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This is not what India’s premier intelligence agencies should be doing

By HARTOSH SINGH BAL | June 27, 2014
The appointment of former solicitor general Gopal Subramanium as a Supreme Court judge was blocked on the basis of a questionable intelligence report, one of several such recent reports.
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On 20 June, the front page of the Indian Express had three stories sourced from the or the Central Bureau of Investigation. The flier on the page stated that Raghu Raman, the CEO of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), was not being given an extension due to an report documenting his “misconduct” with foreign nationals. The lead story dealt with a “categorical opinion” by the CBI arguing against Gopal Subramaniam’s elevation as a judge of the Supreme Court, and the third was a follow up of the impact on Greenpeace of the IB’s report that were stalling ’s economic growth. In each report the agency concerned seemed to echo the government line, and the news reports had faithfully reproduced the tenor of the allegations. Sceptism, if any, about the quality of intelligence, the veracity of the information or the convenience of the allegations, was relegated to a few opinion pieces carried on subsequent days.

The Indian Express was only reflecting a long-term trend in the media that is being exploited by the current government. Praveen Donthi, reporting on India’s “compromised security beat” in the December 2013 issue of The Caravan, had noted: “The price of access to early and ongoing information is a willingness to report it more or less as it comes, without too much regard for its provenance.” But even that does not explain the tendency of editors to go along with what their reporters bring back, even when the evidence seems to suggest the government had arranged to make the report available widely.

Editors in Delhi largely come in two shades. The first, and this is particularly true of television, consists of those who have been correspondents but over the years developed a far too easy access to Delhi’s power elite, which includes senior IB officials, and have become willing tools in the hands of a powerful ruling dispensation. The second consists of those who have never reported—though some may have spent their time writing on food or music, others have been restricted to the desk for much of their careers. Neither is good preparation for understanding how the IB functions.

I first encountered IB operatives while reporting in Punjab for the Indian Express from districts such as Ludhiana and Jalandhar. Everyone knew these inspector-level field operatives. They had been based in these towns for a long time and, perforce, had developed a good working relationship with most journalists and politicians. Often their demands extended to no more than knowing what had transpired at a press conference behind closed doors.

They were, for the most part, men who were good at their work, but though the border state was just recovering from militancy, much of their time was spent tracking political activity because their superiors had very little interest in the work the agency was really supposed to do. The reports they filed—and this is true even for the reports that have so conveniently begun surfacing after Narendra Modi has taken charge—were based as much on gossip and innuendo as they were on facts that could be substantiated. Leave alone meeting the standards of evidence in a court, if these reports were filed as news reports without the crutch of the IB name, any good editor would toss them aside.

The field operatives had a large dose of contempt for their IPS seniors in Delhi, who often had very little field experience in policing or intelligence but possessed the right family connections (what was once true of the RAW, which is derisively called the Relatives and Associates Wing, now extends to most intelligence setups in the country). In their view, these were the men who had failed to stand up to politicians. In a bid to promote their own careers, these IPS officers had taken to sourcing the kind of political information that had everything to do with the interests of a regime, but nothing to do with the interests of the state.

Writing on the functioning of Indian intelligence agencies, the executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management in Delhi, Ajai Sahni has made the same point in necessary detail: “The legitimacy and the effectiveness of intelligence agencies are best served where agencies make a clear distinction between the state and regime—though the state is, of course, represented by the transient regime. Legitimate intelligence operations serve the interests of the constitutional state, and are required to resist subordination to the partisan interests of particular regimes from time to time. National security and constitutional values are the touchstone against which legitimacy is to be defined. Intelligence agencies discredit themselves by misdirection; by providing false, misleading and ‘convenient’ intelligence—intelligence that conforms, not to the realities of the ground, but to the expectations of the political executive and other ‘consumers’; or by their willingness to lend themselves to partisan political abuse of powers, or to political and electoral manipulation.”

The recent IB report on Greenpeace, authored by a senior IPS officer in the IB, is a case in point of the dangers Sahni has flagged. In its conclusions it notes, “Many observers believe that the Greenpeace claim that it raises funds only from individuals appears suspect as the issues it supports clearly reveal a slant towards European Union’s pro-environmental agenda.” For one, it seems the IB has been unable to collect any real information that can raise a doubt about Greenpeace’s funding. Further, to detect anything underhand in the similarity of views held by the EU and Greenpeace is to ignore the fact the views Greenpeace represents have become politically influential in Europe and the EU only reflects this. The IB report thus is weak both on facts and interpretation, but our editors have had no hesitation in letting it play out over days on the front pages.

It is evident to most people with any semblance of common sense that IB reports do not just start appearing in public unless the agency or the government wants them to appear. In nearly twenty years of journalism, I have never seen IB reports become public in such profusion as they have in the first month of the Modi government, and in each case they serve to further a decision that the government seeks to implement in the face of criticism. It is also true that in twenty years, I have never seen editors, despite the fact that so many of them have done similar favours for the Congress in the past, so keen to please a new political dispensation.

Perhaps, it is best to invoke what KPS Gill, whose knowledge of policing in this country will not be contested by the Modi government, wrote in the December 2012 issue of the Indian Police Journal, “No policing and intelligence apparatus can perform its functions with requisite competence, if it is compromised by corruption, or where its officers and personnel are mixed up with the very people they are meant to monitor. Nor can an intelligence system fulfil its mandate if it is constantly looking to please political masters by telling them what they want to hear, rather than what is actually the case; or worse, when the agencies are directly involved in orchestrating political mischief—something neither State nor Central agencies are innocent of. On at least some occasions, the consequences of this last deviation have been devastating to the national interest.”

Today, we are at one such moment of deviation from the national interest, which differs vastly from the interests of this government.

– See more at: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/not-what-india%E2%80%99s-premier-intelligence-agency-should-be-doing#sthash.qzrNlrKb.dpuf

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