Intelligence wars began with colonial distrust

Information is power. Power corrupts and absolute information corrupts absolutely.

Published: 28th October 2018 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th October 2018 11:41 AM   |  A+A-

Information is power. Power corrupts and absolute information corrupts absolutely. The internecine war in the CBI, India’s most credible agency, has publicly exposed an ongoing shadow war. Never before have power struggles at the top become a public spat like CBI director Alok Verma vs No. 2 Rakesh Asthana. Never before has CBI raided its own premises or filed such an FIR—a serious breach of an agency’s secrecy code.

Tracking the history of Indian agencies shows in a nutshell that intelligence gathering was nationally consolidated by the British to monitor anti-Centre movements, causing Centre-State turf wars with political overtones. The Sepoy Mutiny setbacks convinced the British that functions of Central Special Branch and provincial agencies should be cohesive, leading to the formation of Central Department of Criminal Intelligence (DCI).

In 1872, at the height of the Indian Wahhabi revival, a religious convict assassinated Viceroy Mayo in Andaman jail. This prompted the colonial government to create a “detective police for political purposes”. A Special Branch was set up in Punjab in 1876 as an experiment that followed in other states. The Government started monitoring public opinion; vide a classified dispatch (No. 11, d. March, 25th, 1887), the ‘collection of secret and political intelligence in India’ began after the birth of the Indian National Congress. On December 23, 1887, a national Special Branch was constituted with an annual budget of Rs 46,800.

Post the 1912 Delhi bomb attack, London sent men from Scotland Yard to catch the culprits. Sir Edward Henry, Commissioner, Metropolitan Police, observed local investigators were better than English detectives. In 1935, when Indian home ministers of the provinces took charge of local intelligence, the colonial government in Delhi was wary of information leaking to revolutionaries. Provincial governments frequently complained that Centre was using DCI to spy on them.

This turbulent past shows Indian intelligence was politicised to monitor the activities of opponents. After Independence, the CBI has been accused of being a “caged parrot” used by subsequent Central governments to spy on Opposition states and leaders and also conduct intimidating raids and arrests. The trend reached its peak during the Emergency, and has never really subsided since then.

However, it is a dismal first when the powers-that-be in the CBI fight publicly. The Prime Minister has stepped in. But it is likely hostilities would continue at subterranean levels until only one man is left standing. If Mr Narendra Modi’s intervention does succeed, it could trigger an overhaul of equations leaving the onus of impartial responsibility on the agency itself. Perhaps, then, the parrot will be free of the cage at last.

Ravi Shankar

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