New Delhi: Months after Begum Khaleda Zia swept Bangladesh election in February 1991, India's external spy agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) was alarmed over increased harassment of pro-India politicians, large-scale radicalisation and meticulously planned infiltration of trained jihadis into Indian territory by Jamaat-e-Islami, that was operating as a semi-autonomous political force under the newly elected government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
The R&AW, which serves as ears and eyes of the government across the globe, was shocked about the brutal challenge posed by Jamaat, which was in the process of setting up a safe haven for terrorists at the India-Bangladesh border with the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), instrumental in arranging finances and ammunition. The intelligence inputs had suggested that Jamaat was also running a large-scale recruitment and training programme at tactical locations.
The hardline regime had also decided to provide sanctuary to Pakistani handlers to create a proxy army of fiercely committed terrorists. The R&AW top brass decided to launch a covert operation inside Bangladesh to neutralise Jamaat terror camps and the Narasimha Rao government gave a go ahead with a condition of complete deniability if spies were caught or their covers were blown because of inherent political risks.
In early 1992, after gathering accurate leads on Jamaat cells, tactics and networks, the R&AW spies launched a daring operation in the Bangladesh sanctuary and dismantled terror camps using resilient tradecraft and a determined group of assets handpicked by a R&AW handler. For months, the spy agency fought the most dangerous and difficult battle and the records were consigned to a secret vault of the spy organisation. More than two decades later, the details of the top secret operation has been revealed in the public domain by former top R&AW officer Amar Bhushan, who has written a fictional account of the deadly mission to protect the sources and assets still alive and working in the shadowy world. His book consists of two stories — ‘Zero Cost Mission’, which unravels the covert operation against Jamaat, and ‘Wily Agent’, which digs up a spectacular operation launched by R&AW in the 1990s to recruit a top asset in Bangladeshi establishment while providing us a peep inside the inner working of the spy agency, the perils of running agents beyond the border and sibling rivalry within the system.
The story has been aptly titled ‘The Zero Cost Mission’ since the agent handling the operation against Jamaat had privately raised the finances to carry out the operation inside Bangladesh. The Indian spy agency, too cagey over the exploits of the operation, was unwilling to open its purse to pay off the assets and R&AW operative code-named Sujal Rath managed to extract large sums from a Bangladeshi Opposition leader, who wanted to restore democratic values in his country by neutralising the influence of radical Jammat-e-Islami.
Before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Jamaat enjoyed enormous clout in undivided Pakistan and propagated strict Islamic ideals and maintained a close relationship with terrorist groups. The Jamaat’s dominance continued after Bangladesh's liberation, owing to its close relationship with Zia's BNP. Nevertheless, the R&AW operation was carried out by Sujal despite reluctance from top bosses of the agency, roadblocks created by jealous colleagues and the increasing hostile attitude of Bangladeshi government and its security establishment towards India. In order to protect the identity of agents and assets in Bangladesh, Bhushan has given them new faces and clothed their demographic details.
Bhushan, with complete command of the facts of the mission, indicated that R&AW spies, at one point of time, had decided to abandon the mission after the agency’s chief expressed helplessness in arranging huge sums required to complete the operation. But Sujal, Bhushan said, was a warrior field agent and felt burdened by the possibility of Jamaat infiltration and its effort to change eastern India’s demography. Money was raised and disbursed among Bangladeshi unit picked up by Sujal through a web of informers to ensure complete deniability of R&AW involvement. After procuring explosives, a coordinated operation was launched by Sujal, sitting in Kolkata.
Several Jamaat terror training camps located along the border and their facilities in the Satkhira, Khulna, Chittagong, Rajshahi and Jessore districts were bombed by the R&AW assets. On the direction of Sujal, his men also targeted an ISI safe house in the capital city Dhaka, bringing down the entire building. The operation helped the Indian security establishment to put a lid on the radical organisation’s infiltration into India for the time being, but the successive regimes after Narasimha Rao gave little or no attention to the massive problem of changing demography on the eastern border as well as sprouting of terror camps and increasing indoctrination.
Sujal was privately lauded by the agency chief and given another equally challenging operation in a European country. However, his immediate seniors tried to run him down and ruin his career. He was subjected to a witch hunt and questioned about the operation, his performance assessment was manipulated and Sujal’s juniors were promoted, ignoring his candidature.
Bhushan writes: “Sujal Rath bore the indignities he suffered well and seldom betrayed his pain. He refused to resign or seek voluntary retirement even when his juniors were promoted over him, some even serving as his bosses….he did not let the politics of his senior officers affect his morale and continued to conduct operations on his own terms, contacting and meeting his overseas sources and political friends without informing the agency.”
Sujal is living an anonymous life today somewhere in the western part of India. But as he was reading Bhushan’s words, Sujal cried, remembering various operations that he had carried out to protect India from threats posed by terrorists and other adversaries.
The book, which beautifully describes the delicate and demanding craft of espionage and agent operations in hostile environment, reveals another secret — the R&AW operation during the Khaleda Zia regime to recruit a top functionary working within the External Affairs Ministry of Bangladesh. A majority of R&AW operations remain something of a mystery to Indians but this particular event highlighted by Bhushan provides a rare glimpse of the fierce contest that spies go through in the grey zone.
In January 1993, the Bangladesh Parliament passed a resolution related to demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya. The Narasimha Rao government was furious and rejected the resolution, terming it unacceptable interference in India's internal affairs. Rao knew that the resolution was moved at the behest of Khaleda Zia and Indian officials could not believe that she would go to such an extent to arrogate to herself the right to advise India on matters in which Bangladesh had no locus standi whatsoever.
Amid the growing unease, Jeevnathan, codename for the R&AW station head in Dhaka, launched an operation to recruit and run Rehman, despite reservation and reluctance from New Delhi. Jeevnathan and his juniors had set up drop boxes to collect intelligence from Rehman. His reports, almost pure gold for a spy, had revealed Khaleda Zia’s plan to move closer to Pakistan. In the game of espionage, a right asset is the key. Rehman, sitting in the foreign office, provided Jeevnathan with Dhaka’s interest in the acquisition of military hardware from Islamabad, forewarned the R&AW about the proposed visit of Bangladesh's army chief to Pakistan, Khaleda Zia’s plan to counter India on its allegations that her country was sponsoring insurgency from its soil, and various others intelligence inputs to prepare Rao government's counter in advance.
The details were shipped to R&AW headquarters and subsequently landed on the table of the decision makers at South Block. Former Israeli president Shimon Peres was of the view that when you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn't think about, that doesn't exist. This is what Jeevnathan did with Rehman. They recruited more assets inside the Bangladeshi establishment to gather real-time intelligence on various issues and provided the Narasimha Rao government with critical insight about the emerging nexus between Khaleda Zia, Pakistan and China in the neighbourhood.
Rehman, Bhushan reveals, was a hard nut to crack, taking the handler on a rollercoaster ride through the murky world of intelligence-gathering, keeping them on the edge, testing their operational skills and nerves as they all played the high-stakes game of espionage. After a sustained and productive run for a considerable amount of time, Rehman was caught by the counter-intelligence unit of Bangladesh. However, Jeevnathan had decided not to leave his asset in the cold and quietly extracted him. This was unlike the cruel spy work culture where assets are usually dumped once their utility is over. As Bhushan says, ‘Wily Agent’ details the pitfalls of gathering intelligence in a foreign country, which is delicate and complex business. But a good source can make the risks worthwhile.
As Bhushan writes: “Hopefully, the officers who led the operations and their agents in the field will have reason to cheer when they see their accomplishments in print. It is my hope that their experience will help intelligence officers understand that there is no greater joy than executing missions. To those who are not familiar with espionage and working of a spy agency, these stories will help unravel the mystery behind running agents, provide an insight into the trauma an agent goes through while undertaking perilous operations and highlight the qualities that make a real spy master.”
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