The year 1996 marked the 25th anniversary of India's triumph over Pakistan in the 1971 war and the birth of Bangladesh. Many commemorative meetings were held in New Delhi attended by the dramatis personae, civilian as well as military, of 1971. They spoke of their role and tributes were paid to them.
At one of those meetings, a Bangladeshi national resident in New Delhi noticed a tall, handsome and elegant man sitting inconspicuously at the back of the audience, went up to him and said: "Sir, you should have been sitting in the centre of the dais. You are the man who made 1971 possible." The handsome and shy man replied: "I did nothing. They deserve all the praise." Embarrassed at being spotted and recognised, he stood up and quietly left the hall.
His name was Rameshwar Nath Kao -- Ramjee to his relatives, friends and colleagues and "Sir" to his junior colleagues. He was the founding father of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, created on September 21, 1968, by bifurcating the Intelligence Bureau, which used to deal with internal as well as external intelligence. Indira Gandhi chose him for the honour because she as well as her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, knew him well and thought well of his professionalism. Also because he headed the IB's external intelligence division and had made a name as one of the founding fathers of the Directorate General of Security after the disastrous 1962 Sino-Indian War to fill up deficiencies noticed in the capability and performance of the Indian intelligence community during the war. She made Mr Kao head of RAW as well as the DGS.
In 1982, Count Alexandre de Marenches, who headed the French external intelligence agency Service For External Documentation And Counter-Intelligence or SDECE as it was then known under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, was asked by an interlocutor to name the five great intelligence chiefs of the 1970s. Mr Kao, whom he knew well and admired, was one of the five named by him. He praised the way Mr Kao had built up RAW into a professional intelligence organisation and made it play within three years of its creation a formidable role in changing the face of South Asia in 1971. He remarked: "What a fascinating mix of physical and mental elegance! What accomplishments! What friendships! And, yet so shy of talking about himself, his accomplishments and his friends."
That was Mr Kao in a nutshell. He gave credit to his colleagues and subordinates when things went well and took the blame when things went wrong. He was liked by the high and the mighty not only in India, but also in many other countries, but throughout his life never once did he drop or use their names. He carried the secrets of his friendships with him to his funeral pyre a year ago, when he died at the age of 82. He lived inconspicuously and left this world equally inconspicuously. Apart from his relatives, close personal friends such as Mr Naresh Chandra, the former Cabinet Secretary and Indian ambassador to the US, and serving and retired officers of the Indian intelligence community, hardly any serving government official, junior or senior, attended the cremation to bow their heads before the remains of a man whose personal contribution to an exciting and significant chapter of independent India's history should have been written in letters of gold. Amends were made subsequently by holding a well-attended condolence meeting at which speakers vied with each other in praising his services to the nation.
Like any human being, Mr Kao had his faults as well as his greatness. Like any leader of an organisation, he had failures as well as successes. His judgement of men, matters and events proved presciently right often and wrong on occasions. He was a complex mix of objectivity and subjectivity in matters concerning human relationships. He was a man of tremendous vision, but was not uniformly successful in choosing the right men and women to give shape to his vision. His humility and mental generosity occasionally rendered him blind to faults in those around him. He trusted men and women to a fault, little realising that some of those trusted by him were not worthy of it.
Despite all this, no knowledgeable person can dispute that he strode elegantly, effortlessly and scintillatingly in the intelligence world of his time. In the Indian intelligence world of yesteryears, Mr Kao was first; the rest were his disciples. He was a legend and deserved to be. The triumph of 1971, India's role in the Great Game in Afghanistan, India's assistance to newly independent African countries in building up their intelligence and security set-ups, India's covert assistance to the African National Congress's anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and to the independence movement in Namibia, the happy denouement in Sikkim and Nagaland in the 1970s and in Mizoram in the early 1980s etc etc. Mr Kao was there in the midst of it all -- active, but unseen.
It is a pity that there is no well-researched and well-documented record of Mr Kao's monumental role in the world of Indian intelligence. At a time, when intelligence officers in the rest of the world are coming out of their shell after retirement and sharing with their people their experience, insights and views, Indian intelligence officers continue to prefer to stay inside their purdah. Apart from the late Mr B N Mullick, the second director of the IB after India's independence, another towering figure, who wrote of his days at the head of the IB, no other retired Indian intelligence officer has chosen to write his memoirs. To Indian intelligence officers, the very thought of recording their memoirs seems indecent, something not done by a spook.
Serving intelligence officers do not always reduce to writing all their thoughts and actions. It is part of what is called restrictive security. The more you write, the greater the possibility of a leakage and embarrassment. So it is thought. So, they carry their memories and insights with them to the funeral pyre. History will be poorer by such an attitude.
A similar attitude prevailed in the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s and the 1960s. They started a historical division to maintain on a continuous basis a complete record of the role of the agency and its officers to ensure that their memories, perceptions, insights and conclusions were available, at least to their future generations of intelligence officers, if not to the general public and the historians.
Mr Kao liked this idea tremendously and was worried that once those officers of RAW and the DGS, who had played a role in connection with the 1971 war, passed away, the nation would have no authentic and first person account. In 1983, when he was senior adviser to Mrs Indira Gandhi, he persuaded RAW to set up a similar historical division. After Mr Kao left office in November,1984, this division was wound up before it could complete its work. What a pity! How short-sighted intelligence officers can be! Hardly a dozen retired officers of RAW and the DGS, who had played an active role in connection with the 1971 war, are still alive. The oldest of them is 81 and the youngest 68. After they disappear, a valuable part of the history of Indian intelligence saved in their memory, but not reduced to writing would be lost.
After 1996, a great admirer of Mr Kao in the Indian Foreign Service persuaded him to leave for future generations his first person account of some aspects of his association with the world of intelligence. In the months before his death, he spent a few hours every day transfering his memory into a tape-recorder. The tapes were transcribed and he personally corrected the transcripts. The tapes and the transcripts have been left by him in the custody of a prestigious non-governmental organisation of New Delhi to which he was close with the wish that they should be made public only some years after his death. It is hoped these are preserved carefully. It ought to be a precious part of the history of independent India.
We have no sense of history and can be shockingly negligent in preserving it. Before ordering the Indian Army into the Golden Temple at Amritsar in June 1984, Mrs Gandhi, through intermediaries, had long hours of secret negotiations with Sikh leaders, some extremists, some not, to reach a negotiated solution to their problems. The negotiations in India were carried on by Rajiv Gandhi and two of his close associates and those abroad by Mr Kao. Mrs Gandhi was keen that a record of those negotiations should be kept so that history would know how desperately and in vain she had tried for a negotiated solution, before she reluctantly sent the army inside the Golden Temple. Today, 18 years later, nobody knows where those records of historical importance are.
In his retirement, Mr Kao maintained a lively interest in the world around him till his last moment. He was a voracious reader of Indian newspapers, though he considered them highly superficial and fragmented. It was he who encouraged me to start writing after my retirement in August 1994, and was an avid reader of my articles. During my visits to New Delhi from Chennai, I had spent many hours discussing matters serious and not so serious with him. He never failed to react to my articles even if it be by a simple "Thank You."
The extracts from some of his letters to me may give readers a little flavour of a tall, handsome, elegant, brilliant, loving, caring and shy man called R N Kao.
'Many years ago, after meeting some of the top functionaries in the USA, I formed the opinion that they are not necessarily anti-Indian. Their priorities are different and are determined by their perception of national interests. They follow their chosen line of action with a stubborn determination. If, in the process, we get hurt, it is just too bad.' (7-10-97)
THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL
' I suppose there is general agreement that our national security management leaves much to be desired. In the absence of any long-range planning, ad hocism prevails. In the last few years, there has been a demand for establishing a National Security Council, somewhat on the pattern of what exists in the USA. My own view is that adopting the American system would not necessarily work to our advantage. We shall have to adapt it to suit our requirements and our resources. Perhaps, for historical reasons and conditioned by my own background, my preference is for the British system. American resources are so vast that they are able to get away with many things, including major mistakes, which we may not be able to do.' (6-9-97)
AMERICAN CULTURAL INFLUENCE ON THE INDIAN ELITE
'Pan-American culture is making our so-called elite rootless. Indeed, it is very true that in the southern hemisphere, the young upwardly mobile affluent people find themselves more at ease with West Europeans and Americans than with their own poorer nationals. For a country like India, this could lead to dangerous tensions..' (23-1-98)
'The question in my mind is whether, with the fast developing information technology, it would at all be feasible for any government agency to filter the avalanche of information, which is beamed towards us from different angles of the azimuth.' (4-8-97)
' The recent advances in information technology are quite dazzling, but one doubts whether an overwhelming data bank is synonymous with wisdom. Indeed, I have always felt a little uneasy at the thought that the world would become a mirror image of the US. What a dull prospect it would be, and how disastrous for the natural resources of this planet.! It has been truly said that man is the only creature of this earth who destroys the environment in which it survives.' (12-1-98)
'China and USA have some kind of a love-hate relationship. The Chinese will feel they have arrived only if they can show to the world that they are in the same league as the USA. The latter, on their part, have, to my mind, a long-standing guilt complex so far as China is concerned. Perhaps, it flows from the long history of American Methodist missionary activity in China.' (25-11-97)
'As a people,we sometimes get carried away by euphoria or sink into gloom. It is quite clear that, so far as China is concerned, it would be a long haul for us. I remember that, in the mid fifties, while addressing an annual conference of the intelligence chiefs of the States, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had said that while our problems with Pakistan were acute and demanded urgent solution, our problems with China would prove more intractable and continue for a long long time.' (14-12-96)
'The Chinese, too, are busy playing games, as every one else does. In 1984, when I was leaving for Beijing, my then boss (My comment: Mrs Indira Gandhi) asked me what I hoped to achieve. In reply, I had said I expected very little, but that I saw no reason why we should leave the field to Pakistan unchallenged and not make even an effort.' (23-12-96)
'I think that with economic prosperity being more evenly spread out in China, the liberalisation of the political system would be inevitable. Once the people have enough to eat and a roof over their head, all kinds of explosive ideas of individual liberties, human rights and freedom of expression begin to take shape. One only hopes that the Chinese would be able to manage this better than, apparently, the Russians have been able to handle the economic problems following their attempts at political liberalisation.' (30-1-97)
'This morning, over the AIR there was a brief commentary about the increase in China's armed might and its modernisation over the last few years. One cannot but view this with some uneasiness.' (3-3-97)
'In spite of the publicity, a large part of the functioning of the Chinese apparatus remains opaque. Therefore, one has to be very cautious in making any forecasts about that country.' (12-5-98)
'Pakistan deserves to be declared a rogue state. How I wish that geography could be changed and we should leave Pakistan alone to stew in her own juice!' (9-8-96)
'My gnawing fear is that, so long as there is an oligarchy in Pakistan of the armed forces and the senior bureaucrats, the government there would continue to maintain a posture of some hostility to us. Perhaps, they need it for their survival.' (23-5-97)
'It is relevant to observe that in the 50th year of our independence, our Prime Minister (My comment: Mr Inder Gujral) is a person who came as a refugee from what is now West Pakistan; whereas in Pakistan, the Muslim migrants from India are still known only as Mohajirs.' (6-9-97)
'It may sound somewhat impulsive, but I do often feel that we should leave Pakistan alone to stew in its own juice. The only thing we need to make certain is that if they start any adventurist course of action, we are able to give them a bloody nose.' (7-10-97)
''There is little doubt that China and North Korea have helped Pakistan in developing her missile capability, even if they have not handed over to them finished products. It is of extreme importance that we should know what Pakistan is doing so that we are able to maintain a posture of strength, based on our defensive and offensive capacities.' (25-4-98)
INDIA'S RELATIONS WITH MYANMAR
'It is somewhat strange that though India and Burma were, for many years, part of the same British Indian Empire, our relations with that country have remained uneasy since the military take-over there. One of the historical reasons for this may be the fact that U Nu was Jawaharlal Nehru's old personal friend. After he (My comment: U Nu) came away (My comment: to India), for many years he remained in exile in India. That could not have endeared us to the military authorities in Burma.' (15-9-97)
INDIA'S LOOK EAST POLICY
'ASEAN countries are not too much in favour of India joining the London summit (My comment: Asia-Europe summit). We ourselves are not entirely free of blame for this. For a long time, these countries have felt that we were not interested in them. Some years ago, on a visit to Singapore, when I had gone to meet the foreign minister, he asked me the question: 'Is India seriously interested in us?' It is only recently that we have begun to show more inclination to have dealings with these countries.I suppose that this was one of the hang-overs of our colonial past.' (5-1-98)
'While one should fully respect the legitimate concerns of the genuine human rights organisations, one has to strike a balance between the issues involved. This matter is now being used, unfortunately, by the so-called advanced countries as another stick to beat us with.Our experience of dealing with insurgencies in the Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir and the North-East fully exposes the hypocrisy of the postures of the advanced countries. China, of course, snubs them and cynically ignores what they say.' (8-7-97)
INDIA'S NUCLEAR TESTS (POKHRAN II)
'Today, of course, the biggest news is last night's nuclear explosions. Whether you like it or not, the fact is that many of the common people are quite wildly enthusiastic. My own feeling is that the fear of economic and other reprisals from America and her supporters would, probably, turn out to be exaggerated. Some people, who are knowledgeable and influential, mentioned to me last night that now is the time when the Congress should offer to co-operate with the BJP in forming a national government, to face the challenges which will come.' (12-5-98)
'There is a heady feeling in the air just now. It is reminiscent to me of somewhat of the atmosphere after the 1971 war. Let us hope that we would be able to maintain this. The Chinese reaction, though on predictable lines, is regrettable. We should not allow ourselves to be driven into a position where we have to fight simultaneously on two fronts.' (19-5-98)
THE INDIAN SCENE
'Irrespective of whatever else happens, there is no doubt that now the so-called backward and Dalit classes will wield a great deal of influence by virtue of their numbers, and it is significant that they are now acutely conscious of their strength. Therefore, one should expect major changes in politics, economics and social equity. It is a fascinating prospect.' (8-5-96)
'Your piece on Narasimha Rao is specially thought-provoking, and I think that you have done a major service by drawing attention to the other side of the coin. Public adulation is notoriously fickle. So, one should not be entirely surprised with what has happened to his reputation now. Quite often, we fail to see the wood for the trees. I am not a great authority on Hinduism, but may I respectfully add that I do not entirely agree with your statement that Hinduism does not teach magnanimity? If anything distinguishes our religion from others, it is the spirit of tolerance. And, to my mind, magnanimity is only an extension of tolerance. In this particular instance, what has come to the forefront is the essential bitchiness of public fame. Perhaps, from the point of view of history, we are living too close to Narasimha Rao's times, to be able to do full justice to him.' (4-12-96)
'It is discouraging to think that we are almost always unable to follow up, by effective action, on the recommendations of enquiry commissions and fail to appreciate the importance of building up institutions.' (29-3-97)
'I have always felt that reckless encouragement of foreign tourism is like playing with a double-edged sword. The wealthier people, who visit the poor countries, ostensibly as tourists, want primarily a good time. Perhaps, this is one of the less pleasant outcomes of globalisation. At this rate, in a few decades, the world would be a very boring place, with the same unisex clothes, the same fast food, the same pop music and, perhaps, the same new speak all over.' (8-7-97)
'I suspect that though we are catching up on globalisation, the bulk of our industrialists and business tycoons are still out of date in their thinking.' (2-8-97)
'The point which you have made of the possibility of a counter-elite backlash emerging (My comment: in India), as happened in Iran during the reign of the Shah is most interesting.' (12-1-98)
(My comment: For many years, I have held the view that what happened in Iran in 1978-79 was that the creeping revulsion of large sections of the masses against the Westernised elite led to the anti-Shah revolt and the Islamic leaders subsequently took over the leadership of these masses to stage the Islamic Revolution. I was also of the view that one could see the beginnings of a similar revulsion of large sections of the masses in India against the so-called secular elite for which the hurt feelings of the Muslims are more important than the hurt feelings of the Hindus and that this could one day lead to a Hindu revolution. On many occasions, Mr Kao and I had held animated discussions on this.)
'Unfortunately, the political scene in our country is presently so confused that it is difficult to say in which direction we are going. Of course, every one avows that the process of liberalisation of government controls would continue. One, however, wonders whether with megascams discovered every other day, how long we would be able to go on like this.' (12-1-98)
'I derive comfort from the thought that even in the midst of the headlong surge towards globalisation and liberalisation, we in this country have not quite lost our bearings.' (4-2-98)
'The rise of Muslim fundamentalists in Tamil Nadu has somewhat surprised most of the people here (My comment: in New Delhi). This is because in Delhi there is abysmal ignorance about South India. Interestingly enough, about two years ago, when I happened to meet an Israeli diplomat at a party here, he had prophesied this kind of a development and was quite concerned at the fact that we seemed quite relaxed. ' (1-4-98) (My comment: The Israelis had been drawing India's attention since 1992 to the dangers of Islamic extremism in Tamil Nadu.)
B Raman, former additional secretary at the Cabinet Secretariat, currently heads the Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.