EXIT: THE SPYMASTER
When Rameshwar Nath Kao resigned after the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi, it was an inglorious end to a glorious career in intelligence gathering–a career that spanned four decades, during which Kao set up India’s first external intelligence agency and carried out numerous intelligence coups that won him no medals and no publicity, because intelligence men are of necessaity faceless and anonymous. Kao, who since
Kao with Gandhi
1980 had been senior adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat on national security (both internal and external, but mainly the latter) and chairman of the apex level National Intelligence Board, was not responsible for the late prime minister’s personal security. However, he could not avoid taking personal responsibility for the fact that the head of government whom he had served for nearly half his career fell victim to assassin’s bullets due to the failure of the security set-up which he in a way presided over. What was worse was that it happened while he was away on a trip abroad.
Kao is believed to have told friends recently that he would retire soon after the forthcoming parliamentary elections. He had had a long innings–too long some would say–age was beginning to tell (he was 70) and all his contemporaries had long since retired. However, fate intervened and what was intended to be a voluntary retirement became an abrupt departure under tragic circumstances.
Since the man himself was not meeting anyone, it was difficult to confirm whether he chose to resign or was asked to do so by Mrs. Gandhi’s son and heir, Rajiv. However, that he himself chose to resign is the most likely explanation. It was clear at the cremation that he was deeply upset and was making a supreme effort to control his emotions. Since he emerged from retirement in 1980 at Mrs. Gandhi’s express request, he may not have wanted to continue, unless specifically asked to stay by the new prime minister. It has also been reported by The Tribune of Chandigarh, that though Kao had cut short his stay in Beijing on hearing of the assassination and returned to Delhi on the night of October 31 to offer advice to the authorities, they not only ignored his advice but cold shouldered him. He was not asked to participate in any of the high-level consultations on security that took place after the assassination.
There are also indications of differences between Kao and those whom he advised. A newspaper published from Chandigarh has reported that before October 31 terrorists had made an earlier attempt on Mrs. Gandhi’s life, and two on that of her son’s, but Kao is believed to have held that the latter two were not attempts to kill Rajiv. On the first of these occasions terrorists reportedly lay in wait for Rajiv Gandhi at a traffic crossing in New Delhi, hoping to attack him when his car stopped at a red light. The car did in fact stop at the crossing, but the terrorists fled on seeing a phalanx of security men around Rajiv. On the second occasion the terrorists entered the compound of his office at 2-A, Motilal Nehru Marg and shot and injured a security guard, but fled when an alarm was raised.
The attempt to kill Mrs. Gandhi was foiled when the terrorists were apprehended at the very gate at No. 1, Safdarjang Road. After these attempts barricades were put up on all approach roads, police pickets were beefed up and the section of Safdarjang Road on which the prime minister’s residence is located was closed to traffic. Top intelligence officials had also suggested thorough screening of all personnel in the ‘special security district’ to prevent the possibility of insiders helping potential terrorists. On Kao’s recommendation, Rajiv Gandhi’s two children were withdrawn from their schools in Dehra Dun and sent to schools in Delhi. However his response to the need to beef up security at the prime minister’s house is reported by the newpapers to have been inadequate. But a point that went largely unnoticed was that none of these things would have happened if Kao’s advice on Punjab would have been heeded. According to very reliable sources, he was in favour of a political solution to the Punjab problem. He was against the use of the army and had advocated a negotiated settleent with the Akalis in order to isolate Sant Bhindrawala. However, even in defeat that hand of Kao was evident in the prime minister’s security. Following the assassination, the job of guarding the prime minister (originally that of the Delhi Police) was given to the Special Frontier Force, an elite combat unit meant for anti-terrorist and anti-hijacking operations, which was raised from army units by Kao in 1972. The SSF operates under the Research and Analysis Wing. And perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, a serving Major in the Army was appointed as a Deputy Commissioner of Police.
Kao joined the Indian Police Service in 1941, after a short stint as lecturer in English Literature at Allahabad University, from where he had completed his masters degree. After serving a few years in his parent state of Uttar Pradesh, he was posted in Delhi and soon inducted into the Intelligence Bureau. He first shot into prominence in 1955 for his conduct of the investigation into the crash of the ‘Kashmir Princess’, an Air India International Superconstellation that had been chartered by the Chinese government to carry members of its delegation to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung (Indonesia). The aircraft caught fire after an explosion five hours after it had taken off from Hong Kong on April 11, 1955, and crashed into the sea, killing all 11 pasengers and all except three crew members. It was believed that the plane had been chartered to carry the Chinese premier, Chou En-Lai, but he travelled by a different route and the plane actually carried only some junior officials.
Parts of the wreckage were salvaged by the Indonesioan maritime authorities, and an examination showed clear evidence that a time bomb had been used to cause the explosion. As the offence had taken place in Hong Kong, the British authorities started an investigation, but the Chinese government insisted that Indian officers should also be associated with the inquiry. Nehru wanted a senior officer to be sent to Hong Kong, and B N Mullik selected Kao, who was then assistant director of the IB in charge of security. Kao reached Djakarta on April 23, met Nehru and Chou En-Lai (who invited him to visit Peking and promised that all material obtained by the Chinese government would be given to him), and then went to Hong Kong to conduct his own investigations.
Their role in the investigation earned for Rao and Mullik Nehru’s congratulations. It also brought Kao to the notice of Indira Gandhi, for she was present for some of the discussions which Mullik had with Nehru.
The next milestone in Kao’s career came in 1960, when Khwame [sic] Nkrumah, then president of the newly independent country of Ghana, asked Nehru for India’s assistance in setting up that country’s foreign intelligence agency. Kao was picked for the job, and this experience was later to stand him in good stead when he was asked to set up a similar agency in India. Soon afterwards came the Chinese aggression in 1962 (which caught India unprepared), the war with Pakistan in 1965 and the skirmish with China around Nathu La in 1967, which convinced the Indian government of the need for an agency concentrated exclusively on the gathering of intelligence relating to the countries external security. By the mid-sixties Kao was already head of the external intelligence wing of the IB, and when in September 1968 the new agency–to be called the Research and Analysis Wing–was set up under the Cabinet Secretariat, Kao was an obvious choice to head it.
The next eight years, until 1976, were undoubtedly Kao’s heyday. During these years RAW changed in two fundamental ways. Firstly, whereas the early entrants into the agency were entirely from the IPS (those who had been on deputation to the IB), men from the other Class I services, and the armed forces gradually began to be recruited, apart from experts in various disciplines who were brought in for specialised functions. The agency today consists of police officers, officers from the army, navy, and air force, IFS and IAS officers, political, economic, and military analysts, scholars, experts in cryptology, electronics and telecommunications. Secondly, RAW made significant studies in the collection of intelligence through sophisticated electronic means. Kao was the architect of both these changes.
One of the most glorious chapters in the history of RAW–and in the career of Kao–was the operation leading to the creation of Bangladesh. That country would never have been born but for the operation carried out by RAW for several years before the Indian Army action. The first meeting between IB operatives and Sheikh Mujib had taken place as early as 1963, and after RAW was set up in 1968, it anticipated virtually every major military and political development that took place in what was then East Pakistan.
After the birth of Bangladesh RAW continued to keep a wary eye of developments there and again anticipated the chain of events leading to Mujib’s assassination on August 14, 1975.
By the summer of 1975 RAW agents learned of a meeting between some middle-level army officers (one of whom was Zia-ur-Rehman) during which a coup was discussed. Kao immediately flew to Dacca and had an hour-long meeting with Mujib, but was unable to convince him that his own people were plotting to kill him. Three months later the Sheikh was assassinated. Kao’s role in the birth of Bangladesh as well his anticipation of later events was acknowledged by no less than the late Zia-ur-Rahman, who during a meeting in India with Mrs. Gandhi, at which the master spy was also present, is reported to have remarked: “This man (Kao) knows more about my country than I do.”
Less than two years later, Kao himself was to be the victim of a change of government. Moraraji Desai believed that RAW had played a major role during the emergency, and that it had furthered Mrs. Gandhi’s political interests rather than those of the country. A week after the Janata party came to power in March 1977, Kao was unceremoniously sacked and Sankaran Nair, his deputy, was asked to take over. Kao vehemently denied that he and RAW had played a partisan political role, and those in the trade, then and now, uphold his contention. But Moraraji was adamant. It is believed that a contemporary of Kao’s in the IB and senior officials of the Ministry of External Affairs, who were both jealous of Kao ever since RAW was formed and he was made its chief, spread false stories that the agency was involved in internal subversion.
Anyway, for the next three years Kao, who had already reached the age of superannuation and was on a two-year extension, lived in retirement. During this time he had the mortification of seeing the agency which he had built up being emasculated by the Janata government, which clipped RAW’s wings, cut its budget and down-graded the post of its chief from Secretary to Additional Secretary (for which reason Sankaran Nair also soon resigned). Soon after her return to power in January 1980 Mrs. Gandhi asked Kao to be her national security adviser. He accepted the offer, but did not want to be re-employed, and at his request he was only paid a token salary of one rupee per month. He was given the designation of ‘Senior adviser to the Cabinet Secretariat on security matters’ and an office in Rashtrapati Bhavan, which houses the Cabinet Secretariat. His star was once more in the ascendant, and he reached the pinnacle of his career when he was made chairman of the National Intelligence Board (something like the National Security Council in the USA), an apex body comprising the heads of RAW, the IB, military intelligence and the external and internal wings of the joint intelligence comittee.
The assessent of Kao within the intelligence committee is that he was not as brilliant as B N Mullik–whose trusted lieutenant he was for many years–and there were also other intelligence officers who had greater specialised knowledge in various areas. But where he scored over others was in man management, in his ability to handle people, and to put the right man in the right job. His successor Sankaran Nair was an arrogant man, a go-getter who used to bulldoze his way around, but Kao reportedly got things done on the strength of his commanding personality. Mullik was unpopular with senior civil servants and drew his strength entirely from his equation with Nehru. Kao, however, was popular among Secretaries to the Government and even some ministers (who would call him ‘Ramji’).
He was not an open book to colleagues–he was never blunt but spoke in nuances and subordinates had to understand the signals. He had one failing, however. During his times, numerous Kashmiri Brahmins were inducted into RAW and prospered in the agency irrespective of merit, because of which it came to be known derisively as the ‘Relatives and Associates Wing.’
Kao kept a low profile and believed that though the truth about RAW’s activities and operations was not known to the public, it need not be known. It was enough if the agency’s reports reached those for whom they were meant. RAW’s imagined failures are always written about, but the agency cannot, for obvious reasons, trumpet its achievements. But two examples will illustrate the successes of the agency that Kao built. Two weeks before the Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre was abducted and killed in London, a member of the Kashmir Liberation Front had entered Britain and RAW had promptly alerted the Indian government to the possibility of some spectacular action like the killing of an Indian diplomat. However, the security wing of the Ministry of External Affairs did nothing about it. Earlier, in February 1979, RAW had warned the Janata government that a Chinese attack on Vietnam was imminent and advised the then foreign minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to cancel his proposed visit to China. Vajpayee nevertheless went ahead with his visit, and when the attack cme, was forced to hurriedly return to India, to the great embarrassment of both himself and the Indian government.
Intelligence men are of necessity faceless. They get no medals and no publicity, and their exploits go unnoticed by the general public. Kao’s numerous intelligence coups abroad will probably be forgotten. What will be remembered is that a man who contributed so much to the country’s intelligence gathering efforts could not save the Prime Minister from assassination at her very doorstep.