW got advance intimation of this plan and the IAF was alerted. The intended pre-emptive air strike failed. Indira Gandhi, who was then in West Bengal, flew back to Delhi and in a midnight broadcast declared war on Pakistan. She let the world know that the war was started by Pakistan through its failed pre-emptive air strike and not by India.

Mr Joshi asked: If it is true that the R&AW had a mole as claimed by me, why the mole did not give information about Pakistani plans in the Jammu area? Mr.Joshi, a mole can give only that information to which he has access. This is a basic principle of the craft of intelligence -- no access, no information.

The information that the R&AW got advance intelligence about the planned pre-emptive strike was known for over 30 years and acknowledged by Indira Gandhi herself. I had referred to this in my past writings too. All I have done in the book is to identify for the first time the R&AW officer who raised this source and got the information through him so that there is public knowledge of the role played by him.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi. Buy your copy of The Kaoboys of R&AW -- Down Memory Lane at the online military bookshop at

B Raman