Ex-RAW chief K Sankaran Nair was a legendary spy. RIP

He was the shadow of the agency's founder RN Kao and played a heroic role in the liberation of Bangladesh.

 |  5-minute read |   17-11-2015
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Legendary spy of Indian Intelligence, K Sankaran Nair, died passed away at his Bangalore residence today. He was nearing his 96th birthday which falls on 20 December, 2015. I visited him in August, 2014 after release of my book Mission R&AW. His memory had faded by then. When I presented him my book, he saw his photo in it, and abruptly said “This is the idiot I am”. I tried to ask why he was saying so. “I have done all the idiotic things in my life”. I could not prevent the misting of my eyes when I saw this legendary spymaster reduced to such a condition.

Despite his age and evident depression, he ordered coffee and snacks for me. His wife too died few years back. Fortunately, his daughter was taking care of him. A retired officer of RAW staying there was giving company to him on a daily basis.

Sankaran Nair was the last Imperial Police (IP) officer of India. When I interviewed him for my book ten years ago, he wore the 1940 IP Tie and proudly told me so. When I joked asking how many such ties were still left in India, he said only one other, with Ashwani Kumar. He too died last month.

image1-1_111715083338.jpg K Sankaran Nair (left) with RK Yadav

I had the privilege of meeting Nair in 1975 when I came to Delhi from Jaipur, where I was posted, to deliver a packet sent by my boss there. I met him at his RK Puram office. He was an intimidating figure in R&AW then. When he used to get out of his car, even seniors could be seen hiding behind pillars to avoid his glare. I, on the other hand, found him quite affable; he would ask after my welfare. As a young man, I found him a perfect picture of assertion and dominance.

Nair served as R&AW Chief for three months after RN Kao was unceremoniously made to demit his office by Morarji Desai in April 1977 on the suspicion of hounding opponents of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency. Morarji Desai ordered Nair to reduce the strength of R&AW to two-third. He also wanted to stop some operations in neighbouring countries. He directed Nair to stop help to Buddhist Chakma refugees who were targets of Muslims in Bangladesh. When Nair explained the background of this help, Morarji relented. Morarji ordered closure of all operations in Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. Nair refused both and confronted Morarji Desai with logical arguments. Morarji wanted to degrade the post of R&AW Chief, but Nair did not budge. He asked Morarji to send him elsewhere. NF Suntook, a pliable officer, was made R&AW head despite a lower rank. Nair retired as secretary of minority commission in December, 1978.

I have had a long association with Sankaran Nair through RN Kao, founder of RAW. Kao introduced me to him when he was appointed secretary general of Asian Games in 1981. I went to meet him in his Pragati Maidan office in Delhi and found him sitting in a disorganised way in a large room. When I wanted to discuss some pertinent problems of R&AW, he asked me to prepare a brief and promised to meet after the closing of the Asian Games. He worked hard in tandem with Rajiv Gandhi who was the organising head of the games. Nair and Rajiv Gandhi were mainly responsible for the success of these games despite terrorist threats of some Sikh militants. He was awarded Padma Bhushan for this accomplishment. The former R&AW chief told me that Rajiv Gandhi also rewarded him for these games and appointed him ambassador of Singapore, where he served for nearly three years up to April, 1988.

When Rajiv Gandhi lost the elections in 1989, Sankaran Nair called me to his favourite place, the Delhi Golf Club. He was once the president of this club. We discussed affairs of R&AW under the new prime minister, VP Singh. Nair was certain that Rajiv Gandhi’s chum AK Verma would be sacked by VP Singh, but due to Rubiayya Sayeed (Mufti Mohammad Sayeed' daughter in Kashmir) kidnapping, he clung on and even vied for extension. GS Bajpai, a R&AW officer, was made Secretary(Security) by Rajiv Gandhi to avoid the one-upmanship in the agency. Nair told me that RN Kao wanted Bajpai to head the R&AW. Some of my journalist friends and a leading lawyer then close to VP Singh lobbied for Bajpai on my recommendation, and he became the head after Verma.

When I decided to write my book on R&AW, I contacted Sankaran at his London address, where he lived at the time. He wrote to me, asking to meet at his Bangalore address and we met in March 2005, when I discussed my plans with him. He said that he had forgotten most of his past achievements since he had had two bypass surgeries. I said that I would stay in Bangalore for a longer period and meet him daily after my morning walk to discuss past events of the R&AW. He agreed. On the third day of our meeting, he was once again vintage Sankaran Nair and the extempore detailed most of his achievements. I recorded his audio and video, which helped me to write my book. I owe my book to him.

Briefly, Sankaran Nair was sent to Ghana in December 1959 when RN Kao returned from there, in order to complete the formation of the Ghana intelligence. He accomplished this job brilliantly in two years. After the 1965 war with Pakistan, there were allegations of inept intelligence gathering by IB for the Indian army. Nair gave 65 reports sent by IB to the Army to the two-member committee of home and defence secretary, which was probing the allegations.

Sankaran Nair was Kao's shadow when the R&AW came to being and played a heroic role in the liberation of Bangladesh. Indian intelligence and India has lost a true icon of undercover espionage.


RK Yadav RK Yadav @rawrkyadav

Former RAW officer and author of Mission R&AW.

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