Foreign hand: How big a threat is it?

Virtually everyone has rubbished Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s claim that the “foreign hand” is working against India’s interests. And yet India is a hive of intelligence activity, as foreign powers vie for influence in New Delhi.

After decades in cold storage, the “foreign hand” is back on the front pages in India. It was in the mid 1970s that the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi first used the expression, specifically naming the CIA as one of the plotters against her Government. Nearly 40 years later another Prime Minister from the same party has gone on record, saying there is a foreign hand operating in India. Manmohan Singh was referring to the anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam, which he claimed were orchestrated by American-backed NGOs.

Just how credible is this foreign threat? Is there really a foreign hand working against India? Are Indian politicians ratcheting up the scaremongering to further their narrow domestic agendas?

Back in the seventies Indians were – and today still are – extremely dismissive of Indira Gandhi’s allegations. Her political opponents and the media said she was being paranoid, claiming she was using the foreign hand bogey to silence those who challenged her increasingly autocratic ways. It is fact that she was a virtual dictator in democrat’s clothing and lost no opportunity to destabilise popular opposition party chief ministers. But was Indira Gandhi lying about the foreign hand? Well, yes and no.

Spy versus Spy in India

New Delhi’s more or less independent stance during the Cold War saw to it that neither the Americans nor the Russians trusted India. Consequently, India became a hotbed of foreign intelligence activity. Beginning in the 1950s both the CIA and the KGB started recruiting Indians in key positions – especially in the political leadership, military and intelligence. The reason was simple – neither side knew which way India would swing, so they basically decided the best thing to do was penetrate India at every level.

At the same time, the American and Russian spooks in India were playing a cat and mouse game with each other. In 1971, the KGB officers tailing the CIA agents in India observed that one of them, an agent named Leonard, a Third Secretary at the US embassy in New Delhi, was conducting his meetings and recruiting activities in an extremely incautious manner, unintentionally exposing the CIA's contacts in the Indian military, intelligence and political circles. Within a year the KGB's dossier of his contact with the Indians had become a big fat one.

Oleg Kalugin, who was the KGB’s station chief in New Delhi, decided he had enough evidence to trap Leonard. However, his efforts to turn the American into a double agent did not work as the CIA dispatched its spy back home.

Kalugin, however, had other ideas and decided it was a rare opportunity to embarrass the CIA in India. He sent the dossier to the Indian press. The leaked story of the brazen American spy created a huge outcry in India, with Indira Gandhi publicly lashing out at the CIA. This is the origin of the much berated foreign hand, which the Indian media and commentators have forgotten. If anything, the reach of the foreign arm was longer than anyone suspected.

The “foreign hand” was once a friend

However, there is a deeper – and ironical – twist to this episode. The KGB’s revelations had succeeded in planting in Indira Gandhi’s mind that there was an American conspiracy against her. She became paranoid and believed that like President Salvador Allende of Chile, who had been assassinated by the CIA in September 1973, she too would be targeted.

In November 1973 she told Fidel Castro at a banquet in New Delhi, “What they have done to Allende they want to do to me also. There are people here, connected with the same foreign forces that acted in Chile, who would like to eliminate me. When I am murdered, they will say I arranged it myself.”

Perhaps to preempt the CIA, Indira Gandhi organised a series of political rallies in which she made speeches about the CIA’s plans to eliminate her and destabilise India. This was turning out to be quite a public relations nightmare for the Americans. KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin reveals what happened next, in the Mitrokhin Archives.

Irritated by these speeches denouncing the ever-present menace of CIA subversion, the US ambassador in New Delhi, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ordered an investigation which uncovered two occasions during her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership when the CIA had secretly provided funds to help the Communists’ opponents in state elections, once in Kerala (where cash was supplied to the Roman Catholic Syrian Christian church to destabilise the democratically elected Communist Party of India) and once in West Bengal.

And just who was the conduit for these funds? According to Moynihan, “Both times the money was given to the Congress Party which had asked for it. Once it was given to Mrs Gandhi herself, who was then a party official. Still, as we were no longer giving any money to her it was understandable she should wonder to whom we were giving it.”

Wholesale penetration

Kalugin, who retired as a KGB general, went on to write his gripping memoirs, Spymaster, in which he briefly mentions his stint as station chief in New Delhi. If you are Indian, you might find further reading not very pleasant.

“We had scores of sources throughout the Indian government—in intelligence, counterintelligence, the defense and foreign ministries, and the police,” writes Kalugin.

“The entire country was seemingly for sale, and the KGB and the CIA had deeply penetrated the Indian government. After a while, neither side entrusted sensitive information to the Indians, realizing their enemy would know all about it the next day.”

On one occasion, a senior Indian minister offered to pass information to the Russians for a fee of $50,000. This was such a serious matter that the KGB reported the matter to their top boss, Yuri Andropov, in Moscow.

“Do we need him?” Andropov asked his subordinates.

“Not really,” replied an agent. “We’ve got all the documents from the foreign and defense ministries. Anyway, why pay $50,000 to him? There might be a scandal.”

“You are right,” said Andropov. “Tell the minister, ‘Russians and Indians are friends, and we do not conduct intelligence work in your country’.”

The Krishna Menon episode

Mitrokhin reveals how Moscow decided to influence V.K. Krishna Menon, who became India's Defence Minister in 1957.

In May 1962 the Soviet leadership “authorised the KGB residency in New Delhi to conduct active-measures operations designed to strengthen Menon's position in India and enhance his personal popularity”.

Until more documents become unclassified it cannot be established if Menon really became a KGB recruit, but it remains a fact that during his tenure of the Defense Ministry, India's main source of arms imports switched from the West to the Soviet Union. Mitrokhin claims the Indian decision in 1962 to purchase MiG-21s rather than British Lightnings was due chiefly to Menon.

The frustrated British envoy in New Delhi reported to London, “Krishna Menon has from the beginning managed to surround this question with almost conspiratorial official and ministerial secrecy combined with a skilful putting about of stories in favour of the MiG and against Western aircraft.”

The wrong arm of the RAW

Rabinder Singh was a major CIA mole in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing. In the early 1970s, it was a crack agency that played a key role in breaking Pakistan, and if it hadn’t been for the pusillanimity of India’s leadership RAW would have achieved the useful task of liberating Sindh and Balochistan as well.

Things changed after 9/11 when RAW was asked to liaise more with Western governments, ostensibly to cooperate against terrorism. These liaisons, under which at one time Indian agents were studying in 80 American courses, proved disastrous for India’s external intelligence. This was because the increased contacts with the Americans led to the exposure of hundreds of Indian intelligence agents. Some of them may have become double agents working for the CIA.

One of these turncoats was Rabinder Singh. His rise within the organisation started when he procured classified US government documentation through a relative, an American citizen who worked in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID, which like several American aid agencies worldwide have dubious roles).

But in reality Rabinder Singh had been compromised on one of his RAW-sponsored trips to the United States. While the spy was feeding RAW with CIA-supplied intelligence of dubious value, he was passing on to the CIA through his relative with secret documents he was frantically photocopying at RAW’s New Delhi office.

What is unique about the Rabinder Singh case in the annals of spying is that the US embassy in New Delhi reportedly gave him an American passport so he could escape via Nepal. This was extraordinary because plausible deniability is at the core of all intelligence operations. But the Americans clearly did not care that by issuing a document to Rabinder Singh they would not be able to deny their association with him.

The former chief of RAW's counter-terrorism division B. Raman wrote in his column in Rediff: “The fact that they did it without worrying about its likely impact on Indo-US relations indicates that despite all the talk of close Indo-US relations and close co-operation between the agencies of the two countries in counter-terrorism, the US agencies couldn't care less about Indian sensitivities over their continuing efforts to penetrate the Indian official set-up and Indian NGOs.”

That neatly ties in with Manmohan Singh’s claims that NGOs funded by the Americans are leading the protests against the Russian-built nuclear reactors in Kudankulam.

The Hindu’s Pravin Swami agrees: “Despite all the global spy bonhomie that is supposed to have broken out after 9/11, the CIA, like any competent espionage organisation, has continued to target India. The Pokhran-II nuclear tests of 1998 brutally exposed the CIA's human intelligence limitations in South Asia, and it does not wish to be caught by surprise again.”

Swami argues that India's establishment is more vulnerable now than at any point in the past. “The large number of politicians, bureaucrats and military officers whose children study or work in the US provide an easy source of influence. Efforts to recruit from this pool are not new. In the early 1980s, the son of then RAW chief N. Narasimhan left the US after efforts were made to approach the spy chief through him. Narasimhan's son had been denied a visa extension, and was offered its renewal in return for his cooperation with the US’ intelligence services. According to a senior RAW officer, not all would respond with such probity."

The hard-to-spot spies

Indians working as spies for foreign intelligence can sometimes be outed – by counter intelligence, or by another foreign spy agency wanting to curtail the advantage of its rival.

However, there are others more difficult to spot and generally impossible to prosecute. These are Indian academics, journalists and researchers who often inadvertently, but sometimes willingly end up working for anti-Indian agencies.

On March 30, 2012, Ghulam Nabi Fai, a Pakistani-American was sentenced to two years in jail for conspiracy and tax violations while acting as an unregistered lobbyist for Pakistan.

Fai, a 62-year-old US citizen living in Washington, DC, ran the Kashmiri American Council, which was being funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which has conducted terror ops in India and other countries.

It is disturbing that many who attended his anti-India seminars were reputed writers and civil rights activists: Dileep Padgaonkar (who was one of Manmohan Singh’s three interlocutors on Jammu & Kashmir); Rita Manchanda, local partner of the India/Pakistan Women Waging Peace movement; Ved Bhasin, editor of Kashmir Times; and Praful Bidwai and Gautam Navlakha, rights activists and writers.

Worse, as many as 53 of them wrote a letter asking the US court which convicted Fai to show him leniency. Among the writers were Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Bhasin and Navlakha.

Many of these luminaries continue to be unapologetic about their ties with Fai, but Navlakhia’s stance is the most bizarre. He claims the US law enforcement authorities had “magnified” the “crime that Fai sahib committed” by not disclosing where he got his money. He complimented Fai for doing “marvellous and effective lobbying” on the $3.5 million he received from the ISI.

And just what are his credentials? If the US attorney who sought Fai’s sentencing is to be believed, Navlakha was “introduced to an ISI general for recruitment by Fai at the ISI’s direction”.

Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero (106-43 BCE) probably had such people in mind when he wrote: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.”

The hand is here to stay

Kim Philby, the KGB’s spy who singlehandedly wrecked Britain’s intelligence agency MI6, memorably said, “If one attempt in fifty is successful, your efforts won’t have been wasted.”

Foreign intelligence agencies will continue to stalk India primarily because it is an overwhelmingly significant country, comprising nearly a sixth of humanity. One good spy on the ground is better than a billion dollar spy satellite because he can sniff out, say, a big-ticket defence deal or forewarn a shift in policy. Under such circumstances it is naive to expect the foreign hand to go away. Even two-bit players like Sri Lankan and Polish intelligence have been caught plying their trade in India. Indeed, as long as there are embassies and consulates, there will be spies and influence peddlers. By that reckoning there is a foreign hand operating in every country.

The best India can do is step up counter-intelligence.


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