The RAW Files
The world of espionage has been the setting for some compelling writing in the 20th century. This, of course, does not apply to airport thrillers churned out by American and British authors, but rather to books by John le Carre and Graham Greene. It may seem blasphemous to say so, but some of the books that Greene preferred to call ‘entertainment’ actually work better for me than some of his avowedly literary works laden with the alien burdens of his Catholicism.
The Human Factor, published in 1978, tells the story of Maurice Castle, employed with MI 6. On an earlier posting to South Africa, Castle had fallen in love with a Black African woman. The man who helped him escape from apartheid-era South Africa is a communist, and Castle’s gratitude leads him to help Moscow during the Cold War. The leak is eventually traced and an internal investigation is launched. The novel manages to simultaneously cope with the dilemmas playing themselves out in Castle’s mind as he begins to suspect he is under observation, and the cold calculation with which his superiors set about tracking the suspect.
The story of the Indian Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) agent Rabinder Singh uncannily mirrors some of this book. It was a case that dominated headlines in 2004, but has since receded from public memory. A major in the Indian Army who joined RAW in 1986, he had been working there for 18 years before alarm bells were triggered off by his curiosity about details of RAW work outside his domain. Heading the Southeast Asia desk as joint secretary, the brazen manner in which he was priming operatives on other assignments for information finally set off an alarm. Surveillance was mounted for several months, but at the very moment it was taken off, he escaped to Nepal. It was later found that the CIA head in Nepal had arranged for him and his wife to flee the country and they were then given new identities to live in the US.
In Escape To Nowhere, Amar Bhushan, the then No 2 man in RAW, who headed the counter espionage department, has penned a fictional account of this case. It is clear that we are operating in a zone where fiction is only a device to write the truth as Bhushan saw it unfold. The veneer of fiction rests very thinly on the narrative. RAW becomes the Agency, the IB is the Bureau.
However, the book is surprisingly well written and what Graham Greene had said of The Human Factor—“I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions”—can as well be said of this book. Unlike numerous books by journalists and analysts, and some badly written ones by IB insiders, this book is as close as we will ever get to the real workings of RAW.
The book begins with Bhushan’s alter ego in the book, Jeevanathan, receiving a tip off that leads to the surveillance of Ravi Mohan, the narrative alias for Rabinder Singh. As the surveillance against Ravi Mohan builds up, the book rather vividly portrays tension within the Agency as no evidence comes up other than Ravi Mohan’s avid curiosity about other departments. What is surprising is the ease with which many operatives share details they should have never talked about. No action was taken against them, nor were they even reprimanded. Some retired from senior positions, others continue to work in the Agency.
The details of electronic and physical surveillance, which are slow to reveal anything incriminatory, the dissensions within the Agency, all add to the pressure on Jeevanathan, even when he has the reluctant backing of his boss, in reality the then RAW chief CD Sahay. It is only when a spy camera catches Ravi Mohan copying official documents and taking them out of the office that the suspicions get confirmed.
“The problem,” Amar Bhushan told me, “is that it is our culture to give people a second chance, make an allowance, rather than thoroughly vet the officer concerned when suspicion first arises. As the book mentions, the official who first raised concerns about Ravi Mohan, long before surveillance was mounted, was told to mind his own business.’’
Asides in the narrative are as informative about the Agency as the main plot. In the middle of the surveillance, Jeevanathan heads to the Northeast to meet disgruntled officers of an elite combat unit that reports to the Agency. When I put the question to Bhushan, he said, “Purely in the fictional context, of course, Jeevanathan used the elite unit in J&K. They did an outstanding job in an operation coordinated between the Agency and the Bureau. The problem came afterwards: neither the police nor the Army was happy that an outside agency had succeeded. They all wanted to claim credit with the politicians. Such wrangling has ensured that what should be perhaps our best trained specialised combat unit basically goes unused.’’
As the surveillance tightens and enough evidence becomes available to suggest that at the very least Ravi Mohan is violating Agency protocol, the matter is taken to the then National Security Advisor, read Brajesh Mishra. Worried about the potential fallout on his attempts to renew links with the US, which had been frozen after the Indian nuclear tests, he asks surveillance to be stepped down. Mishra has not commented on the book, and Bhushan does not get drawn in, “I don’t know about the names you mention, but in fictional terms, I can say that our intelligence efforts are far too open to political vagaries. Espionage goes on irrespective of the state of relations between two countries, but the Agency has had to compromise on several occasions depending on what political leaders wanted. This is not a problem the CIA or ISI are ever afflicted with.’’
Ravi Mohan chooses this moment to make his escape to Nepal. When I ask Bhushan about Jeevanathan’s reluctance to act earlier by registering a case, he points to examples cited in the book, such as the Samba case where the inability to conclusively provide a link between those charged and their alleged Pakistani handlers led to the case being quashed in the High Court, a major embarrassment.
One must also, he notes, rule out any possibility of a mistake. The book itself very early on cites the case of a brilliant and flamboyant officer named Vijay Shekhar, who was hounded out of the Bureau in the 1990s when he was set to head it. Bhushan is, of course, referring to the Ratan Sehgal case, where third-class file pushers envious of Sehgal’s rise in the IB managed to ensure his retirement, even though they could never mount any charges against him. The consequences of such mediocrity winning out in the IB continue to haunt the country till this day.
Some critics have argued that the book seeks to exculpate Bhushan’s own failings in the case. The Nepal escape, Bhushan points out in turn, actually brings a closure to it. “It is only when Ravi Mohan flees to Nepal and the name of his CIA handler surfaces that the details of the case fall in place.’’
This leaves the question of Rabinder Singh open. When and where did he turn against his country? What prompted it? What is his life in the US like, cut off from his real identity, denied the possibility of a return to India? For that, we need our own Graham Greene, and there doesn’t seem to be one in sight.
In the meantime, this detailed and skillfully narrated book will have to suffice. It is a far better read than much of what will be published by some of our best publishers this year.