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.
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.