Given that the Indian media has abysmally low levels of penetration into the machinations of its intelligence agencies, the “spycatcher series” being authored by Amar Bhushan, former special secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) make for insightful, though somewhat disturbing, reading. Bhushan first wrote a riveting account of the Rabinder Singh spy case, and, to some extent, solved the mystery of how the double agent managed to get asylum and escaped to Florida, USA. Last year, Bhushan started his “spycatcher series” with the first set of twin tales introducing a genre of spy thrillers which the author says are true tales of often aborted RAW operations.
Bhushan has already told us that following the success of Escape to Nowhere, several former RAW officials reached out to him and recalled their own espionage operations, and thus, his repertoire of spy stories which he could fictionalise crossed 39. Now, he has picked two more but the reader is left guessing about whether these were intelligence operations mounted by Bhushan himself or by other RAW officials.
The first spy story, ‘The Walk-In’, marks the return of Jeevnathan, described as the head of the RAW unit in Dhaka, but obviously used as a nom de guerre for somone in the Indian mission. It is about the relationship that Jeevnathan develops with a mysterious Bangladeshi source in 1994, one who simply walks into his office and begins to offer hard intelligence that any RAW agent would covet. The source, named Anwar, initially claims to freelance for both Pakistan’s ISI and Bangladesh’s NSI (National Security Intelligence) but is actually an operative of the Jamaat-e-Islami. This is what he tells Jeevnathan, to justify doing the deep dive for RAW: “I will do anything to protect the security interests of my country, but I will also hamper the government in my own way from pursuing the sort of self-destructive policy that Pakistan is best at practising.”
The book describes how every time Jeevnathan passed on “actionable” intelligence, the RAW bosses in New Delhi disregarded and scoffed at the inputs since they were from a walk-in source and not a pay-roll source who had been cultivated over the years. Thus, the image of the RAW being a highly bureaucratic organisation, with seniors in New Delhi always trying to sidestep colleagues posted abroad, is back in this twin series. The fact that the organisation was stingy with disbursing payments for sources and had an archaic communication network is also highlighted.
Bhushan describes how some feeble attempts were made by RAW’s counter-intelligence units to verify identities of militants and addresses of safe houses given by Anwar but that was mostly after the militants had moved on to implement their nefarious designs. As for the explosive video evidence of a possible ISI agent within the Indian mission, Jeevnathan eventually leaves instructions for it to be destroyed since he was advised by his predecessor in Dhaka that New Delhi would baulk at the prospect of the RAW exposing a foreign service officer as a spy.
The second spy story is titled ‘Inside Nepal’ and is set in the year 1990 in Lucknow. Jeevnathan is the head of the external intelligence agency’s ESB (Eastern Service Bureau) now and has to face the ignominy of receiving instructions from New Delhi to shut the unit down because of its failure on the counter-intelligence front in Nepal. So, he calls for a meeting of RAW staff from all ESB units (“a sea of anxious faces”), and, after making the announcement of the Bureau’s closure, gives the sleuths a motivational lecture. “There is no need for self-deprecation… let’s use this period to redeem ourselves and prove headquarters wrong,” Jeevnathan says.
The rest of the sequences are descriptions of how the quality of inputs from the ESB improves dramatically, resulting in some audacious operations. This was the time when India had imposed strict economic sanctions on Nepal (owing primarily due to the mountain nation cosying up to China) but a well-oiled supply network of Indian smugglers kept up the reserves of fuel, medicines and food in Nepal. The economic blockade was failing and the King of Nepal seemed nowhere close to addressing India’s strategic concerns. It is then that Jeevnathan arranges for a secret meeting with the notorious smuggler Raghupati Tripathy in Gorakhpur, appeals to his “ancestral pride” and persuades him to suspend smuggling operations for five days. On day three, the RAW reported a steep drop in the smuggling of essential commodities into Nepal and on the 11th day of the blockade, the King of Nepal offered to talk to New Delhi on the entire gamut of bilateral issues.
A third undercover operation is one for which Jeevnathan is rushed for a briefing to New Delhi and asked to immediately publish a weekly newspaper in Nepali with a clear editorial line: it was to highlight the “misdeeds” of the King of Nepal and provide “exaggerated” accounts of the bravery of the Maoists. Jeevnathan did the bidding; the 20-page weekly was christened Bihane and it quickly picked up circulation in Nepal.
Following this, just when he thought it was time for him to commence winding up the ESB, he was told that there was no question of shutting down the unit since such “high-grade operations” were underway. Jeevnathan was sent off to another posting. Before departing from Lucknow, he left a cryptic message for sources like Raghupati: “Consider that I do not exist and then respond to the situation accordingly.”