By Saikat Datta
After the massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics of 1972, the Israeli government began a secret plan to go after the Palestinian leadership that planned and sanctioned the attack. A team of Israeli intelligence officials was gathered and sponsored by the Israeli state, to carry out killings across Europe in an act of retribution that was unparalleled until then. As subsequent and credible accounts suggest, the killings were sanctioned personally by Prime Minister Golda Meir.
As the debate around the killing of Ishrat Jahan Raza, a 19-year-old girl from Mumbra swirls up again, it raises difficult questions about how a state should respond to terrorism and the complex relationship it has when it opts for extra-constitutional executions. By all credible accounts the killings that took place on 15 June 2004, was an extra-judicial killing – a staged encounter that led to the death of Ishrat Jahan and those who were travelling with her. Forensic and ballistic reports available gave strong indications that the encounter was staged.
But the entire episode posed one of the biggest challenges to India’s counter terrorism architecture and specifically for the Intelligence Bureau (IB) — a challenge the magnitude of which, the organisation had never faced since it was created by a colonial power in 1887. The IB was created as a “means of obtaining secret and political intelligence” on Indian and Russian activities that were inimical to the British Raj in India.
For decades the IB played a leading role in helping independent India quell fires and control insurgencies across the country. Its representatives lived in the grey zone, stepping in on behalf of the government in Delhi to quietly push or undermine state governments or insurgents, depending on what the centre wanted. In states like Jammu & Kashmir, IB agents like Hasan Walia would be the point-person for the former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. They would ensure that Shaikh Abdullah was kept in check as New Delhi worked towards consolidating its hold over the state after the 1947-48 war with Pakistan.
The role of the IB is like most other intelligence agencies around the world. It is an instrument of power for the central (federal) government. It exists in a zone that is not always within the legal and constitutional boundaries, a difficult zone, ambiguous at best, dangerous in the least. Most nations need intelligence, but are not sure how to curb the enormous power it accrues to itself by the nature of the job it executes.
At the centre of the political controversy that erupted over the Ishrat Jahan killing, was a senior IB official — Rajinder Kumar. A 1979 Manipur-Tripura cadre officer, Kumar switched to the IB after 8 years in the Indian Police Service (IPS). In his role as an intelligence officer, Kumar enjoyed a formidable reputation. The bulk of his career was spent in “operational roles” existing in the grey zone of the intelligence community, where you push the boundaries to notch up successes against violent ideologies.
His core area was on counter terrorism and Pakistan and was considered to be a thorough professional. “We were always impressed at how much he knew about Pakistan and how closely he monitored it,” a former senior intelligence official from the Research & Analysis Wing told me last week. “Kumar was clearly focused on operations and he had quite a few successes against the Lashkar-e-Taiba. What happened after 204 was quite sad.”
Kumar was naturally quite angry with what happened. Over the phone he told me how upset he was, that one of their finest operations against the LeT became such a political mess. “It was one of India’s finest undercover operations where we managed to get a team that was targeting a senior Indian political leader. For us in the intelligence community, political affiliations do not matter,” he said.
Kumar pointed out that during the UPA regime between 2004 and 2014, there were “at least 20 to 25 credible alerts issued by the Centre that groups were targeting Mr. Modi. What are we supposed to do when we are faced with such kind of intelligence? Didn’t the UPA government continue with Mr Modi’s Z-plus security category based on these assessments?”
Kumar is also upset that the issue became so political. Sources in the government familiar with the case told me how at least three police officers — two in the CBI and one in the IB — grabbed this case to “please the ruling dispensation of that time”. There is no independent way to verify this, but it can be said with some degree of confidence that the UPA government did take undue interest in the case. As it is now clear, affidavits were tweaked, senior IB officers interrogated, and a push was made to even arrest them.
This could not have happened without clear political directions from the senior echelons of the UPA government.
Regrettably, it created an unprecedented situation when the government at the centre unwittingly went to war with a key intelligence organisation central to its governance. No organisation wields as much influence as the IB, something which is never seen, only felt.
That said, the war within the police and intelligence community was unprecedented. It created a situation where the government came close to officially manipulating an official investigation and its intelligence community. “It was a dark episode for many of us and I decided to quit the IB and return to my cadre,” a former IB official, now serving as a senior police official told me separately. “As intelligence officials we are frequently asked to walk a thin line between what is legal and what isn’t. That needs us to protect our men and women and support them through difficult periods. Counter terrorism is not an easy job and it has very few rules. How do you expect us to work if we can’t protect our subordinates?” the former intelligence official told me.
The problems around India’s intelligence community are many. The organisations have become archaic, there is very little accountability and oversight and their role has never been codified through a Parliamentary statute. However, the IB continues to be one of the few institutions that performs when called upon in extremely difficult circumstances. The cynical use of the IB for political purposes during the UPA’s rule set a dangerous precedent.
— Datta is a Visiting Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He tweets as @saikatd. Views are personal.