First, Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported that India jumped the gun on an impending terror attack by Pakistanis. This was followed by The Hindu’s report headlined: ‘RAW left with egg on face as terror plot unravels.’ The Hindu said that though RAW was wrong, it is possible it was fooled by an ISI prank.
Unlike the ISI, many know little about RAW, which is secretive and low-profile. For this reason, it is also assumed to be competent, or at least effective. Let me recount a story.
In October 2001, I went to Afghanistan to cover the war after 9/11. I returned defeated in 10 days. I was too fat for my horse, which shrugged me off during a crossing of the Oxus river, wrecking a Rs 4 lakh camera. Sadly, this was just after I shot some extraordinary pictures of American B-52s bombing Taliban positions.
I had no visa for Pakistan so I had to work my way backwards through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. I collected my stuff and stood at the Hotel Dushanbe’s porch, but the taxi driving me to the Uzbek border broke down. I thought of what to do next and began shouldering my rucksack.
“Chal yaar,” said Uncle 1, who clapped my neck and urged me into the white Mercedes-Benz by the side. He and another man, call him Uncle 2, I knew from the breakfast table. They would be there before me, in suit and tie, and stay till after I had left. At night, they’d be at the bar before I came and stay till after I’d left, throwing back whiskies and cracking jokes.
They did not tell me their names or reveal much about their work. Uncle 2 gave me an insider’s smirk when I asked and Uncle 1 would say: “Ha, ha,” always adding, “Hain?” I had assumed they were reporters wary of giving away information.
The Mercedes was surprising. As was an incident a couple of days before. While all other reporters were waved through, Uncles 1 and 2 were sent back by the tough, unspeaking Russians patrolling the Tajik-Afghanistan border. They made the long drive back to Hotel Dushanbe, and apparently never left it, while the rest of us saw action.
This was what I knew when we got to the Uzbek border. For some reason the uncles didn’t get out of the Mercedes. The stamps on my passport, which was in my pocket when I fell into the Oxus, were one big black smudge. I had prepared my story, which revealed just enough fact to make it truthful while also preserving my honour (“And then the horse was startled by falling bombs!”). I opened my mouth to explain and point, when the Uzbek officer looked up at the Mercedes and just waved me through.
I closed my mouth and went back to the car.
That’s when I figured who Uncles 1 and 2 were, and what they were doing where only reporters tread. I had thought of the men of RAW as ruthless, hard and competent. These men were nice. The kind we Indians know as uncles. Would they be able to James Bond their way into Balochistan, lead an insurgency against ISI, kidnap Dawood and bring him back in triumph?
No. They couldn’t even fool Russians manning a border. Their Afghan adventure was, like mine, a junket. It would be fascinating to know what they filled up in their debrief form back at Lodhi Road. The efficiency and competence of India’s bureacracy is on display at the post office, the consulate and the railway station. We must not expect it to be different for its spy agency.
A few months after my return from Afghanistan, an officer from the Intelligence Bureau’s Fort office in Mumbai called and asked to meet me.
He was young, in his 30s, and tried to make small talk before making his point. “Sir, you go to foreign parties?”
Yes, I said, I was invited to some diplomatic parties because of my work. “Sir, can you tell me what happened?”
What? “Can you tell me what happened at next party?” Why, I asked. “We need information about diplomats.” I said I couldn’t do that.
“Sir, please,” he whimpered.
I said OK, and soon forgot. Apparently so did he, for I never heard from him again.
To Indians I will say this: There are other things to be justifiably proud of as an Indian. Having a brutally effective spy agency should not be among them.