A History of India’s Covert Operations’ showcases India’s shadow warriors- The New Indian Express

Peace is an illusion because India is constantly at war in the shadows. Just as soldiers in uniform guard our borders, a different kind of highly trained and motivated soldiers crisscross the world in various guises with deceptively innocuous code names; meeting sources, activating sleeper spies and double agents, deploying honey traps, conferring with fellow spooks in cafes and safe houses, and bribing informers with clandestine funds—all to protect the nation. They are the unsung heroes of India’s formidable spy agency R&AW who unearth dark plots against the country and destroy traitors and at great personal risk. RAW: A History of India’s Covert Operations illustrates their daring exploits.

During the Cold War years, Indira Gandhi had brought India firmly into the Soviet Union’s orbit and the US supported Pakistan as a anti-Communist gambit. Set in the turbulent ’70s to the ’90s, R&AW spooks toppled dictators like General Ershad in Bangladesh and Fiji’s Colonel Rabuka by organising public protests and trading loyalties of people in their inner circles respectively. India had carved Bangladesh out of East Pakistan, which America opposed vehemently; President Richard Nixon even sent the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate India.

After Mujibur Rahman’s assassination, the ISI and CIA moved into Bangladesh. The Hindu refugee problem was a strain on India’s economy and Ershad’s pro-ISI, pro-CIA stance wasn’t helping. So unexpected were the R&AW-engineered protests that Ershad was forced to resign and a neutral government came in his place. In Fiji, where local Indians were being persecuted by nationalist Rabuka, R&AW used foreign contacts in Australia, New Zealand and the UK to launch a successful operation to oust him. The mission was almost compromised when the mistress of a Fiji bureaucrat who was spying for India informed the authorities.

R&AW also created immense goodwill in many countries; it helped a top Afghan politician and former warlord to escape the Taliban and even got his relative a job in Turkey. R&AW spooks relentlessly bribed, cajoled and blackmailed India’s enemies. At great danger to himself, a daring agent bought information from a mole among Khalistani terrorists who were preparing to attack Delhi, which were averted by the intel. The agency even managed to recruit the prime minister of an important Baltic nation. R&AW had support from most prime ministers, except Pakistan-friendly Morarji Desai, who had dismantled foreign operations and turned over imbedded agents to ISI.

Since intelligence inputs play a significant role in shaping policy, the spymasters saw firsthand political leaders in action. The book describes how Rajiv Gandhi stood in front of Deng Xiaoping like a schoolboy in front of a principal, though he was assured that he had nothing to fear from the Chinese. A chapter describes how Narasimha Rao’s taciturn “Okay” meant the mission had the go-ahead. R&AW’s main enemy continues to be Pakistan’s ISI, which has been playing a cat and mouse game for decades. It also faced a formidable enemy at home—Indian diplomats who exposed their identities abroad and bureaucrats who interfered with operational budgets. These are some of their stories.

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPTS

OPERATION SRI LANKA

Permanent Friends, Permanent Interests

In Sri Lanka, R&AW played a double game, helping the Sri Lankan Army to destroy the LTTE while protecting Indian assets against the Tigers and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s hit men. According to a R&AW spymaster in Colombo, MEA bungled and allowed the Chinese to get a foothold in the island.

Avinash Sinha arrived at Colombo Fort Café on the morning of 3 December 2005, looking forward to what he had been told was the best Sri Lankan breakfast in the city. Avinash, a R&AW operative, perhaps a few autumns younger than Kosala Ratnayake, had returned to Colombo that October after three years. He had recruited Kosala, a top functionary in the Sri Lankan government, over several wet evenings in January 2002. That was when the Sri Lankan regime had been seriously engaging with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for peace talks.

Satellite Spycraft: Avinash said that the R&AW had penetrated Sri Lanka’s northern province deeply, especially districts like Jaffna, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mannar. ‘Our assessment was solid and as the war loomed large over the horizon, our primary objective was to evacuate as many Tamils as possible. But that was just a foggy dream. Under tremendous pressure from the Tigers, the Tamil populations had decided to remain and we couldn’t do anything about it,’ said Avinash.

The Indian government had taken a principled decision to support the Sri Lankan army offensive because the entire international community had been outraged by the LTTE’s string of suicide bombings. According to Avinash, between late 2007 and May 2009 when Sri Lanka declared total victory against the LTTE, the R&AW provided satellite imagery of all the Tigers’ camps in the north and east provinces to the Sri Lankan military.

The intelligence included the Tigers’ military formations as well as civilian populations so as to avoid casualties. ‘It was not LTTE alone that killed our assets,’ said Pawan Arora, a R&AW officer. ‘We later learnt that the Sri Lankan army had also been involved in hitting our informers. Just before the final and massive offensive in April 2009, some important assets were evacuated from Jaffna on a ship headed to the Maldives… At Kilinochchi in the northern province of Sri Lanka, he revealed, a compound that housed some R&AW informers had just one survivor that month and a white cat.

MEA Bungling on China: R&AW agents began to enquire in Beijing and Islamabad about Colombo’s plan. The liaison unit, working with friendly foreign intelligence agencies, reported that China had secretly provided arms and ammunition to the Sri Lankan army during the civil war and was now ready to invest more than $2 billion in Sri Lanka…China had not only provided fighter jets to the Sri Lankan army, it had also trained the pilots with the help of Islamabad.

Avinash said: ‘When we warned the India foreign service about the Chinese, a senior officer told me not to worry. Let China build the roads, he said, and we will ply our buses on those roads. When we complained about him, he was immediately removed and shifted to some insignificant position at the Delhi headquarters.’ The officer codenamed ‘PAS’ was fond of scotch and the Indian spies had reported on various occasions that he was more interested in attending high-spirit parties than protecting and preserving India’s interests in Sri Lanka. ‘Once he was trapped by our spies and subsequently confronted with the evidence, we wanted him out of Sri Lanka. He was a compromised man,’ Avinash said, quoting a report that the R&AW had ciphered to New Delhi.

The Indian government had taken a principled decision to support the Sri Lankan army offensive because the entire international community had been outraged by the LTTE’s string of suicide bombings. According to Avinash, between late 2007 and May 2009 when Sri Lanka declared total victory against the LTTE, the R&AW provided satellite imagery of all the Tigers’ camps in the north and east provinces to the Sri Lankan military.

THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS MAID

There is no single documented account of Operation Satori carried out with the help of an Indian maid named Sundari. The 55-year-old Tamil and Sinhalese-speaking woman worked to rescue and evacuate R&AW sources. Although the R&AW knew the weaknesses of Sri Lankan intelligence, they realised that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s spies were also keeping an eye on the northern and eastern provinces, scouting for prize catches. Within a week, fictitious papers were arranged for Sundari through Kosala that would allow her to travel inside the battle zone freely to help the badly wounded in their makeshift hospitals. Sundari was pivotal to Operation Satori.

Though she was not a conventional spy, she was a thorough professional. With the help of Asanka, an ambulance driver, and Ramanuj, an animal activist, she managed to rescue several leaders who were R&AW recruits and thus on Rajapaksa’s hitlist. The area where Sundari operated was darkened via Photoshop before images were shared with the Sri Lankan army and its intelligence unit, and Kosala had bribed certain senior personnel in the army so that people could safely be smuggled out of the war zone.

R&AW AGENTS began to enquire in Beijing and Islamabad about Colombo’s plan. The liaison unit, working with friendly foreign intelligence agencies, reported that China had secretly provided arms and ammunition to the Sri Lankan army during the civil war and was now ready to invest more than $2 billion in Sri Lanka.

PARIS/LONDON

Operation Hornet

R&AW launched an operation in Paris and London to neutralise UK-based Pakistani national Abdul Khan who was sheltering extremists and planning attacks in India with the help of ISI and renegade Indian businessmen Balwant, Harbakhsh Singh, BN Sandhu, Avtaar Sethi and Harpreet Ahuja. Indian agent Sanjeev Jindal was given clearance by his pop star of spies boss Anuj Bharadwaj to swing into action. With foreign operatives Clarke and Sophie, he foiled the plot and Khan was shot dead.

Target ISI Terror Trio: At the Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, in November 1984, Sanjeev Jindal was lost in thought…. ‘Sir, we need to launch an operation… My information suggests ISI chief Akhtar Abdur Rahman is directly supervising the operation….’

Sophie’s Choice: This was the beginning of Operation Hornet. Jindal had already identified the spy to be posted in London. The officer codenamed Mohan Narayanan had earlier worked in Prague. Sometime in late January 1985, Jindal was at Café Aida in Landstrasse, Vienna. He had waited for almost a week for this meeting with his old informer Sophie Klor. Jindal, known by a different name at the time, had dumped her two years earlier at the end of an operation he had run in Austria. It is not unusual for an intelligence officer to dump her or his source or informer once the job is done. There are no permanent relationships in the world of espionage.

Everyone has an expiry date. But Sophie was perhaps an exception. Like the R&AW’s other subconscious agents in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, she transferred money to moles, trained new assets in the target country and occasionally ran assets on behalf of the handler. But renewing contact with a subconscious agent was something he had never done before. ‘Just be honest with me. I am getting worried about your sudden reappearance,’ said Sophie. ‘Do you know where Harpreet Ahuja is?’ Jindal asked. ‘The Indian guy who worked with our organisation? He left about a year ago. Why are you looking for him?’ ‘I want you to dig him out for me,’ Jindal said, placing an envelope containing $10,000 on the table. ‘Don’t worry. Harpreet has always been nice to me.’ Sophie winked at him and left the café.

Greedy Gardener: The London team, Narayanan and Clarke, had used cash to lure Abdul Khan’s gardener, a Pakistani named Tariq Siddiqui. The list included officials from the ISI, the Pakistani army and Pakistan’s civil servants, as well as Sandhu and the two aides who were supposedly Sandhu’s bodyguards and another Indian… Harbakhsh Singh. He also passed on classified information about Sandhu’s and Harbakhsh’s impending visit to Islamabad in February. After Narayanan paid him $5,000, Tariq promised to give him the letter. One document about a money transfer from a bank was significan, the details about the key players arriving at Khan’s house gave the R&AW top brass valuable insights into the ISI’s plans and intentions.

At their meeting at Café Aida, Sophie recounted her hunt for Harpreet Ahuja. It had taken her to Salzburg, Bregenz and finally to Innsbruck… She told Jindal about going out with Ahuja on a date. ‘My priorities are clear. I can’t let this man slip out of our hands,’ Jindal said.

Recruiting the Mole: Jindal recruited Ahuja in Austria that April. Upon agreeing to work for the R&AW as a spy, Ahuja was given the codename Einsiedler. But before the British could act, Harbakhsh disappeared from London overnight. Jindal and Bhardwaj suspected that he had been evacuated by the ISI before British security officials could interrogate him on his links with militants and Pakistan. A source based in Pakistan informed Bhardwaj about the arrival of Harbakhsh and his family in Rawalpindi, in the neighborhood of Islamabad.

Arm twisting Terror’s Banker: Sethi took a circuitous route to Paris in order to avoid ISI surveillance on his movements. Bhardwaj, Jindal and Narayanan held two day-long meetings with the dangerous financier of terrorism in India. In Jindal’s words, Sethi sang nonstop. He shared the smallest details of the Sandhu-Khan network, revealing the role of ISI officers posted under diplomatic covers in London. The ISI had a special detachment in London for the India operation and a team of six officers had been deployed to create and continue sponsoring terrorist networks to carry out activities inside India. At the time, an ISI officer named Mahmood was running Sandhu and Khan. Sethi said he was not aware if the ISI was handling any other anti-India module.

He provided a list of the officers, profiles of people connected to Khan and Sandhu, and above all, names of recruits in India who he believed were staunch supporters of the network. In the meantime, he forwarded the names of the Indian module to the R&AW headquarters. Jindal was informed sometime in April that eighteen people on the list had been neutralized in a covert operation and they had launched a manhunt for nine others. The conversation among the network involving Khan, Sandhu and the ISI officers revealed a plan to expand the operation and the Pakistani intelligence officers assured substantial sums of money for the attacks. In July and August, Bhardwaj was informed by his contacts in British counterintelligence agencies that the Pakistanis had been told to shut shop.

The Knockout Round: New plans were made every day to ambush Khan’s remaining network but none worked out because Bhardwaj was against covert action in British territory. In the first week of May 1987, Narayanan informed him that Abdul Khan was planning to visit his hometown, Lahore, sometime in June. His plan was to meet the newly appointed ISI chief, Lt General Hamid Gul. Jindal and Bhardwaj decided that Abdul Khan had to be killed in Lahore. The terror financier was gunned down by two motorcycle-borne men as he entered his house that fateful day in June. He was shot nine times in the head and the neck. The Lahore police believed that the killing was the result of an old business rivalry but the ISI knew it was the R&AW that had chased and killed the fountainhead of terror. At his burial, a R&AW asset noticed that flowers had been sent from Hamid Gul.

THE LONDON team, Narayanan and Clarke, had used cash to lure Abdul Khan’s gardener, a Pakistani named Tariq Siddiqui. The list included officials from the ISI, the Pakistani army and Pakistan’s civil servants, as well as Sandhu and the two aides who were supposedly Sandhu’s bodyguards and another Indian… Harbakhsh Singh.

JINDAL RECRUITED Ahuja in Austria that April. Upon agreeing to work for the R&AW as a spy, Ahuja was given the codename Einsiedler. But before the British could act, Harbakhsh disappeared from London overnight.

From Kabul to Kathmandu, from London to Paris and Innsbruck, to Islamabad and Colombo, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) ran exciting operations using money, analysis, psy-ops, wet work and the occasional honey trap. A new book by Yatish Yadav brings to light some of the daring exploits of India’s spies and spymasters.

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