Taking a cue from American intelligence agencies which have a fairly open policy of hiring natives for improving their linguistic skills in languages such as Arabic, Farsi and even Telugu and Malayalam, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) has adopted a novel “linguistic immersion’’ programme.
Started about a year ago, the intelligence agency has revived the gurukul concept for specialised language training. The gurus are security-cleared native linguists, teaching maybe Pashto or Myanmarese in a residential environment, while the shishyas are specialists posted at the R&AW headquarters in New Delhi and its missions abroad.
According to a senior R&AW official, besides the long-term aim to strengthen its cadre of linguists (currently comprising around 100-150 officers), the programme is also aimed at eliminating third-party intervention in sensitive operations like culling out intelligence from a vital foreign source. Besides spoken proficiency, the stress is also on learning the right diction, nuances and colloquialisms, as well as picking up historical and cultural background from the teachers.
“There are many situations when we have to hire interpreters and translators at short notice for understanding documents, transcripts and conversations in languages where we have little or no in-house proficiency. We would ideally like to do away with any involvement of outsiders,’’ said the official.
“We expect our first batch of R&AW officers trained in one out of maybe six languages to revert to their operational desks by the end of the year. Those selected for the residential courses are mid-level officers involved in cutting-edge operations and analysis,” he said.
Officials, however, declined to disclose the locations of these “language schools” or expand on the undercover nature of selecting the native teachers.
While the R&AW has been recruiting post-graduates from foreign language schools for its linguistic wing, the agency has been facing a shortage with many specialists trading jobs for the corporate sector. Besides, the changing dynamism of international terrorism, reorganisation of insurgent groups and increasing reliance on electronic intelligence gathering including wiretaps have added to the demand for instant translation and analysis of several new languages and dialects.
Stressing on the Indian intelligence agencies’ lack of proficiency in linguistic skills, the Naresh Chandra task force report on national security had said the agencies should urgently devise ways to tackle the problem.
The world over, agencies which face the challenge of upgrading linguistic skills have two options: either recruit linguists as intelligence officers or train intelligence officers to double up as linguists. The R&AW, it appears, has chosen the safer though complex second option.