Review: Action-Driven Narrative Gives Us a Glimpse of R&AW, But Its Real History Remains Hidden

'The War That Made R&AW' combines research with a direct writing style to provide a comprehensive narrative.

In December 2019, Yogini Roygaga introduced me to Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket. They wanted to talk about how an intelligence agency like the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) functioned. Yogini was my student at the Xaviers’ Institute of Communications, Mumbai, where I have been giving lectures on international terrorism for nearly 14 years.

The authors, who were filmmakers, told me that they wanted to write a story about R&AW’s role in the 1971 War. I had told them that I was not part of R&AW during the 1971 War and hence had no personal knowledge on that subject. They assured me that they would do further research to complete the story. Hence, my briefing was only about how a foreign intelligence agency generally functioned.

Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket
The War That Made R&AW

One year later, they have produced The War That Made R&AW, a crisp, action-driven narrative peppered with some fictional dialogue among the high political decision makers and between top R&AW officials who are no longer alive. I could, however, visualise the strong possibility of such dialogues happening, at least in regard to R&AW on occasions described by them, as I knew most of the officials very closely.

More realistic is their portrayal of the dissimilarities in the persona of R.N. Kao, R&AW’s founder and of his close associate and friend K. Sankaran Nair. As the authors have rightly concluded, this did not affect their conjoint working to set up a world-class spy agency.

Books have already appeared on their contribution in building up this new organisation with a new type of administrative structure for undertaking non-conventional activities abroad to preserve and enhance India’s strategic security. However, this is the first time that some second-rung founding leaders of R&AW have also been revealed to the readers and the book notes their vital contribution.

The key officer on whom the Kao-Nair duo depended for the Bangladesh operations was P.N. Banerjee, who passed away in 1974. I had no opportunity to meet him as I joined the organisation only in 1976. I only heard about his legendary operational capabilities.

However, I knew others mentioned in the book quite closely. One was Major (retired) I.S. Hassanwalia, who had won high praise for handling the 1963 incident involving the theft of the Hazratbal holy relic in Kashmir while he was with the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Later, he would, as the key R&AW representative posted in Europe, soften the redoubtable Laldenga, who had terrorised most of the Mizoram area.

The authors have also mentioned others like the blunt no-nonsense military officer Brigadier (Retd) M.B.K. Nair and his able, low key, workaholic deputy Dr Phadke, who had laid the foundations of the organisation’s telecommunications division, which was to play vital roles in the 1971 war and subsequent “telecom” related penetration operations.

I think this may perhaps be the first time such a comprehensive, all source, multi-focused book has been written, also mentioning the valuable contributions made by India’s defence services and by the external affairs ministry. At the same time, the authors have ensured they do not lose sight of the catalytic role played by R&AW. The book also rightly reminds the readers that many preliminary steps in preparing the ground for the 1971 operations were undertaken by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), before R&AW was born.

Another feature of the book, much like a film formula for the common man to easily follow the storyline, is its direct writing style without cumbersome academic details. Yet a lot of research had been done, for which the authors had thanked Yogini Roygaga, as the page notes and bibliography would indicate.

A few errors have crept in, which need to be mentioned. The authors keep referring to Kao’s Lodhi Road office where all high-level decisions were supposed to have been taken prior to the 1971 War. However, the present R&AW building on Lodhi Road was ready only in 1981, although planned by Kao much earlier. Till 1977, he was operating from his office in South Block, while Sankaran Nair had his group office in RK Puram. In those days, even in 1976 when I joined, R&AW offices were scattered all over New Delhi.

Another small error is about the cowboy statue in the foyer of the R&AW building. The authors have said that the original was gifted to Kao by the then CIA director, later US President George H.W. Bush. This is not correct.

In an article published in the Sunday Asian Age on February 2, 2003 I had written that this fibreglass cowboy statue by Sadiq in the R&AW foyer was modelled after the statuette “El Vaquero”, which was presented to Indira Gandhi during her 1968 official visit to Venezuela. This long piece was published on Kao’s first death anniversary.

I had repeated this story in the Sunday Guardian in 2012, when my friend, the late B. Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW was published. He had mentioned in the book that George H.W. Bush had gifted the statue to Kao. Till at least 1995, while I was in service, I had seen the original piece displayed at Mrs Gandhi’s residence (1, Safdar Jung Road), which later became the Indira Gandhi Museum. This is not a Remington bronze (Bronco Buster series), which is usually found in American offices.

A comprehensive history?

Can this book be considered a comprehensive history of events leading to the 1971 war? No. That type of composite history needs much more research into even top-secret documents by a team of inter-services historians, as the late Kao had tried to do in the mid-1980s. As the senior security adviser in the cabinet secretariat, he had engaged a team under Colonel (retd) V. Longer, a military historian, to compile an official record on the role of intelligence before and during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. Colonel Longer had worked in R&AW and knew its operations well.

This task was completed sometime in 1984 or 1985, but the volumes were kept in sealed envelopes in the personal custody of the R&AW chief staff officer. No decision was taken whether to publish these files or transfer them to the National Archives. In January 1986, I inherited these sealed envelopes when I became the chief staff officer. I handed over charge of these files to the late B. Raman, who replaced me when I was sent on “special assignment” in September 1990. Since then, these envelopes must have been mechanically handed over by relieving officers.

In my column on February 2, 2003 coinciding with Kao’s first death anniversary, I had suggested that these volumes should be taken out of cold storage and published for general information. This has, however, not been done till today.

Meanwhile, this lapse had led to a Right of Information (RTI) application being filed in 2010, even though the RTI Act exempts R&AW and other intelligence bodies. It said the files should be obtained from the organisation and be published. What made it worrisome was an allegation that these files were “not with R&AW any longer”. The former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had told me in 2016 that he had heard this case and also its appeals in 2010. Gandhi had ordered on July 22, 2011 that the organisation should confirm that the allegation was false.

In my column on Kao in the Indian Express on January 23, 2016, I had demanded that the truth in this case should be revealed. Nothing, as far as I know, has been done till today.

Vappala Balachandran is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat.