RAM Nath Kao (1918-2002) is not one of those Indian officers who can be easily forgotten by bureaucrats, politicians and even journalists, despite the fact that much has not been written about the man who was quintessentially low profile throughout his long and chequered career and even after that. His early contribution to the making of India needs to be known by the world, especially because he belonged to the premier secret espionage service of the country—R&AW.
The Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s foreign intelligence organisation, is one of the most respected institutions of the world of espionage and foreign intelligence today. It has played a vital role in almost all of the landmark events in India’s recent history—from the 1971 war to the merger of Sikkim; from discovering Pakistan’s nuclear programme to the recent Balakot operation. Yet, as befits its role, very little is known about the organisation. Little is also known about its founder, Rameshwar Nath Kao, or RNK. He was an intensely private man, a classical spymaster who operated in the shadows but built enduring institutions. R&AW has, of late been making news off and on and hence the introduction of this book for the readers of gfiles.
Nitin Gokhale, a veteran defence analyst and author, describes him as a ruthless professional who believed in putting in national interest above his personal preferences. He was also the creator of the secretive Aviation Research Centre, Indian’s premier technical intelligence agency. RNK had a very modest family background in Lucknow. He remained polite, down to earth and an effective leader wherever he went.
The book under review is actually a difficult task undertaken by the author, especially because the book came out some 17 years after the death of Kao in his 80s and not much written material was available in public domain. Some files pertaining to his time in office and about his crucial decisions won’t be declassified until 2025 according to instructions left behind by him before his death in January 2001. They relate to Bangladesh, the merger of Sikkim and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
R&AW has been constantly watching Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. But few know the fact that the organisation, under Kao, was instrumental in creation of Bangladesh and about various backroom strategies and plans that Kao and his men had made. Sankaran Nair was among the most trusted of his deputies who later headed the R&AW and also IB.
The book is full of stories of how Prime Ministers of the day treated R&AW or held different opinions about Kao. “In a 25-page secret note dated January 14, 1971 (two days after Yahya Khan had landed in Dhaka) addressed to the cabinet secretary, RNK warned of the possibility of Pakistan launching a military campaign against India to divert attention. He went on the elaborate, ‘ After the recent elections, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman has emerged as an unchallenged leader of East Pakistan…He would therefore be in a strong position to press for incorporation of his party’s six-point programme in the Constitution and related issues. The note also said Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was also gaining popularity in West Pakistan (Punjab and Sindh). In such a situation, President Yahya Khan, R&AW felt, “could consider the prospects of embarking on a military venture against India with a view to diverting attention of people from internal political problems and justifying the continuance of the Martial Law.”
Pakistan had, as the author quoting Kao’s secret note says, considerably increased its armed strength since 1965 and her Army, Navy and Air Force had achieved a good state of military preparedness for any confrontation with India. Kao had also pointed towards increased possibility of infiltrations of well trained personnel into Jammu & Kashmir.
Based on the note, PN Haksar, Principal Secretary to PM, sent a telegram to India’s Ambassador to Moscow, detailing the military equipment that India needed urgently to be ready to face any Pakistani aggression. The list included tanks, APCs, guns, bomber aircraft and surface-to-air guided weapons. “We have no, repeat, no other source of supply than to rely upon Soviet readiness to understand and respond to our needs,” he had said in the telegram.
This episode reveals how India-Pakistan relations have been through the 1960s and ‘70s and how strained they continue to be even today. The RNK and Haksar note and telegram would also show how in the Cold War days India was heavily dependent on Russia for her advanced weaponry.
RNK and Haksar advocated a campaign that would support Bengalis who would be at the forefront of the fight back. PM Indira Gandhi, facing her first international crisis, deferred to their advice and sanctioned the covert operation to be led and coordinated by Kao. His equation with Gen Manekshaw eventually contributed to India’s military success in the 13-day war with Pakistan in December 1971 that liberated East Pakistan and created a new nation. The rest is history but the book captures all the important roles and operations launched by Kao in the run-up to defeat Paki-stan, including influencing the Western powers through various strategies. It also reveals how the officers of Indira Gandhi’s team in PMO worked hand-in-hand with army officials and those of Kao’s to protect Indian interests in tough times.
FOR example, RNK had advised, through foreign secretary TN Kaul, Indian High Commissioner in London, Appa Pant how to treat a high ranking jurist from Dhaka, living in London. The judge of Dhaka (Dacca) High Court, Abu Sayeed Chaudhary, was made the nucleus of Bangladeshi upsurge abroad. This was to manoeuvre international opinion against Pakistan, a handiwork of Kao-led R&AW.
Elsewhere, the book clearly proves how Kao repeatedly warned against having Sikh bodyguards with Prime Minister after Operation Blue Star. The rising discontent in Punjab after her return to power in 1980, was also giving Kao sleepless nights. In 1981, on the advice given in Zurich by ACN Nambiar—journalist, freedom fighter, close friend and associate of Nehru and Bose—RNK was appointed Senior Adviser, on a salary of Re 1.
As Punjab problem aggravated and resulted in Army entering Golden Temple, Kao quickly strengthened her security. Sikh bodyguards in her security detail were removed. Kao ordered an ambulance to be part of convoy and also requested her to wear a bullet proof vest. The instructions that no Sikh bodyguard be part of her inner security ring were ignored for inexplicable reasons. Two of her Sikh bodyguards shot her on October 31, 1984, in her home. Kao was in Beijing under Mrs Gandhi’s instructions for making secret overtures to Chinese leadership in an attempt to normalise relation-ship between India and China. When the Chinese heard of the assassination, they offered to place a special plane for Kao’s disposal for him to reach India as soon as possible.
THE book is replete with stories how PM Morarji Desai mistrusted Kao first and then realised his mistake, how AB Vajpayee (as foreign minister) al-ways took him to be Mrs Gandhi’s man and about the political scenario in India and the world when RNK was the boss of India’s secret operations all over the world. Reading the book gives fair idea of the global order then and how intelligence played important roles in making or breaking nations and leaders.
What is interesting about the book is that it does not only give full details and cross references with the help or original documents that the author dug out from RNK’s family collection and from the Nehru Memorial Museum besides from other R&AW officers, but is also very lucid. The accounts of many of his successors paint a beautiful picture of the personality of RNK, remembered as a colossus who was an institutional builder than an operative, more of a spymaster than a spy.
Kao’s father died early and so did his grandparents. His uncles tried to help his mother and the young Ram but that did not much help him as the businesses of his uncle suffered losses. This was in the 1920s and 1930s, difficult years for India, when the Kao’s family also suffered hardship. After father’s death he shifted to Bombay only to return to Uttar Pradesh. He did his graduation from Lucknow University in 1936 with subjects such as English literature, Indian history and Persian. He secured first position in the university. That was also the year when he first saw Jawaharlal Nehru at an INC session from a distance and was impressed.
Late his joined the Indian Police, the forerunner of the Indian Police Service (IPS) at the age of 21 in 1939. This is where his life took a turn for the better.
[The reviewer is a veteran political and environment journalist and consulting editor of Gfiles]