ISI is far from RAW
An example of the difference in trajectories can be provided by an examination of the ISI as compared to an organisation that many regard as the equivalent of that powerful force, the Research & Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat, otherwise known as RAW. But what is the factual position? The ISI nests within the bosom of the Pakistan army, the most powerful of the wings of the state, far stronger than the executive, judiciary or the legislature. It is homogenous in composition, being sourced from within the armed forces, with almost no civilian content. Aware that there exists no substantive difference between “internal” and “external” security, the ISI inserts itself into domestic issues whenever it sees a link between them and national security. There is little doubt that Pakistan is under siege, although the perception that this is entirely because of India is not accurate. There are other large countries in the vicinity that may have an interest in a weakened Pakistan. Because Islamabad is a military ally of the US and is close to Saudi Arabia, certain nearby capitals will regard it with less than complete trust, no matter how many soothing words get expressed in public. Finding out exactly which country is creating a particular problem inside another is usually as difficult as finding out who the father of the unborn baby is in the case of a woman who has been repeatedly subjected to sexual assault by a multitude of men.
RAW was the creation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who saw for herself the failure of the Intelligence Bureau in predicting the 1950 takeover of Tibet by the PLA, the 1959 arrival of the Dalai Lama in India, the 1962 and 1965 wars with China and Pakistan, and the surprise decision of the Mizo National Front to declare independence in 1966. The IB could not be blamed for such lapses, because it was created by the British in order to keep an eye on internal dissent. The mindset of those manning the organisation was more political than strategic, a situation that continues to the present. There was a clear need to separate internal dissent from external threats, which is why the RAW was created in 1968 under a trusted family confidante, R N Kao.
The organisation proved its value early on. In 1970,links were established with those in the then East Pakistan. Once it became clear that General Yahya Khan would not make Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the Prime Minister even though he had got a majority in the National Assembly, the fiery leader declared the independence of East Pakistan. Thereafter, a campaign of non-conventional warfare against the Pakistan army was begun, that ended with the creation of Bangladesh following a brief war with India in 1971. That RAW was in close contact with those in East Pakistan who were hostile to the Pakistani state was no secret. That assistance was provided to them is a fact that is hard to deny. Had any of her successors been PM instead of Indira Gandhi (with the possible exception of Rajiv Gandhi), there is no doubt that they would not have had the nerve to fight a war or provide the assistance that Indira Gandhi ensured to Mujib’s men. Other Prime Ministers would have listened to Washington and other capitals and prevented the immense help to the Mukti Bahini that was provided by RAW during 1970-71.
While this may have cost Bangla Desh its freedom that year, such an outcome may have actually been better for Indian interests of the time. The Pakistan army would have been forced to fight for years a debilitating guerilla war in East Pakistan that would have drained it to exhaustion. Sometimes, to win a war is much worse for a country than to avoid a war, and this seems to have been the case with India in Bangladesh, exactly as it has been for the US in Iraq. By its “defeat”, West Pakistan was freed of the disaffected east, and quickly consolidated under General Zia to encourage first the Khalistan and then the Kashmir insurgencies against India. Had General Zia been forced to deal with a continuing rebellion in the east, his army would have been too weak to undertake the operations that it did during his period in office, in Afghanistan and India. As Rajiv Gandhi learned to his cost in Sri Lanka during 1987-89, getting into a combat situation is easy, but unless the political and diplomatic side got equal prominence, mere military action would not succeed in ensuring victory.
Under Rajiv Gandhi, RAW was given the same importance that it had under Indira Gandhi. The PM used to meet with RAW officers regularly, and even used to visit the organisation’s office. Both S G Joshi and A K Verma (whose designation “Secretary R” indicated that they headed RAW) ensured that the organisation developed numerous contacts in target countries. The negative effects of the 1977-79 Morarji Desai period, when RAW was almost disbanded, were overcome. In those days, a comparison between RAW and ISI would not have been as inaccurate as it became afterwards, beginning with the period when P V Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in 1991. Under his Principal Secretary, Amar Nath Verma, RAW lost its earlier importance, and began to report to him rather than to the PM.
This was also the period when the Indian Police Service established its supremacy over RAW, edging out the Research & Analysis Service inductees. The RAS had been conceptualised as intelligence professionals by Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and given parity with the Indian Foreign Service (IFS),the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS),the successors to the British administrative wings, and which were closely modelled on them, because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s immense faith in the colonial administrative structure and his belief that these could serve a free India as well as they had their British masters for nearly a century. Amar Nath Verma soon put an end to this, placing the RAS far below the IFS and the IAS. Indeed, he ensured that RAW would henceforward be dominated by the police, just as the Intelligence Bureau was. This merging of both via a common police link was to have major consequences. There is a huge difference between the military mind - which is strategic and in most cases free of politics - and the police mind, which focuses on the tactical and on the political. The Indian Police Service is a first-rate group of officers, but to have taken them away from police functions to managing the arcane world of the intelligence specialist was akin to playing cricket with a hockey stick. Worse, many of the police officers serving in RAW returned to their parent cadres regularly, thereby losing their link with specialised intelligence gathering and plunging once again into the hurly-burly of law and order issues. In India, neither the Defense Ministry nor the National Security setup has a dedicated and permanent cadre of officials trained in the field. This is unlike the Finance Ministry, which has greater specialisation than most other ministries, although such expertise does not reach the level of the External Affairs Ministry, which is 100% specialised in diplomacy. In the US, the CIA may be led by a boss without an intelligence training, but each echelon of that organisation is staffed with intelligence specialists, unlike the FBI, which is more into policing. In India, because of the colonial heritage that regarded the British as a master race capable of undertaking any task, the dominance of the generalist has continued, including the police generalists in RAW.
After Rajiv Gandhi, no Prime Minister has bothered to exercise personal oversight of RAW. In the Vajpayee era, control was exercised by the National Security Advisor to the PM, Brajesh Mishra. Since Manmohan Singh took charge of the government in 2004, RAW has been under the effective superintendence of not only the NSA, but often the Principal Secretary to the PM, the Cabinet Secretary and on occasion even the Home Secretary.
The separation of RAW from the fountainhead of authority has cost it salience and effectiveness. As for expertise, while there are dozens of experts on India in the various national security agencies of China, in India, their counterparts have much fewer experts on the country that is of such overpowering importance in India’s security calculus, the Peoples Republic of China. If the “world’s biggest democracy” nevertheless ambles along, the credit goes not to those managing its affairs but to the Almighty. To compare RAW with the ISI is to compare a horse with a tiger.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.