Monday, 16 August 2021

Reform intelligence agencies in the national interest

Reprising an earlier argument made on these web pages occasionally over the past ten years is apt in light of a new book shedding light on India’s intelligence agencies. The case made earlier was that India’s largest minority, its Muslims, have been saddled with responsibility for the terror threat by its intelligence agencies for no fault or doing of their own. Over the last two decades the terror threat in India was, firstly, hyped up through intelligence operations, and, secondly, pumped up through ‘black operations’, involving terror acts by non-Muslims passed off as Muslim perpetrated. A recently released book, Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, provides testimony for the argument.  

The authors make the case that the setback at a Kandahar over the turn of the millennium - in which India exchanged a few Pakistani terrorists in its custody for the passengers of a hijacked plane - resulted in a boost for operations of intelligence agencies. Intelligence agencies operations had apparently been curbed somewhat at the late 90s when India was contemplating expanding an outreach to Pakistan through a composite dialogue. The Kandahar episode – that followed close on the heels of the Kargil War - upended any thought of dialogue with Pakistan. Instead, it resulted in the intelligence agencies being allowed to reactivate offensive operations, along with painting Pakistan black by winning the war of narratives.

As per the book, intelligence agencies consequently launched information operations - buttressed by diplomats - highlighting Pakistani interference in India’s domestic affairs through proxy war in Kashmir and also by supporting Muslim extremists and criminals in the hinterland. While the book does not go into any detail, it hints that, in addition, they also conducted ‘black operations’ in order to further implicate Pakistan as a terror sponsor state. In his review of the book, Sushant Singh, the fearless scribe on strategic affairs, lets on that the book has clues that even as significant an incident as the parliament attack has traces of a false-flag operation. He refers to the insufficiently probed role of the rogue cop, Davinder Singh, who allegedly was a player in that episode. Since the authors rely on intelligence sources, they portray that the terror attack was handiwork of Pakistan, white washing the career gains the rogue cop made over the next decade and half. Unbelievably the cop turned up in the Pulwama episode too. That he continues to be on the loose, having been discharged from service without a probe ‘in the national interest’, should ring bells.

Readers of this publication need no elaboration on the other terror attacks attributed to Muslims.  The book brings out that at least 16 major terror attacks across the country were of dubious origin. Some involved at least one army officer and one sitting member of the current parliament. The army officer, Purohit, has been let off, since he supposedly kept his hierarchy informed of his penetration of the saffronite cell that was behind the bombings such as in Malegaon and in Hyderabad. This only serves to reinforce the suspicion all along that the bombings were by saffronite extremists, but brings to fore the covert support of intelligence agencies with the ostensible rationale of a build-up of a case against Pakistan as a terror sponsor for strategic and foreign policy purposes.

However, that rationale is self-serving, dressing up intelligence agencies’ doings in plausible national security terms. What is concerning is the saffronisation of the intelligence agencies – and elements of other security services - brought out in the book. Such saffronisation must be placed in the context of Hindutva politics being played out over the period. At the time, the right wing party was out of power and was in search of a key to Delhi. The intelligence agency-overseen bombings thus provided the ballast for the campaign of right wing forces. The bombings generated polarization and marginalized the minority. On the back of the resulting manufactured ‘wave’, the current ruling dispensation came to power mid-last decade.

This brings to fore the political role of the intelligence agencies, which clearly calls for closer executive and parliamentary supervision. This is easier said than done. While parliamentary oversight does not exist – there being no parliamentary standing committee charged with this – there is little evidence of executive oversight either. Recall, the bombings averred to here were in the period of the United Progressive Alliance ten years sway. Its national security advisors and home ministers were unable or unwilling to clean up the intelligence agencies’ stables. It can be inferred that their inability and unwillingness owed to their knowledge that the rot was rather deep. Besides, findings of an Indian non-Muslim hand behind the bombings would have revealed Indian foreign policy offensive against Pakistan sterile and rendered vacuous its backing for initiatives as the convention on international terrorism. Now, intelligence agencies variously report to the two right hand men of the prime minister, Amit Shah and Ajit Doval. Since the ruling dispensation has been the gainer from actions of intelligence agencies, it is hardly likely to trip itself up.

That a continuing series of intelligence failures not having prompted a clean-up so far, it is hardly likely that the finding here matters that intelligence agencies were acting outside their mandate by creating the political conditions for electoral triumph of the right wing. Not only was India found flat-footed at Kargil, but so has been the case - if the official narrative is to be believed - with the terror attacks from parliament to Pulwama. More recently, the Chinese intrusions in Ladakh escaped the intelligence agencies. Worse, the Pegasus affair - ‘Snoopgate’ - has also not evoked introspection and course correction. The fall of India’s ally, the Ghani government in Kabul, will also unlikely stir matters. Their hard-sell that with Article 370 gone, Kashmir will mend, has not quite worked out and the chickens are readying to come home to roost. A system that plants incriminating evidence remotely in computers and then makes arrests using the planted evidence as evidence of conspiracy as has been the case with the BK16 or charges victims of communal carnage as has been done in the case of the one-sided political violence in North East Delhi can neither self-regulate nor autocorrect.

Therefore, to carry any expectations of fair play or rule of law is to be naïve. The intelligence agencies have Chanakya as their mascot. Kautilyan thought informs the working of this regime. Regime survival is the primary morality in Chanakyagiri and intelligence agencies have pride of place in its scheme. It misses national security minders that Chanakya wrote in and of a period when India was a space for contesting principalities. Principles and values cannot be imported from two millennia back to inform workings of a parliamentary democracy today. To the extent intelligence hands subscribe to Hindutva, to them Hindutva legitimizes their distancing from the professional ideal. This accounts for the authoritarian and illiberal democracy India has become in its 75th year. A rollback to the constitutional framework implies first a reform of intelligence agencies in the national interest.