Tuesday, June 23, 2015

TOI Puff-Piece on the Intelligence Bureau

Those in the Intelligence Bureau (IB) responsible for the 21 June Times of India puff piece should be quietly put out to pasture and the article's anonymous author should be selling classified ads; they are an embarrassment to their respective trades.

It is the job of the IB to keep its internal affairs hidden from view, not advertise details such as its current strength, recruitment patterns and training methods.

From the journalist’s perspective, the IB as currently constituted is a cancer on Indian democracy; even if it had a constitutional framework and was accountable to parliament and judiciary it would require close and continuous scrutiny.

Quite apart from these fundamental criticisms, the piece is misleading and muddle-headed.

The IB was not “established in 1887 to keep an eye on Russian troops” threatening India. It was part of the apparatus of oppression the British built from the times of the East India Company, a genesis that explains why the agency has been traditionally clueless about how to collect and analyse foreign intelligence.

Its traditional modus operandi of entrapment and torture was somewhat modernized after Madanlal Dhingra murdered India Office functionary Curzon Wyllie in London in 1909; but the new MI 5 and MI 6 continued to be focused mainly on Indian affairs.

In London, the police found that Dhingra’s hostel, India House, was a hive of revolutionary activity where Vinayak Damodar Savarkar held sway and visitors included Irish, German and Russian activists (including Lenin).

Within a year they had Savarkar in custody and shipped him off to exile in the Andamans, where they broke him with torture and used him to create the Hindutva brand in Indian politics.

In India, spymaster John Arnold-Wallinger at the Indian political intelligence office took charge of the service that would make a hit-man of the young Lieutenant Hastings Lionel Ismay, the man who as Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff would plot Partition and Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. (Before coming out with Mountbatten, he was Secretary of the War Cabinet under Churchill, with whom he arranged for the demise of Franklin Roosevelt and launch of the Cold War.)

That is the tap root of independent India’s Intelligence Bureau.

After independence there was no effort to reorient the service politically and its leaders continued to have close relations with their former British supervisors.

Their primary function continued to be domestic political intelligence, focused not on threats to the State but on the interests of the Delhi sarkar.

Given that background, one would expect a high level of guile and skill in IB operatives, but those I came across in my six years in India seemed to have neither.

Initially they seemed fixated on the idea that I was a spy using high-tech American broadcast equipment, which they evidently thought was hidden in my bicycle (the cheapest Hero bought from the nearest bike shop)/umbrella/shoes/dark glasses/cap/keys.

The bicycle seemed to hold pride of place in their imagination.

Within a week of buying it the bicycle's glossy black paint had tiny scrapes all over, and its wire carrier basket had a piece removed.

At one point a guy decked out like Gunga Din came up and asked why the bicycle was called The Ranger. Several others asked about the Re.100 light fixed to the handlebar.

When they found nothing, interest did not flag. Attention turned to flattening my tires. I could never tell whether that was just to inconvenience me or to reduce what they imagined was my information gathering circuits through the streets of Pondicherry and Goa.

Within a year both tires looked as if they had crossed the Kalahari. One burst with a loud pop on a smooth street. The other herniated its inner tube and had to be replaced. 

IB examinations of my shoes sometimes had dramatic results. A pair of virtually indestructible Woodlands had the soles cut away and reattached with glue; they fell away from my feet in Pondicherry market, luckily near a pavement vendor of sandals.

The IB went to great lengths to prevent me assembling a spy network. My phone regularly flashed a sign warning of “Active incoming call diverts.” When I tried to call people, I would get a variety of strange messages, including “Call not permitted.”

People with whom I had instant rapport at first meeting would avoid further contact; I took that to be a sign they had been warned away. My closest relatives were called upon to inform on me: one admitted to it rather shame faced. In Goa, a “Blogger’s Group” became so obvious an IB stalking horse, I wondered if it had any genuine members.

The efforts at surveillance were occasionally amusing. One sleuth was disguised as an incredibly cruddy-looking “homeless man” who I felt sorry for and gave to generously until I noticed that instead of a bad smell he exuded aftershave. The owner of a kirana store near his hangout smirked when I asked what he thought of the man. “Sarkar ka admi” he said. Another watcher was a beggar woman with child. Shortly after I gave her some food, she was in line behind me at a ritzy pastry shop.

All this would be funny if not for the fact that I could never tell when IB Jekyll would switch to IB Hyde. There was no predicting when I would find myself bleeding on the pavement knocked down by a motorcycle or hospitalized by a near fatal asthma attack.  

My experience must be interpreted in one of two ways: either the IB is too dense to see the integrity of my personal and intellectual character, or else its leaders are themselves not true to their salt.

I don’t think the IB brass are dumb. 

As I found in selling my tax-free bonds before exiting India, they are corrupt.

I don't think there is any way to reform this monster. 

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