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India in Transition

Intelligence and Foreign Policymaking in India

Avinash Paliwal
August 28, 2017

The case of Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav, a retired (according to New Delhi) Indian naval officer under arrest in Pakistan since March 2016, has attracted tremendous public attention. Pakistan has accused Jadhav of working for the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)—India’s premier external intelligence agency—and in April 2017, a court martial sentenced him to death for abetting “terrorism” inside Pakistan. India denies this claim and has secured a stay on Jadhav’s execution from the International Courts of Justice. A relatively less discussed case is that of retired Pakistani officer Lieutenant Colonel Muhammad Habib Zahir, who mysteriously disappeared from Lumbini in Nepal. Allegedly in Indian custody, Zahir was “picked up” just days before Jadhav was sentenced. According to Indian media reports, the two cases are linked. Such incidents are not surprising in India-Pakistan relations. What does surprise, however, is the scope of debate on this issue in India.

Unlike the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which raised questions about the purpose and efficacy of India’s intelligence community, this time most discussion is focused on the diplomatic, legal, and political aspects of the case. This despite Indian officials such as National Security Advisor Ajit Doval (a former intelligence officer) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi making aggressive statements regarding Pakistan’s internal troubles, insinuating a new phase of intense covert warfare. Although Indian leaders justify such statements with reference to Pakistan’s support for anti-India militants, the statements raise questions about the role of the R&AW in foreign policymaking processes, and the relationship between India’s intelligence community and its political class.

Lacking parliamentary oversight and reporting directly to the Prime Minister’s Office, there is no systematic way to assess how R&AW ensures accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness. This lack of information risks undermining public confidence in the agency, exacerbating existing bureaucratic rivalries, and masking the fact that India’s political elites share an equal responsibility in the success or failure of external intelligence.  

Two narratives dominate popular understanding of India’s external intelligence agency. The first is the binary of the extremely capable versus highly dysfunctional agency. The R&AW is considered highly capable in undertaking covert operations abroad, allegedly including the promotion of unrest in Pakistan; military training to Tibetans exiles; initial support of and subsequent war with Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka; delivery of victory in the Bangladesh War of 1971; building a formidable presence in Afghanistan; and developing advanced technological intelligence capabilities. That R&AW can increase the cost of enmity for India’s adversaries has become an article of faith among members of India’s strategic circuit. But when incidents such as the 1999 Kargil conflict, the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, or defection of officers occur, the agency is considered dysfunctional and corrupt. This binary between offensive success and defensive failure on the one hand creates an easy and unaccountable scapegoat that remains in the shadows when India faces a crisis from outside. On the other, it assuages mass anxieties about India’s troubles such as terrorism from Pakistan and the constraints posed by an intransigent China.

The second narrative—dovetailing with the first—is that the R&AW was defanged or under-appreciated by soft prime ministers such as Morarji Desai, Inder Kumar Gujral, and Manmohan Singh. Desai is seen as being mistrustful of R&AW, whereas Gujral and Singh are viewed as soft on China and Pakistan. Even Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee used these assets to a limited extent. Only Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and now Modi, allegedly, understood the value of offensive covert capabilities and utilize(d) them effectively. This narrative has become folklore in Indian strategic circles. It suggests that there were moments in India’s history when intelligence played little, if any, role in foreign policy decision-making. This is a flawed proposition, because offensive operations are only a small element of the role of intelligence agencies in foreign policy. The narrative thus risks reducing R&AW to a caricature of hired assassins and agent provocateurs, instead of a professional intelligence arm meant to assess and shape India’s strategic environment. At the same time, it risks branding a non-offensive approach as weak even if the former is the correct response in a given situation (e.g. India’s response to the Mumbai terror attacks).  

Even if valid, the second narrative raises questions about the politicization of India’s intelligence community as well as the impact of R&AW’s unaccountability on Indian democracy. The Emergency, for instance, was the pinnacle of the political leadership’s misuse of and public’s mistrust in the R&AW. The latter was reflected in a 1988 incident when a security guard at Palam Airport in New Delhi uncovered a cache of weapons in the baggage hold of an Air India flight from Kabul. Allegedly whisked away by an intelligence officer before airport security could investigate, these weapons were found with Khalistani militants a few weeks later. The incident created a storm in the Parliament where opposition parties alleged that Rajiv Gandhi and R&AW were misguiding the public. Did the ISI infiltrate Indian and Afghan intelligence networks to such an extent that they used an Air India plane to send arms for Khalistani militants? Or was India framing Pakistan as such? Pakistan’s support to Khalistani militants more generally stands corroborated in retrospect. However, this incident underlined how little public confidence R&AW enjoyed as a result of such extreme secrecy on one hand, and why India’s neighbors are often wary of New Delhi on the other.

The Way Forward
The Jadhav-Zahir case marks a continuity rather than change in how intelligence has been understood and treated in India. Whether or not Jadhav truly is an Indian spy is immaterial. His military background and forged identity documents fit Pakistan’s profile of an Indian spy. The unspoken aspect, however, is that he also fits the image among many Indians of a capable covert operative fomenting violence in Pakistan. Modi’s statements on Balochistan, and the alleged kidnapping of Zahir, ensure that this case entrenches old narratives in public memory. The existence of such binary narratives is symptomatic of the failure to understand and appreciate the larger purpose of intelligence as a tool of statecraft. Unlike other democracies, India has been shy to declassify intelligence dossiers, or even authorize an official history of the R&AW. A former chief of R&AW I interviewed years ago stated: “We are fine if people talk about our failures. But we don’t want our successes to become public.” True, public discussion of covert successes that may have operational implications is highly undesirable.

However, a rising power in an increasingly complex geopolitical environment such as India urgently requires serious study of intelligence beyond operational matters. The argument that a sophisticated conceptual understanding among the public of the role of intelligence in foreign policymaking is not essential for R&AW to operate effectively overseas is erroneous. It overlooks the fact that effective overseas operations require sound structural base at home. Few civil service aspirants in India want to join R&AW today. Most officers recruited via civil service exams have poor ranks, and intake from other departments raise issues of bureaucratic politics and inconsistency in training standards. Better understanding of intelligence in foreign policymaking, and parliamentary accountability of India’s agencies are the first steps towards strengthening this base and attracting top quality recruits.

It can also be argued that declassifying documents related to intelligence are unnecessary—so long the right people in government have access to those files, they can learn from the past. The above-mentioned case about weapons coming from Afghanistan allegedly ending up in Punjab demonstrates that political leaders may not learn from history. If the charges on this occasion were correct, we are looking at a scenario where Rajiv Gandhi used R&AW to exacerbate a conflict, which claimed his mother’s life, for immediate political gain. Clearly, leaving these issues entirely in the hands of politicians is dangerous. If ambitious prime ministers could misuse R&AW in the past, there is no guarantee it may not happen again.

Indian intelligence practitioners are often blamed for being obsessively secretive, yet the political class is equally culpable. Worried about political legacies, few politicians want classified files to become the subject of public scrutiny. What people think about these matters may not seem important in operational terms. However, declassifying historical documents for public consumption and accepting parliamentary oversight is critical to ensure that the functioning of the agency is optimized by those in government with the power and authority to do so, and equally, for the agency to prevent itself from becoming a tool of abuse by the political leadership.

Avinash Paliwal is a Lecturer in Diplomacy and Public Policy at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal (London: Hurst Publishers, 2017).

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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