Why Covert Missions Of India’s ‘Spymaster’ & RAW Founder R.N. Kao Can Beat Any Spy Thriller

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In 1971, when tension between the two provinces of Pakistan – West and East (modern Bangladesh) was fuelling up, India was confronted with a sudden influx of refugees who were fleeing East Pakistan. They desperately sought to survive the mass murder inflicted by the Pakistani army to uproot these people from their birthplace.

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Amid the unrest, an Indian intelligence agent already acquired secret information about Pakistan’s plan to declare a full-fledged war on its Eastern province. He envisioned the possibility of a better future. He decided to turn the disoriented and helpless bunch of refugees into a guerilla army. Thus was born the ‘Mukti Bahini’ comprising around 1,00,000 refugee soldiers, who thwarted Pakistan’s dominance. Finally, in December 1971, thanks to Indian intervention, Pakistan surrendered and thus was born the independent nation of Bangladesh, all thanks to one man’s foresight.

General Sam Manekshaw is mainly credited for India’s victory in the 1971 war, but little is heard about the significant contribution of another, who spearheaded the entire war from the background, with brilliant combat strategies and conflict tactics. He was a close and loyal associate of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who entrusted him to procure confidential information from Pakistan’s military camps, that indeed helped propel the war in the right direction. The same man behind the ‘Mukti Bahini’, this was Rameshwar Nath Kao, the founder of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) – the prime intelligence agency of India.

Kao’s early life

Kao was born in Varanasi in 1918, to a family of immigrant Kashmiri Pandits. He pursued a postgraduate degree in English literature. In 1940, he qualified the Civil Services Examination and started working as Assistant Superintendent of Police, Kanpur in pre-independent India. Sometime prior to Independence, Kao was deputed to the Intelligence Bureau, which was nowhere near its present significance then. Later in 1957, Nehru sent him to Ghana after they gained freedom from the British regime, to single-handedly develop the intelligence sector of the country. Kao helped build the Foreign Service Research Bureau (FSRB) within a year.

The foundation of R&AW

R&AW came into being after 1965, following the Indo-China War of 1962 and the Indo-Pak war of 1965, during which the failure of the intelligence bureau had become exceedingly evident. PM Indira Gandhi segregated the Intelligence Bureau into two separate segments. R&AW evolved from this bifurcation, dedicated to deal with India’s international intelligence. The agency can be regarded as Kao’s brainchild, as he designed the set-up drawing inspiration from top-level global intelligence agencies as well as his years of experience in this domain.

Inevitably, Indira Gandhi chose Kao as the head of the organisation, and R&AW started functioning from September 21, 1968.

The ‘Kaoboys’ who hijacked a Pak plane

The initial workforce of R&AW comprised 250 geniuses handpicked by Kao himself from the erstwhile Intelligence Bureau, who constituted the first-generation top-class intelligence agents of India. Their life and work was an enigma for Indians, who knew them ‘Kaoboys’. Within a year, R&AW established an integrated global network, with branch offices in the US, UK and other parts of Europe and South-East Asia.

Soon India’s tension with Pakistan started brewing up again owing to the sprouting turmoil in Bangladesh. Former R&AW official R.K. Yadav once revealed how Kao masterminded a strategy to thwart Pakistan’s attempts of flying their soldiers to East Pakistan. Following Kao’s instructions, a group of R&AW agents posed as Kashmiri separatists and hijacked a Lahore-bound Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar. While they ensured the safe return of all the passengers back to India, the plane was blown up at Lahore airport. This covert mission prompted Pakistan to stall all their Bangladesh-bound planes.

Bangladesh PM ignored Kao’s warning & was assassinated

By 1975, when newborn Bangladesh was still warming up to its freshly assigned status of an independent nation, Kao found out about an assassination ploy against Bangladesh PM Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. A section of his military officials was planning a coup to overthrow him and assume power. Alarmed, Kao went to Dhaka (former Dacca), in the guise of a betel-nut exporter. He held an hour-long meeting with Rahman, warning about the danger. He even specifically alerted Rahman with names of army officials who would possibly betray him. Unfortunately, Rahman dismissed Kao’s warnings and was assassinated by the very same military officials, just a week later. Forty members of his family were murdered as well.

No fictional spy agent can match up to Kao

It was due to Kao’s timely and precise intervention that Sikkim is a part of India today, and not China. In 1975, Sikkim was an independent kingdom ruled by the Chogyal monarchy. Kao predicted that the border province might soon be a bone of contention between China and the USA, compromising India’s security, states a report by The Independent. Indian government immediately annexed Sikkim with the mainland as the 22nd state.

The Queen of England was also a witness to Kao’s efficiency and sincerity during her first visit to independent India in the early 1950s. At her reception, Kao spotted a bouquet being thrown at her. Within a second, he dived from the crowd and caught the bouquet, assuming it might contain a bomb aimed at her. Such was the agility and commitment of India’s ‘spymaster’, which might find resemblance with any fictional spy thriller.

Little is known about the personal life of R.N. Kao as he was an extremely private person. Despite his landmark roles in shaping India’s post-independence history, he has always preferred to stay away from the limelight, perhaps to aid in his furtive missions. The strategies, policies and tactics crafted by him still hold relevance in the operations of India’s prime intelligence agency. He breathed his last on January 20, 2002.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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