“Spying is a secret business and not a pleasant one. No matter what someone has done, you have to protect him or her from outsiders. You can deal as harshly as you think fit with him or her inside the organisation. But to the outside world he or she must remain untouchable and, better yet, unaccountable and unknown” ─ Meir Amit, former Mossad chief.
Omerta is not just a word out of Mario Puzo. It is a pact of silence that exists within the exclusive club of men and women who wage war for their country in the shadows—the brotherhood of the intelligence community. It was cleaved apart last week when the long-standing political war between controversial former army chief General V K Singh and a section of the Army establishment in connivance with the government erupted again. The casualty was the Technical Support Division (TSD), one of India’s most clandestine and effective intelligence units, disbanded in July 2013 after General Bikram Singh took over as army chief in May 2012. Military Intelligence (MI) sources say that under severe interrogation to implicate General V K Singh in “anti-national operations,” some of its best officers who earned their stripes in Kashmir have become psychological wrecks. Their cover blown, facing hostile enquiry boards and fearing for the safety of their families, the former agents have written to Defence Minister A K Antony to provide them security. An excerpt from a letter by an officer’s wife notes that “For reasons best known to him probably because of his secretive nature of job he refuses to divulge organisational issues with me but has on numerous occasions in the last two months expressed death wish and suicidal thoughts due to organisational stress. He once did say that all this media hype has unnecessarily exposed him as a field operator. Therefore, he strongly believes that there is a chance of a threat to his life and to the life of his sources/informers who operate within inimical/terrorist organisations.” The Army’s response was to institute a court of enquiry against her to investigate the allegations. Ironically, she has not been summoned even once in spite of two sittings nor is she being discharged of the inquiry.
SPIES FEARED BY PAKISTAN
No doubt, the TSD woes would make Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) pop the champagne. The TSD’s job was counter-intelligence, covert-ops and surveillance that brought significant reverses to ISI. In the deceptive battlefield of Kashmir disguised by the serenity of ageless lakes and stately chinar trees, TSD’s secret soldiers have protected India’s interests. Army sources say it carried out retaliatory strikes deep within Pakistan reminding old timers in the spy business of the heady eighties when the ISI chief of the time was forced to call for an unprecedented secret palaver with India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief to discuss how hostilities could be scaled back. General Deepak Kapoor initiated the founding of TSD in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks to counter Pakistan terror groups. It had operational sanction of the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor and top ministry officials. However, in July 2012, citing a spike in slush fund spending— from `49 crore in 2011-12 to `67 crore in 2010-11—the then Defence Secretary Sashikanth Sharma and current Army chief, General Bikram Singh asked the Director General Military Operations Lt Gen Vinod Bhatia to probe TSD’s activities and file a confidential report. Sharma became the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in June 2013. In March 2013, copies of the handwritten report went to Sharma, the Vice chief, Director MI(FD) and the Joint Secretary (MoD). Coincidentally, the leaks began. However, the report had been submitted to the Ministry of Defence in March 2013, while the TSD itself had been disbanded in July 2013. “Why is the government not lodging an FIR under the Official Secrets Act?” asks a disillusioned former TSD operative.
THE MEDIA WEAPON
Army officers wonder whom the “leaks” benefit and what trouble lies ahead in Kashmir. “All gains made to ensure goodwill among the local population have been frittered away by one foolish act of some good-for-nothing officials in the government and Army,” rued a serving MI officer. He is doubtful if any of the allegations against General Singh would stick. Usually all intelligence exposes worldwide have been by whistleblowers, but with TSD, the government itself, helped by top echelons of the Army was responsible, says the officer. V K Singh’s enemies used a formidable weapon, the media. In July 2012, two months after his successor General Bikram Singh— whose antipathy towards the TSD is well known in military circles partly due to his belief that it conducted operations against him in the Valley—had taken over, Bhatia was asked to investigate “a sudden and unusual surge” in MI’s secret funds following a news report. By mid-2012 itself, it had become obvious that the TSD’s glory days were nearing an end. MI sources say the media was used to implicate the intelligence unit in the alleged bugging of Antony’s office in February 2012. Sharma asked Intelligence Bureau (IB) to launch a probe. The very fact that the civilian intelligence agency was roped in to inquire into an alleged covert army operation revealed which way the wind was blowing. Sections of the media kept the fusillade going against V K Singh. Reports alleged that he exploited TSD as “a personal Army” and gave J&K Agriculture Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir `1.19 crore to “topple” the Omar Abdullah government in January 2012. It also reported that `2.38 crore was given to an NGO to file a petition against General Bikram Singh, then Eastern Army Commander in a decade-old fake encounter case to prevent him from becoming Army chief. Both Mir and the NGO have denied reports. The irony that went unnoticed was that even if true, an intelligence unit would not conduct an operation against a state government without political approval. Strangely, the leak on the funds happened immediately after the General shared a stage with Narendra Modi in Haryana. As the Intelligence community watched in despair, the establishment pressed the attack further. The beleaguered general was forced to explain that the funding was for Sadbhavna (harmony).
This was literally handing Kashmir politicians a big stick to beat the army with. As demands from Central and state ministers for a CBI probe grew louder, the anti-Singh lobby burst another media bombshell, saying the TSD had carried out nine covert operations abroad. The political slugfest now took an anti-national turn. For the first time in the history of Indian military intelligence, covert operations were being revealed. This threatened to embarrass India diplomatically, compromise foreign assets, and invite reprisals. Belatedly realising the implications, the government stepped in, but not before causing irreparable damage to gains India had made in Kashmir over the years. Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, says such leaks would compromise operations, as opponents would launch countermeasures to neutralise Indian assets cultivated over a period of time. “Intelligence units are considered our last resort for national security. If you continue hampering their effectiveness, you will realise they have lost their utility,” Ranade says. Retired Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch supports Ranade’s argument. He should know. Katoch is a former Special Forces officer. India’s Special Forces are tasked with carrying out specialist, and sometimes, clandestine operations behind enemy lines and also within Indian territory to destroy enemy assets, movable and immovable. “General V K Singh has been forced to respond in public. These issues deal with national security,” he says.
The present Army chief General Bikram Singh maintained a stoic silence, though it was his action of ordering a probe against TSD that stirred the Pandora’s box. A serving MI officer noted that the “leaks” would pose serious problems for the Army and the Indian government in J&K, as any politician or NGO talking pro-India would be branded as ones “who have sold themselves to the Indian Army”. He said it also posed a serious threat to democracy in the state, as the “leaks” questioned the 2011 elections to rural local bodies in the state as being influenced by the TSD. “If the (Bhatia) report had indicted General V K Singh or any other officer relating to TSD, the proper course would be to go for disciplinary proceedings. Or else the government ought to come clean,” says retired Brigadier V Mahalingam. “Instead, the government, or one of its senior officers chose to leak the whole or a part of the report to tarnish the General’s image.” A senior intelligence officer feels “the phase when intelligence agencies used to topple and build governments is long gone.”
It is not just India’s military intelligence that is being jeopardised by the politics of reprisal. India’s intelligence community has for long been functioning under the shadow of partisan politics. On a scorching June morning, as the dapper Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB) Asif Ibrahim, was being driven to meet Shiv Shankar Menon, his mind was clouded over the future of his beloved agency. The CBI investigation into the Ishrat Jahan encounter had identified IB agents by name, a precedent that could jeopardise intelligence gathering and lives of operatives who have penetrated terror cells. The investigation and subsequent leaks exposed the blueprint of a highly covert IB terror operation involving payments to assets, logistics to moles and running interrogations in safe houses. It caused a political firestorm. The BJP accused the government of dragging the IB into the public domain to “fix” Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Several former chiefs raised concerns over the government’s move. Furious, the IB requested Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene, threatening to stop producing actionable intelligence for persecuting its operative. As more details of the encounter hit the headlines, IB officers snapped all communication channels, bringing India’s security apparatus to a grinding halt. “It was a symbolic protest to remind the government that officers risking their lives to generate actionable intelligence cannot be crucified to exploit political interests,” an IB source says. The Ishrat case was the first instance in its history when intelligence dispatches were halted in protest against political plots. Earlier, in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s time, the agency was asked to go slow on busting ISI espionage rings operating under diplomatic cover. On November 30, 1988, the IB, from a five star hotel, picked up senior ISI officer Brigadier Abbasi in New Delhi—doubling as a military attaché—as he was meeting his Indian contact. The government sharply rapped IB’s knuckles, asking it to restrict anti-Pak ops to just identifying and informing the Centre about ISI activities instead of arresting and interrogating Pak spies. A senior intelligence officer said the use of Intelligence agencies by the political establishment is nothing new, but dragging an officer through the mud as in the Ishrat Jahan encounter was very dangerous trend. “Since the early 1990s, the IB has penetrated several modules in Fatehjung and Murgikhana across the border and thwarted ISI’s terror attempts. But details of such operations are not talked about nor officers involved hounded. There are many things we do which are strictly not part of our duty to ensure that all information is properly elicited,” he adds.
Former RAW officer R K Yadav says it is mostly middle level officers who cultivate sources to generate sensitive intelligence by risking their lives, particularly in a hostile country like Pakistan. He warns the government and VK Singh to be careful. “If they are exposed, intelligence gathering will be completely grounded. They are the foot soldiers, always willing to go beyond known territory to protect the nation’s security. It is no secret that the government is ploughing money into J&K and other insurgency-hit states but not as payoffs to ministers to topple governments but to cultivate assets. Although, no assets were exposed in the VK Singh controversy, it was an embarrassment to officers serving in the conflict zone,” Yadav adds.
Political masters have historically compromised Indian intelligence. In 1978, during a brief phone conversation with Pakistan ruler General Zia-ul-Haq, Indian prime minister Morarji Desai inadvertently mentioned that India was aware of Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The ruthless General immediately ordered RAW assets in Pakistan to be found and neutralised. Subsequently, Indian agents were eliminated as their helpless handlers watched. Yadav says whatever intelligence network was left in Pakistan after Zia’s bloody cleanup was further destroyed by I K Gujral when he was PM in 1997-98. “Gujral had a serious allergy to RAW and the first thing he did was to suspend all offensive ops within Pakistan. Even the IB was asked to go slow on Pakistani agents operating in India. In approximately 11 months, he systematically erased the organisation’s footprints in Pakistan to promote his peace doctrine,” Yadav reveals.
Interestingly, only few months after Gujral’s decision to suspend RAW’s Pak operation, the agency prevented a Pak-sponsored attack on his convoy in Jalandhar. A top secret A-category input from the RAW station in London had warned about five militants travelling to India to attack the prime minister’s convoy. Surveillance was mounted after their flight touched down at Delhi. A team of Indian intelligence agents apprehended the terrorists after they picked up their weapons from a pre-decided location in Punjab. Meanwhile, unhindered by any political influence, ISI continued to exploit the vacuum created by Indian politicians.
It successfully cultivated a strong network of agents in India and Nepal by targeting religious institutions. In a startling disclosure, a former IB officer confirmed that the ISI has infiltrated several institutions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He says an ISI agent was apprehended by the IB and Delhi Police in 1994 from UP but since he was politically connected, the PMO intervened; within few hours of his arrest, the politician’s followers attacked the police station where he was held and managed to rescue the Pakistani agent and his Indian contact. The same year when India’s Pakistan Counter Intelligence Unit was close to busting a module of ISI-trained operatives in West Bengal and Bihar, its officers were accused of harassing the minority community and ordered to stand down.
BETRAYAL AND CONSEQUENCES
The long arm of politics has damaged Indian intelligence operations abroad in some cases. A RAW officer who served during the P V Narasimha Rao regime recalls an incident of a colleague posted with the Indian Embassy in Tehran who was picked up by agents of VEVAK, the Iranian intelligence service despite having diplomatic immunity.
He was gathering intelligence on Kashmiri militants living at the religious centre at Qom, near Tehran. India chose not to take up the issue with Iran. The government woke up three days later, when RAW agents and their families threatened to stop work. Within hours of diplomatic efforts, the officer was released from a clandestine Iranian facility where third degree methods were used on him to garner information about RAW operations both in Tehran and the Middle East. He was also interrogated about the RAW setup in India. It was a serious setback to Indian intel operations in Iran; all secret missions were suspended. The officer was quietly transferred to New Delhi.
Sources say after the incident, most RAW officers in the Middle East and the Gulf region were transferred and all assets dismantled. “This was the reason we had no clue that the 1993 Mumbai bombers fleeing to the Gulf after the attacks. All our assets had been by then neutralised by the political establishment,” sources add.
However, the officer categorically says the Ishrat Jahan case and L’Affaire VK Singh may have embarrassed India’s intelligence agencies, but would not stop intelligence gathering operations. “In J&K and North-east, all intelligence activity is focused on insurgency, not on political parties. When we have an objective to achieve, there are so many ways to do it. There is always plan B, C, D ready, in case plan A backfires,” he elaborates.
But as the dirt flies and political conspiracies put national security in peril, the best-laid plans of India’s secret agents threaten to go awry.