Wednesday, March 09, 2005

INDIA: Intelligence demands distance

From Dhar’s book it is clear that half a century after India became a democracy, the IB continues to operate in a Byzantine fashion reminiscent of Chanakya’s secret service. On the orders of prime ministers, the IB has even bugged telephones in Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan. Prime ministers have been known to keep tabs not just on political opponents but even on ministerial colleagues. In one instance the telephone of a prime minister’s aide in the PMO was bugged since an IB official, still loyal to the previous government, continued to report back to his former masters.
Intelligence demands distance
COOMI KAPOOR

Who does the director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) report to? Technically, the home ministry, but a succession of IB directors have zealously established a special status through a one-to-one daily meeting with the prime minister in which political gossip often overshadows security issues. Former IB joint director M.K. Dhar’s recent book, Open Secrets, reveals what many of us have long suspected, that IB personnel act as political secretaries and fixers at large for the prime minister of the day with no concern for the constitutional rights of citizens.

From Dhar’s book it is clear that half a century after India became a democracy, the IB continues to operate in a Byzantine fashion reminiscent of Chanakya’s secret service. On the orders of prime ministers, the IB has even bugged telephones in Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan. Prime ministers have been known to keep tabs not just on political opponents but even on ministerial colleagues. In one instance the telephone of a prime minister’s aide in the PMO was bugged since an IB official, still loyal to the previous government, continued to report back to his former masters.

It will be interesting to see whether the government permits Dhar’s book to go unchallenged. If Dhar is indeed exaggerating, then the government can rightfully haul him up for defaming our premier internal intelligence agency. But the maverick agent’s hair-raising accounts have the ring of truth. In parts it reads like a mea culpa since Dhar personally took part in many of the dirty tricks he describes.

Established by the British, the IB is one of the very few organisations in the country with an agent in every district. But while a colonial power was understandably apprehensive that the natives might be up to mischief, there surely is no justification for the state in a democracy to snoop on its citizens on issues which have nothing to do even remotely with national security.

Because of its phenomenal strength and vast reach, the IB headquarters is so overloaded with information and trivia that it is difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff. IB agents, like astrologers, have perfected the art of protecting their backs by constantly issuing vaguely worded warnings about threats from untraceable militants. That way they can always say, “We told you so”, after a major incident. The classic example of the IB actually receiving a message but failing to act on it was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Intercepted messages between the LTTE headquarters in Jaffna and LTTE cadres in Tamil Nadu, indicated that the Tigers planned to kill Gandhi either in Delhi or Chennai. For two months, however, the transcripts of the messages gathered dust at the IB headquarters since nobody had the time or inclination to try and decode them.

Morarji Desai as prime minister had talked of winding up the IB and RAW since he felt they had no place in a democratic set-up. But his threat was never carried out. In ’89, as chairman of the parliamentary estimates committee, Jaswant Singh had recommended that these two intelligence bodies should at least be made accountable to Parliament, so as to bring about some degree of transparency in their functioning. But, once in power, the BJP was content to continue with the status quo.

If the IB serves as spy and handmaiden to the powers that be, then the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is accountable to Parliament, has degenerated into a convenient tool for politicians to settle scores with their opponents. It is a familiar pattern. The moment a government changes hands, the CBI is busy making out chargesheets against key players in the earlier regime. And when the first regime returns to power, the CBI is equally adept at covering its tracks and giving a clean chit to the very people it had dubbed guilty earlier. Not so long ago, the CBI had registered cases against Mayawati in the Taj corridor case, Satish Sharma for petrol pump allotments, Shibu Soren for taking a bribe and Tehelka for violating the Official Secrets Act. Now the CBI is busy providing disingenuous reasons why these very same cases should be wound up. The CBI for obvious reasons did not think to appeal against the acquittal by a Lucknow court of the then home minister, L.K. Advani, in the Babri Masjid demolition case. Now the Manmohan Singh government wants an explanation for the CBI’s negligence.

CBI officers have mastered the art of appearing to be busy in political investigations while actually dragging their feet. The best example of this is the Bofors case, in which investigations have waxed and waned for 17 years. Significantly, all major breakthroughs in the case have came from leaks to journalists and not due to the efforts of our premier investigating agency, which the authorities in Switzerland and Sweden are clearly sceptical about. With the Congress-led UPA in power, the CBI has now been instructed by the law ministry to sit back and allow the frozen bank accounts of Ottavio Quattrocchi to be released. Significantly two additional directors in the CBI, one of whom was active in the Bofors investigations, have been transferred.

During the hearing in the hawala case, the Supreme Court, duly aware of the CBI’s lack of independence and the dangers of political policemen, ruled that the Central Vigilance Commissioner should be involved in the selection process of the CBI director. But the government neatly circumvented the court’s order. During NDA regime, the PMO simply sat over the CVC’s panel of three names for over a year and appointed an acting director in the meanwhile. The CVC finally got the message and included the acting CBI director in the new panel of candidates, and he was promptly appointed. This gentleman, on reaching superannuation, was given a post-retirement sinecure. The retiring IB director and the RAW chief were similarly rewarded. When the heads of intelligence and investigative agencies are susceptible to such carrots, there is little chance of objectivity in the functioning of the organisations under their command.

Clearly there is an urgent need for introspection to decide how best these sacred cows can be insulated from political manipulation.