Karela Fry

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In the middle of an inconclusive story in Caravan, one finds this wonderful piece of journalism, a potted history of India’s intelligence set up:

For two decades after Independence, the [Intelligence Bureau] IB, which had been inherited from the Raj, was the country’s only civilian intelligence agency, responsible for both domestic and international espionage. Its notable lack of success in the latter department, widely exposed during the 1962 India-China war, led Indira Gandhi to bifurcate the bureau six years later at the urging of her influential principal secretary, PN Haksar.

The history of infighting between IB and [Research and Analysis Wing] R&AW dates back to the birth of the younger agency. RN Kao, the revered first chief of R&AW, sparred with his counterpart atop the IB, MML Hooja—and within five years of its founding, R&AW could claim victory in the first turf war between the two, after Kao used his considerable influence with Indira Gandhi to have Hooja removed.

The executive order establishing R&AW gave its chief the designation of secretary to the Government of India, answerable only to the prime minister. The R&AW chief had unchecked administrative and operational powers: he could create any post he thought was necessary, and recruit any person he wished to fill it, without any effective oversight. What his right hand created, his left hand nurtured, and R&AW quickly earned a reputation for nepotism, cronyism and corruption; before long it was being called the “Relatives and Associates Wing”.

According to an intelligence expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a government think-tank, the birth of R&AW led directly to efforts by the IB to expand its own authority as well. Once R&AW had been created without the administrative structures that bound the IB, the IDSA expert said, the IB chiefs sought to emulate the example of their counterparts. “The power of R&AW tempted IB to become a clone of R&AW,” he said. “Before R&AW came into being, the director had operational independence, but after R&AW he began to have financial independence as well, and then the IB became an empire like R&AW.”

Both IB and R&AW, in fact, exist in a legal grey area: neither agency was created by an act of Parliament, and there is no law or statute that enumerates their powers and responsibilities, or gives constitutional sanction to their activities. The absence of a statutory basis has several consequences, but the simplest one is that it renders both agencies essentially exempt from legal and parliamentary accountability.

The funding for the intelligence agencies is shrouded in secrecy. The retired intelligence chiefs all declined to answer questions on this matter: a few noted the figure was officially secret, while others insisted even they had no idea about the actual amount—though as one said, “There was never a lack of funds.”

The overall spending for both agencies can be divided into two portions: budgeted expenditures, which cover regular administrative needs like salaries and logistics; and secret service funds, presumably far larger, which cover anything else deemed to be involved in intelligence operations.

In the case of IB, the planned expenditures are allocated directly from the home ministry and listed in the government’s annual budget. (This year’s official figure is 10.73 billion.) For R&AW, however, the budgeted expenditures are drawn from the Cabinet Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, foreign ministry and defence ministry. But even these allotted expenditures are not disclosed in the government’s overall budget or those of the individual ministries, which do not allocate funds directly to R&AW; instead money is withheld from the ministries’ budgets and routed through the Consolidated Fund of India. Though the figures are hidden from the public, this portion of R&AW’s budget is subject to internal audit, like any other government department.

But the real money power that feeds the two behemoths, the IDSA expert said, comes from unaudited secret service funds, whose existence is not reflected in the government’s annual budget. “The government has never explained where the money comes from,” he said. “No question has ever been asked, and no auditing has ever been done.” A few retired intelligence officials and politicians offered me their broad speculative estimates of the total spending each year, which ranged from about 50 billion all the way up to a few trillion rupees. (For the sake of comparison, this year’s defence budget is about 2 trillion.) There is no conceivable way to gauge the accuracy of these figures; for the purposes of analysis, they’re functionally useless. But the stupendous range between the low and high estimates is telling in its own way, as a reminder that even insiders can’t quite grasp the whole picture.

In slightly more than a year since taking up his new portfolio in the aftermath of 26/11, Chidambaram had moved aggressively to overhaul the home ministry, trumpeting his determination to build a strong central security apparatus. In his speech [at the 22nd annual Intelligence Bureau Centenary Endowment Lecture on 23 December 2009], whose title promised “A New Architecture for India’s Security”, Chidambaram unveiled his plan to implement a sweeping reorganisation and centralisation of the country’s intelligence services, under the supervision of a newly-created National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC).

The proposed NCTC, whose “logical and natural” place would be under the Ministry of Home Affairs, would assume full responsibility over a handful of smaller agencies, while the “positioning of R&AW, the Aviation and Research Centre and the Central Bureau of Investigation would have to be re-examined”, such that they too came at least partially under the oversight of the NCTC. The disposition of the IB, already under the supervision of the home minister, was conspicuously not discussed. “It is my fervent plea,” Chidambaram added, “that this should not result in turf wars.”

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