Agency’s primary function, in theory, is gathering foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, advising Indian policymakers, advancing India’s foreign strategic interest and the security of India’s nuclear program. In practice, it has developed considerable muscle and capacity for launching covert operations and supporting political destabilization in the region in pursuit of India’s strategic interests – as is obvious from the November 2020 Dossier, “Indian Efforts to destabilize Pakistan” shared by Pakistan Foreign Office with the UN and P-5 countries.
Though RAW was formally launched in 1968, but, its origins lie deeper in the older agency, Intelligence Bureau (IB), that was initiated by the British Raj in 1933 with a regional agenda for the British empire in the region stretching from Afghanistan to farthest reaches of South East Asia. In 1947, after independence, Sanjeevi Pillai, an Indian civil servant, took over as the first Indian Director of the IB. However, the 1962 Sino-Indian War exposed its limitations, and the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the establishment of a dedicated foreign intelligence agency.
RAW: From Bangladesh to Balochistan
RAW’s initial team came out of IB. Its first chief, Rameshwar Nath Kao (R.N. Kao, Head 1968-77) was an external intelligence head in IB before taking over as RAW’s head. It was he who produced a paper on RAW’s operational structure under orders from the then PM of India, Ms. Indira Gandhi.
From writings of ex-Indian diplomat, Mr. Sashanka S. Banerji, (posted in former East Pakistan in early 1960’s) we know that IB’s engagement with Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman was in an advanced stage by 1962. The goal was to create a popular movement leading to an insurgency. RAW, under R.N Kao, was tasked to accomplish this pre-existing mission by Indira Gandhi.
Mukti Bahini, the Bengali militia, that created massive violence against the Biharis and the West Pakistani civilians in erstwhile East Pakistan was a splendid example of RAW’s conceptual and operational capabilities – that trapped Pakistani military into civil war it could never win. Review of Sashanka Banerji’s book, by Dr. Moeed Pirzada, under the title “A Meeting on Christmas Night Dacca, 25 Dec 1962” published in Global Village Space in its December 2017 issue provides useful information and details that help understand RAW’s strategic capacities.
After RAW’s huge success in Bangladesh, its annual budgets and personnel started to multiply. In 1968 it started with a mere 250 officers but by 1977 when R.N Kao retired, several thousand officers worked under his operational command. In 1971, Kao had persuaded New Delhi to set up the Aviation Research Centre (ARC). The ARC’s job was aerial reconnaissance. It replaced the Indian Air Force’s old reconnaissance aircraft, and by the mid-1970s, RAW, through the ARC, had high-quality aerial pictures of the installations along the Chinese and Pakistani borders.
RAW gradually expanded its operational capacities by starting or taking over other agencies under its umbrella. Radio Research Center, Electronics & Tech. Services and National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) all now work under RAW’s Secretary who reports directly to the Indian PM. After Bangladesh, RAW remained involved in shaping strategic outcomes in Sikkim, Sri Lanka, Indian Punjab, Nepal, Mauritius, Bhutan, Kashmir, Iran and Afghanistan.
The unbridled space India enjoyed in Afghanistan after the US occupation in December 2001 provided RAW with the opportunity to dominate Afghan agency NDS and penetrate deep into Pakistani FATA, Balochistan and Karachi. Since 2014 subverting and failing CPEC and BRI has become its top priorities.
Before the BJP government of Narendra Modi, New Delhi establishments, firmly believing in the old principles of plausible deniability, remained successful in putting up a smart cover over RAW’s activities in and around Pakistan – where media, academia, Foreign Office and perhaps intelligence community had underestimated RAW’s skills and reach. Pakistan has paid a huge price for not understanding the grand design behind RAW’s creation – in theory, it deals with the whole world, in practice, its focus remains destabilization of Pakistan.
RAW’s Nexus with Bollywood
RAW’s strength also lies in narrative shaping through inspiring books, films, art and cultural engagements. Its recruitment pattern of competitive entry adapted from the Indian civil services, emphasis on social sciences and longevity of service – unlike the short tenures of Pakistani ISI officers – strengthens its capacities to understand the world of narrative shaping.
Several RAW officers have written books that deepen RAW’s story. And since 1990’s more than 20 Bollywood movies have depicted RAW agents doing something good and heroic – most relate to Pakistan. Traditionally Indo-Pakistani cinema avoided direct negative references towards each other.
However, in the last 15 years, Bollywood movies – like Ek Tha Tiger, D-Day, Phantom, Tiger Zinda Hay, Bard of Blood-etc – increasingly presented Pakistan and especially its military and intelligence as outright demons, filled with vile grotesque characters the way American movies depicted Russian military and KGB before the collapse of Soviet Union.
These movies, coinciding with the rise of Hindutva movement and BJP politics across India, multiplied hatred against Pakistan, Islam and Muslims. Ideas were mostly stolen from American movies, fantasies of guerilla attacks and surgical strikes inside Pakistan produced a mass hysteria in India that politics tries to satisfy. For instance, the 2016 massive artillery action across LOC was sold to the Indian public by PM Modi as a “surgical strike” and the 2019 Balakot strike with a fanciful story of killing 350 terrorists near Abbottabad and downing a Pakistani F-16.
How many of these movies are directly financed or inspired by RAW will never be known – but plots of some like “Bard of Blood” (2019) easily give out the actual script writers and directors. RAW agents – played by Emran Hashmi and Sobhita Dhulipala – barge into Pakistani Balochistan to rescue captured Indian agents. However, New Delhi’s strategic design is written large on this Netflix production. Baloch tribes suppressed by Pakistani military and Islamists are prepared to fight along with RAW agents.
There are ridiculous scenes with monologues where a Sikh RAW officer assumes the moral authority to actually shaming the Baloch supporters of Islamabad as “traitors” to the Baloch cause – New Delhi is clearly the savior. Pakistani intelligence officers that debriefed “Kulbhushan Jadhav”, RAW Officer captured from Balochistan, in 2016, were intrigued to realize that Jadhav imagined himself as some sort of “Lawrence of Arabia” whose mission was to unite the Baloch tribes against Islamabad.
In Foreign Office Dossier we hear now about a certain Indian Col. Rajesh that has been working, in 2020, to unite the splinter groups of TTP Islamists with Baloch subnationalists. When Oscar Wilde had argued, in Decay of lying, that “life imitates art” he was arguing that subconscious aim of life has to find expression and art provides that opportunity. Maybe Pakistani foreign office should screen “Bard of Blood” for its officers, politicians and the media in its library – it may help to clear the mist that still exists in many minds.