Remembering RAW's god of war in the time of Uri attack

Sandeep Unnithan
Sandeep UnnithanSep 20, 2016 | 15:54

Remembering RAW's god of war in the time of Uri attack

Several messages can be read into the September 18 terrorist attack on the Uri that killed 19 Indian Army soldiers. The attack was meticulously planned and lethally executed. The terrorists came armed with incendiary grenades and targeted a fuel dump to create mass casualties.

The aim was to provoke an Indian response and portray Kashmir as a flashpoint between two nuclear-armed neighbors. The perfect backdrop, it would seem, for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's September 21 speech at the UN General Assembly where Sharif will, once again, attempt to internationalise the Kashmir dispute by calling for third-party intervention.

India, meanwhile, scrambles for a response to this newest outrage. One of the options on the table is the "covert option", the ability to carry out a "plausibly deniable" operation.

An operation which can be entirely denied by the country that carries it out. With the possibilities of a full-scale war receding, covert options have become the weapon of choice for nation states.

Particularly in the case of Pakistan where the distinctions between state and non-state actors have been increasingly blurred. But a covert option is not one that can be started at a throw of a switch. It takes years to set up.

No one knew this better than the sixth chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Anand Kumar Verma. Verma, 83, passed away in New Delhi on September 1 after a brief illness was one of the last great chiefs of the RAW.

His funeral and prayer meeting were exactly the way Verma, a man who spent a lifetime in the shadows, would have wanted it to be: small and austere, attended only by agency friends and family.

A looping photo montage at his memorial service provided the only hints of his profession. They showed rare images of Verma with former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the enigmatic spymaster Rameshwar Nath Kao.

AK Verma with a Special Frontier Force officer. (Photo courtesy: Sandeep Unnithan) 

Chiefs of India's external intelligence service established by Kao in 1968, reported directly to the prime minister. They were a PM's de facto national security advisers. Their clout, access and their office overshadowed when the government created the post of NSA in 1998.

But Verma's greatness lay not because of his proximity to the PM. His colleagues in the organisation say it came from sheer dint of personality - suave, forthright and well-read - and the legacy he carried forward.

Verma embodied the dark side of the RAW. The agency subsumed the directorate general of security, a covert outfit established after the 1962 border war with China, with its own paramilitary, air wing and technical assets.

These capabilities played a key role in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 and were used by India to exercise hard and soft power in its sphere of influence.

Agency old-timers reflect on these early years as their golden age, when, under a line of illustrious chiefs - Kao, Shankaran Nair, NF Suntook, Girish Saxena, SE Joshi and Verma - laid the foundations of an organisation devoted to pursuing India's overseas interests. At its core were handpicked officers called ‘Kao-boys’ made up an agency that gave as good as it got.

Kaoboy chiefs in the then two-decade-old organisation had two broad personality types: suave and blunt. Kao and the third chief NF Suntook were the former.

Verma was "blunt in his words and hard-hitting in his actions… a mirror image of Sankaran Nair (the second RAW chief)," the late R&AW spook B Raman writes in The Kaoboys of R&AW (2007).

Verma served two Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and his bête noire VP Singh, between 1987 and 1990. But clearly, it was under Rajiv Gandhi that he established his spymaster credentials.

Verma took over as chief of the R&AW on June 1, 1987, under unusual circumstances. The senior-most officer in the reckoning was his colleague R Govindrajan (former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan's father).

The story goes that Rajiv Gandhi was miffed because Govindrajan failed to warn him about the Bofors scam that broke on Swedish radio on April 16, 1987. Verma, a 1953 batch IPS officer from the Madhya Pradesh cadre, was appointed chief.

It was a meeting of minds because, as Raman mentions, no other Indian PM, not even Indira Gandhi took such an active interest as Rajiv did in the IB and RAW and its officers. Rajiv Gandhi introduced computers into the organisation and made an officer's computer-literacy an important quality to be reflected in their Annual Confidential Reports.

Apart from smart HR, Gandhi also took two very significant decisions. He restarted India's nuclear weapons programme and began a covert action project called CIT-X (Counter Intelligence Team - X).

Both of these were a response to very significant events across the border: Pakistan was close to acquiring a nuclear bomb and, as a major player in the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, it was actively aiding and abetting Khalistani terrorists in Punjab.

Details of CIT-X are sketchy. It was evidently a tit-for-tat campaign against Pakistan's state sponsorship of terror in Punjab. Raman hints at this. "Rajiv Gandhi and Verma were unanimous in that unless Pakistan was made to pay a heavy price for its use of terrorism against India, India would never be free of this problem."

It began as a process of reactivating RAW's covert action capability, neglected by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. This process, started after Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, gathered momentum under Rajiv Gandhi. A troika of chiefs, Girish Chandra "Garry" Saxena, SE Joshi and Verma, supervised it.

Raman, an officer not easily given to praise, notes Verma's contributions in laudatory terms. Verma, he notes, gave RAW the strong teeth, missing since 1977, and made it bite again. "This made Pakistan realise that its sponsorship of terrorism would not be cost-free."

Under him, RAW regained the operational élan which it used to have under Kao after it was formed in 1968. He encouraged young officers with original ideas.

To quote the CIA phrase, Verma was a risk taker, not a risk seeker. He liked officers who showed initiative and original thinking and had the courage to take risks without being adventurist.

He could not stand mediocre officers in the RAW and had a healthy contempt for MEA officers, which often earned him their enmity. He was not bothered so long as he was able to produce results and enjoyed the confidence of the PM.

Raman believes Verma to be one of the few Indians to have a really good understanding of the Pakistani psyche and the Pakistani military mindset. "I have no doubt in my mind that if Rajiv Gandhi had not lost the elections in 1989 and if Verma had continued as the chief of RAW under Rajiv Gandhi for three years more, Pakistan would not be existing in its present form today and innocent civilians in our country would not be dying like rats at the hands of jihadi terrorists."

In 1988, Verma also secretly met his counterpart in the ISI, the odious Lt general Hamid Gul. These two meetings carried out on the behest of Pakistani dictator general Zia-ul-Haq and Prime Minister Gandhi, are believed to be the only known contacts between the serving chiefs. (In a newspaper editorial last August written after Gul's death, Verma mentions General Zia had offered a demilitarization of Siachen and a reduction in troop levels.)

Verma also opened a backchannel to the Chinese spy agency, the ministry of Secret Service (MSS), which he used to facilitate a ground-breaking visit to Beijing by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989.

But the covert option that Verma and five chiefs before him had set up did not last long. CIT-X was shut down on the instructions of former PM IK Gujral in 1997.

Successive PMs refused to restart it. The covert option that RAW once so effectively wielded against Pakistan, was dead. This is a legacy successive chiefs of the agency must now confront as they deal with the war of a thousand cuts.

Last updated: September 21, 2016 | 18:41
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