A RAW special secretary told me not long ago that the external intelligence agency thrives on the attention it gets in Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. “If we are half as good as we are sometimes made out to be, our day would be made,” he said. Having known many RAW officials and their many faux pas in the region, I could not agree more.
This is not to say the RAW does not have achievements to show. The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and the 1975 Sikkim merger with India are said to be feathers in the RAW’s cap. The great PN Banerjee, RAW’s first eastern regional joint secretary (also the last joint director of IB), was the mastermind of critical operations and his boss , the redoubtable Ramnath Kao, backed him all the way. Banerjee is said to have warned Bangabandhu (who fondly called him Nath Babu as he was known in Bangladesh political circles) about threats to his life.
I have it on authority from RAW veterans, like the late BB Nandi, that Banerjee had pulled off a grand operation in 1971 — he knew Khondaker Mostaq was working for the Americans but instead of hauling him up, he decided to use Mostaq to mislead the Americans about Indian plans. Under cover of tackling Naxalites, the Indian army deployed for a final push into East Pakistan but Banerjee sold Mostaq all the while India was in no condition to go for a military intervention because it had scores of insurgencies in the Northeast and the Naxalite upsurge in West Bengal to handle. The Americans found out later why they had got it so wrong about Indian plans and many in India believe Banerjee’s mysterious death in Dhaka was not the cardiac arrest it was made out to be.
But even Banerjee’s warnings were not heeded by Bangabandhu, who was confident nothing could happen to him because he was adored by his people.
Those who have written about those heady days of 1971, like TN Kaul, had been profuse in their praise of Kao, his deputy Shankaran Nair (Colonel Menon to many) and PN Banerjee (or Nath Babu).
But the late BB Nandy, one of the legendary spymasters in the post-Kao/Nair/Banerjee era, once told me that the biggest problem with RAW was its aversion to tough methods.
He told me that as RAW station chief in Bangkok and later in charge of the cell that dealt with the Northeast, they had ULFA commander in chief Paresh Barua in their sights. Nandy had cultivated a Thai police officer who was prepared to ‘bump off’ Paresh Barua and claim a big financial reward. But much to Nandi’s dismay, that was an operation his boss, the late AK Verma did not clear.
Now Verma was otherwise a tough option guy, credited with using the MQM and other elements to unleash a tit-for-tat violent campaign in Sindh that the late B Raman (in his “Kaoboys of RAW”) says forced Pakistan to back off from supporting the Khalistan insurrection in Punjab.
But individual assassinations, which the KGB (Ukrainian leader Stefan Bander at Orly airport) or even the CIA (African icon Patrice Lumumba) resorted to so often, was never encouraged in RAW.
Every intelligence agency has a style and those who have a lot of military or semi-military elements running the show — like the ISI — tend to prefer assassinations. The ISI has attacked MQM leaders in London , the Mossad has bumped off so many Arab radical leaders from the undivided PLO (vice president Issam Sartawi) to Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, but the RAW, to the best of my knowledge, has not bloodied its hands.
Therefore, BNP leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi’s allegation that the RAW killed the late Ziaur Rahman appeared to be a surprise.
The RAW believes in winning over or managing foreign leaders, getting them to become friends of India and its preferred way of dealing with a hostile foreign leader is either to discredit and defame him (this psyop is RAW’s speciality if elimination was KGB’s or Mossad’s) and to pull the rug from its feet by encouraging coalitions that can lead to electoral defeat.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential polls in Sri Lanka, his close supporters blamed the RAW for bringing together Ranil Wickremesinghe and current President Maithripala Sirisena.
That is believable and it is true the RAW knows better than Chinese intelligence (who were backing Rajapaksa) how to manipulate elections. The Chinese know much about many things but not elections for obvious reasons.
The BNP’s Rizvi is hanging his entire allegation about the RAW’s role on Zia murder on a “Sunday” magazine story in the 1980s.
I wonder whether he had read the story carefully. Having worked in “Sunday” at that time, I recall the story that was based on an interview with a crack nut Indian politician Subramanian Swamy (now with the BJP). Swamy was a bitter critic of Indira Gandhi and attacked the RAW which he saw as fulfilling Indira’s “diabolical plans”.
Swamy had stated in an interview to “Sunday”, that the RAW had plotted the assassination of president Ziaur Rahman with approval from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. RN Kao, the RAW Chief, and Shankaran Nair, a senior official of the RAW, had plotted to kill General Ziaur Rahman.
Swamy said that plan was “already at an advanced stage when the Congress Government fell and Mr. Morarji Desai became Prime Minister.” Swamy claimed that Desai was appalled to learn about the assassination plan and blocked it.
He said the RAW warned the prime minister that it was too late to back out now and that many RAW assets would be endangered if the plan was aborted at this stage. However, Desai remained adamant and finally the RAW abandoned the assassination.
This is where Swamy stopped. But he left a rider — Zia continued to rule Bangladesh for many more years. He was assassinated after Indira Gandhi returned to power but Indira said that “she was not involved”.
So Swamy never claimed he was definite about a RAW hand in Zia’s assassination but alluded to it indirectly by talking about it.
India is not Pakistan and the RAW is not an ISI, a state within a state.
No RAW official would dare tell an Indian prime minister that an operation cannot be dropped if the PM is opposed to it.
Rizvi is not aware that when Desai became PM, he immediately replaced the Kao-Nair team with his own nominee as RAW chief — NF Suntook, an Indian Frontier Administrative Service officer with no background in intelligence.
If anyone would have gone to Desai to discuss the assassination plan, it would have been Suntook because he was brought in almost immediately after Desai took over.
I have known Suntook during his tenure in the Northeast — he would have cancelled any operation he found controversial and would never take it to Desai.
In my book “Insurgent Crossfire”, I have detailed the RAW’s involvement in backing the insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
I said that the RAW was asked to stop the CHT operations when Desai became PM.
This was an ongoing RAW operation when Desai took charge and the RAW chief would have to (unlike the ISI which could do such things behind a PM’s back) brief the prime minister.
The CHT operations were revived when Indira Gandhi returned to power but by then the Shanti Bahini had split.
I detailed how the RAW was caught napping with the split in the Bahini which led to a fratricidal feud in Indian territory and how one of its officials mediated between the Larma group and Priti Chakma group.
When General Zia was killed, the RAW station chief in Agartala, which handled the Bangladesh operations, was run by a very capable officer, PK Ghosh.
He had come to RAW on deputation from BSF and had fought with Zia during the 1971 war.
In the photo album of the BSF Tripura headquarters in Salbagan (Agartala), there is still a grand picture of Zia and Ghosh enjoying a cup of tea on the lawns.
What I picked up as a journalist was that the Agartala station of RAW was caught off guard by the Zia assassination.
Journalists like Sumit Mitra at that time went on to blame the RAW for poor intelligence gathering in the early 1980s because of PM Desai’s efforts to curb the organisation and removing many of its bright officers who had distinguished themselves in 1971 and 1975.
It took 2-3 years for Mrs Gandhi to bring back the bright officers of the Kao-Nair brigade and give them sufficient operational powers.
But the Zia assassination had happened much before that. His murder and that of General Manzur was followed by a witch-hunt that removed most of the freedom fighters from the top echelons of the Bangladesh army, men who had fought with the Indian army in 1971.
I find it hard to believe that an Indian agency would create a situation in which the Pak-returned repatriates would take charge of the Bangladesh army and turn it into a hostile institution from the Indian point of view.