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Book Review: R.N. Kao, India’s best spymaster and co-creator of Bangladesh

Book Review: R.N. Kao, India’s best spymaster and co-creator of Bangladesh


Abhilash Khandekar*

Five decades after the great event, few people are aware that Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan by two of India’s best-known legends: the then Army Chief General SHFJ Manekshaw, and R&AW founder Rameshwar Nath Kao (RNK). Unlike General “Sam” Manekshaw, who was later elevated as India’s first and only Field Marshal, little is in the public domain about Kao.

Hence this book on India’s best-known spymaster is important. India’s current National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, another legend, has penned its Forward.

Rameshwar Nath Kao (1918-2002), the founder of India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), has been an unforgettable personality in Independent India. He was not among those Indian police officers who could be easily forgotten by bureaucrats, politicians, or even journalists. This despite the fact that not much has been written about the man who remained a quintessentially low-profile individual throughout his long and chequered career and even after that. He was also the founder of the National Security Guard (NSG) in the 1980s during the “Khalistan movement”.

India’s Legend in International Espionage

His early contribution to the making of India needs to be known to the world, especially because he founded and nurtured the premier secret espionage service R&AW into a world-class professional organization. It was due to him that R&AW became one of the most respected institutions in the world of espionage and foreign intelligence. Kao who headed it from 1969 to 1977.

The agency played a vital role in almost all of the landmark events in India’s recent history—from the 1971 India-Pakistan war to the merger of Sikkim with India, from discovering Pakistan’s nuclear programme to the recent Balakot operation. Yet, as befits its role, very little is known about the organisation, or its founder.

Born in Varanasi to a Kashmiri Brahmin migrant family, and educated at Baroda, Lucknow and Allahabad, Kao was an intensely private man but a classical spymaster who operated in the shadows but built enduring institutions. R&AW has, of late, been making news and hence the introduction of this book, which hit the stands just before COVID-19 pandemic hit the world.

Nitin Gokhale, a veteran defence analyst and author of the book, describes RNK as a ruthless professional who believed in putting national interest above his personal preferences. He was also founder of the secretive Aviation Research Centre (ARC), Indian’s premier technical intelligence agency. Both ARC and the Special Frontier Force (SFF) were created under the IB after the 1962 debacle. The loss against China prompted many changes in India’s security establishment, especially in the intelligence set-up. RNK headed the ARC for three years; it was the product of an intelligence cooperation agreement between India and the US in the immediate aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Since China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) had come close to Tezpur in the plains of Assam, the Government of India sought urgent military help from the then US President John F Kennedy. India feared that the entire Brahmaputra Valley was being threatened by China. Unless something drastic was done immediately, states like Assam, Tripura, Manipur, and Nagaland could slip into the hands of China. President Kennedy immediately sent a CIA team to Delhi to assess the situation. There are many such anecdotes in this small and gripping book.

RNK had a very modest family background in Lucknow. Until the very end, he remained very polite, down to earth, and an effective leader wherever he went.

To write the book under review was a difficult task undertaken by the author, especially because it came out some 17 years after the death of Kao, then in his 80’s, a man about whom, not much-written material was available in the public domain. Some files pertaining to his stint in office and about his crucial decisions remain confidential. They relate to Bangladesh, the merger of Sikkim and Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination; they will not be made public until 2015, according to the instructions he left before his death in January 2002.

R&AW has been constantly watching Pakistan and other neighboring countries. This is its job but few know the fact that the organization, under Kao, was instrumental in the creation of Bangladesh and about the various backroom strategies and plans that Kao and his men had made. K. Sankaran Nair was among RNK’s most trusted deputies, who later headed the R&AW and also IB.

The book also narrates real stories of how prime ministers of the day treated or used R&AW or held different opinions about Kao.

It says: “In a 25-page secret note dated 14 January 1971 (two days after General Yahya Khan had landed in Dhaka), addressed to the Cabinet Secretary, RNK warned of the possibility of Pakistan launching a military campaign against India to divert attention.” He went on the elaborate, “After the recent elections, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman has emerged as an unchallenged leader of East Pakistan…He would, therefore, be in a stronger position to press for the incorporation of his party’s six-point program in the Constitution of Pakistan and related issues.” The note said that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also gaining popularity in West Pakistan (Punjab and Sindh). In such situations, President Yahya Khan, the R&AW felt, “could consider the prospects of embarking on a military adventure against India with a view to diverting the attention of the people from internal political problems and justifying the continuance of the Martial Law.”

Pakistan had, as the author, quoting Kao’s secret note, says, considerably increased her armed strength since 1965, and her Army, Navy, and Air Force had achieved a good state of military preparedness for any confrontation with India. Kao had also pointed towards the increased possibility of infiltrations of well-trained personnel into the J&K.

Based on the note, PN Haksar, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, sent a telegram to India’s Ambassador to Moscow, detailing the military equipment that New Delhi needed urgently to be ready to face any Pakistani aggression. The list included tanks, APCs, guns, bomber aircraft, and surface-to-air guided weapons.  “We have no, repeat, no other source of supply than to rely upon the Soviet readiness to understand and respond to our needs”, he had said in the telegram.

The R&AW went on to play a vital and bigger role in the creation of Bangladesh later. I quoted the above context to explain how India-Pakistan relations have remained strained the way they continue to be even today. The RNK note and Haksar’s telegram also show how in the Cold War days India was heavily dependent on Russia for her advanced weaponry.

The two influential Kashmiri Pandits, RNK, and Haksar, advocated a campaign to support the Bengalis who would be at the forefront of the fight back. PM Indira Gandhi, facing her first international crisis, sanctioned a covert operation to be led and coordinated by Kao. His good equation with General Manekshaw eventually contributed to India’s military success in the 13-day war against Pakistan in December 1971 that liberated East Pakistan and created a new nation, Bangladesh.

The rest is history. The book captures many important roles and operations launched by Kao in the run-up to defeat Pakistan. These included influencing Western powers through various strategies. It also reveals how the officers of Indira Gandhi’s team in PMO worked closely with army officials and those of Kao’s to protect Indian interests in tough times.

For example, RNK had advised Appa Pant, the then Indian High Commissioner in London, through then Foreign Secretary TN Kaul, on how to cultivate a high- ranking jurist from Dhaka, living in London. The judge of Dhaka (Dacca) High Court, Abu Sayeed Chaudhary, was made the nucleus of Bangladeshi upsurge abroad. This was to maneuver an international opinion against Pakistan, a handiwork of the Kao-led R&AW.

The Morarji Desai Government had removed Kao in 1977. But, in 1980, he was appointed Senior Advisor to Indira Gandhi on a salary of only one rupee after advice she got in Zurich from ACN Nambiar, veteran journalist, freedom fighter and a close friend of Nehru and Bose.

The book explains how Kao had repeatedly warned against the deployment of Sikh bodyguards for Indira Gandhi after Operation Blue Star in 1984. The rising discontent in Punjab after her return to power in 1980 was also giving Kao sleepless nights.

As the Punjab problem aggravated and resulted in the Indian Army entering the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Kao quickly strengthened her security. Sikh bodyguards in her security detail were removed. Kao ordered an ambulance to be part of her convoy and also requested her to wear a bulletproof vest. However, his instructions that no Sikh bodyguard be part of her inner security ring were disregarded for inexplicable reasons. Two of her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her on 31 October 1984 at her official residence in New Delhi.

Kao was in Beijing then, under Mrs. Gandhi’s instructions, to make secret overtures to the Chinese leadership so as to normalize relations between India and China. When the Chinese heard of her assassination, they offered a special plane to Kao to take him to India as soon as possible.

The book is replete with anecdotes on how Morarji Desai first mistrusted Kao and then realized his mistake, how Atal Bihari Vajpayee (as Foreign Minister) thought Kao was Mrs. Gandhi’s man, and about the political scenario prevailing in India and overseas during RNK’s stint at R&AW. It gives a fair idea of the global order then and how intelligence played important roles in making or breaking nations and leaders.

Gokhale’s book gives details and cross-references through original documents that the author dug out from RNK’s family collection and from the Nehru Memorial Museum, besides other R&AW officers. It is written in a lucid style and offers the entire picture of yesteryears’ happenings afresh. The accounts of RNK’s successors paint a wonderful picture of the legend’s personality who is remembered as a colossus, and an institution-builder, than mere operative, more of a spymaster than a spy.

A note on RNK’s early life.

His father had died early and so did his grandparents. His uncles tried to help his mother and the young Ram but could not do much as their own businesses suffered losses. This was in the 1920s and 1930s, the difficult years for India when the Kao family also suffered hardships. After his father’s death RNK shifted to Bombay (now Mumbai), but returned to UP soon. He did his graduation from Lucknow University in 1936 with English Literature, Indian History, and the Persian Language, securing the first position. That was also the year when he first saw Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru at an Indian National Congress Session from a distance and was impressed. In 1939, he joined the Indian Police (IP), the forerunner of the Indian Police Service (IPS), at the age of 21. This was where his life took a turn for the better.

Title: R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster
Author: Nitin A Gokhale
Publishers: Bloomsbury, India
Pages: 228
Price: Rs. 599/-

*(The reviewer is a veteran political and environment journalist. He can be contacted at kabhilash59@gmail.com and Twitter @ Abhikhandekar1)


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