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Intelligence agencies must be seen as free from politics

Fortunately, the IB is transparent from the inside, so it can recover from a flawed past under a professional successor.

D.C. Pathak  New Delhi | 18th Jul 2015

A lot is appearing in the press these days, inviting the attention of informed citizens to the functioning of our intelligence agencies. The latter, by and large, work outside of the public gauge and a certain degree of public education on them, therefore, would be in order. A recall of what I have seen myself would perhaps help.

I joined the Intelligence Bureau in early 1964, when the late B.N. Mullick, the redoubtable DIB (Director, Intelligence Bureau), was still there and the IB functioned out of South Block, not North Block, as a department "attached" to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Mullick laid down the professional tradition of an intelligence chief being fully involved with the Prime Minister as regards the formulation of the country's security policy, but keeping out of the party politics of the regime.

Those were the days when only the first five of an IPS batch were selected for IB, after a thorough scrutiny, and one joined the career option on a note of pride, in spite of the built-in anonymity, simply because it meant directly serving the country's national and international interests.

Mullick's immediate successors — some of the big names in the profession — continued with this, but as the ruling party's monopoly started to crack — because of the natural consequence of a democratic evolution — it began taking a toll on the professional idealism that enveloped the agency. When in the late 1960s, the advent of RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) as an offshoot of IB came about, the perception in informed circles was that the event had political overtones and was not the outcome of a natural division of labour between internal and external intelligence that would be the norm in the world outside.

Fortunately, with the passage of time, the new intelligence entity stabilised at a high level of professional competence and today it teams up with the IB in handling the basket of challenges to national security without rancour or rivalry.

National security cannot have a divided turf. The new institution of National Security Adviser, which came about only after the Kargil War, initially got engulfed into politics because the then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister chose to exercise that professional function himself. At present, however, the NSA is ensuring a meaningful coordination between the two prime agencies. That as many as three RAW chiefs have come from the IB highlights the common grid that exists between the two outfits.

National security cannot have a divided turf. The new institution of NSA, which came about only after the Kargil War, initially got engulfed into politics because the then Principal Secretary to the PM chose to exercise that professional function himself. The present NSA is ensuring coordination between IB and RAW.

It cannot be denied that in the decades gone by there were spells when the IB got the reputation of being too politicised and this hurt the agency's professional image. Fortunately, the intelligence organisation is truly transparent from the inside, with the result that no reputation is made or marred artificially. This, in turn, makes it possible for the agency to recover from a flawed past under a truly professional successor.

Intelligence in a democracy serves the sovereign, and Indian intelligence inherited the British tradition of being left free to come to a judgement about what constitutes a threat to national security and of having the authorisation of the political executive to launch "covert" coverage of that threat.

Intelligence provides an input to policy formulation, but does not dictate decisions. I recall a plenary meeting taken by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao on Kashmir, which was suddenly facing a new level of threat after the emergence of Pakistan as the blue-eyed boy of the US, following the success of the anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan. Everybody who mattered, from the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir to the Army chief, the late General Joshi, was present and a certain line of action was being pressed for. The PM, siding with my suggestion of waiting for the time being, indicated that we should watch the situation. When a number of participants insisted that a decision should be taken, the PM famously told the gathering that "not taking a decision is also a decision".

My comments on the normative functioning of intelligence agencies would look incomplete without a reference to what former RAW chief A.S. Dulat has said on his engagement in Kashmir. As DIB, I valued his work on the Kashmir front. His observations touch on two segments, the political events and the handling of intelligence operations.

The handling of a territorial charge does give the concerned intelligence officers an opportunity of becoming intimate with the political leadership concerned. So what is necessary is to avoid giving the impression that intelligence has got excessively involved with politics. Any disclosures on the operational handling of a threat or the adversary stand on a different footing. These could make for good reading if they reflect only on the governance of the day, nothing else. But there should be no confusion about the principles on which intelligence functions, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere.

However, writings by intelligence insiders can serve the useful purpose of inviting introspection by the government of the day, on how to upgrade the system of threat assessment and ensure an integral response to a security event.

D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau.

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