Controlling the ‘intelligence game’

In a recent article in the Sunday Times, ‘Some truths about the ‘Game’ India, Pak played in Kashmir’, the authors of the latest book on Kashmir, The Meadow: Kashmir 1995 — Where The Terror Began (Penguin, 2012), reveal that an intelligence ‘game’ has been playing out there over the past quarter century. At any rate, this is how one of their sources, a high level former intelligence insider, pictured it to the authors, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott Clark. That this is how security minders on both sides of the border have indulged themselves in the name of national security comes as no surprise to either Kashmir watchers or the people in Kashmir.

The intelligence fraternity does use such metaphors for their craft. A former RAW chief, exculpating his organisation from its latest faux pas passing off four Lahore citizens as terrorists on an LeT operation in India, has this to say: ‘Had we understood the game, consulted those who were in the game and then believed them, before rushing to print then it is possible the intelligence game would have become more difficult (italics added).’ While the experts must indeed have space to fulfil their obligations and earn their bread, controlling them while they are at their ‘game’ is an imperative. Clearly, this control has been missing in Kashmir. The fault for this can hardly be laid at the door of the intelligence persons profiting from a lack of oversight but in the system operational in Kashmir then and more generally in the country.

The ‘game’ referrd to is playing out in a populated area that serves as a battlefield for proxy war for one side and counter insurgency for the other. The ‘game’ ended up with few rules but with the goal minimally being to prevent the other side from prevailing. While this may have suited the ISI, no friend of India or Kashmir, the question is whether the state responsible for and to its citizens, that includes Kashmiris, could have permitted the intelligence laissez faire that prevailed since the mid-nineties.
The book in question reveals the hitherto untold story of the Al Faran episode. While the popular narrative of the kidnapping and killing of foreign tourists has been questioned earlier, the murky details suggest that this was not a friendly group gone rogue, but one operating to an intelligence authored plan. This action can be rationalised as an effective proactive measure to break out of the defensive position India had been placed in the mid-nineties on the issue of human rights. It may be recalled that Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Farooq Abdullah had to defend India’s record at Geneva in 1994. The upshot of the ‘black operation’ in question was that Pakistan was now on in the dog house. While Pakistan rightly deserves to be confined to such a spot, the question is about whether cumulatively the tactics is an ethical one from a governance point of view.
The Al Faran episode cannot be taken in isolation. The cases of the Wandhama and Nadimarg killings of returning Kashmiri Pandits can also be similarly clubbed as part of the ‘game’; the players deliberately rendered difficult to pinpoint with ‘plausible deniability’ aiding both sides. However, the layers of enigma are fast peeling off another ‘operation’, the Chittisingpora episode, under the Supreme Court’s engagement with the Pathribal killings incident. The latest in this legal saga going back to the 2006 case made out by the CBI is that the Army has been given two months to either proceed with the case under its courts martial powers or permission to prosecute in a civil court or otherwise will have to be given by the ministry over the following month. The Pathribal killings have been linked to the Chittisingpora massacre of Sikhs, coincident with the visit of President Clinton. In the ‘game’, this may have been to paint Pakistan black.
In case the allegations in the form of what are currently ‘conspiracy theories’ are found true, then there is a strong case for greater oversight of the intelligence function. That Indian citizens were sacrificed to make some or other national security gain is not a decision intelligence agencies can be authorised to take. In such a case it has to be a political level decision. Given that political decisions have constitutional parameters, clearly, these would have been stretched somewhat in case the linkage is found true. While who ‘guards the guardians’ was a question that the Al Faran episode gave rise to, the Chittisingpora case gives rise to a far graver issue: what if those who are to guard the guardians abnegate their role or, worse, join the game for their own ideological reasons. The supervision therefore cannot be left to the government alone under some idealised division of powers. The government itself must come under scrutiny. This means the parliament has to step up.
Currently, there is the parliamentary standing committee overseeing the work of the home ministry. This work, as the ministry website suggests, ranges from implementation of Hindi to pensions for freedom fighters. Clearly, amidst all this the nuances of the ministry’s anti-terror and counter insurgency policies and practices are missed. This means that separate parliamentary standing committees need to be set up for each area in which the AFSPA is operational. This way the members from the area and the others from across the party spectrum remain involved and such areas are not abandoned to the interminable ministrations of the ministry. Alternatively, a sub-committee of the standing committee can address intelligence issues in camera. The defence committee has lately taken to having briefings by the chief and the vice chiefs. This model can be followed by the sub-committee or committee. Secondly, there is a case for progressing the private member’s (specifically, Congress spokesperson, Mr. Manish Tiwari) bill on regulating the intelligence sphere through an Act. This will regularise the intelligence agencies, currently having no statutory existence.
At a lower level, the intelligence agencies need in the interim arrive at a code of ethics for themselves. The need to prevail by any means may be a pressure point, but the need to prevail through the right means is equally important. This has strategic fallout in terms of legitimating the state where it is countering an insurgency. It is quite possible that in scoring goals, intelligence agencies have ended up scoring self-goals by accentuating alienation and extending insurgency.
A turn to this will not emerge of its own for the tail will continue to prefer to wag the dog. Instead, the political head needs now to turn its attention from civil-military relations and control of the military, such as through tweaking AFSPA, to studying theoretical models on how to bring about political control over intelligence agencies. This is not merely an exercise for the otherwise besieged political leadership in Srinagar, but at the national level involving the social and political scientists from the academia, former intelligence practitioners and administrators and the political class.
While truth telling will have salutary benefits for conflict resolution in Kashmir, the solutions along these lines might help other benighted regions currently in the throes of India’s intelligence grip that include the North East and Central India.
(The author is Assistant Professor, NMCPCR Jamia Millia Islamia)