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Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) Espionage: Balancing Covert Ops and Diplomacy

Navigating a Tightrope: The High-Stakes Game of Global Espionage and Diplomatic Strategy by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)

By Srijan Sharma
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Research and Analysis Wing
A noctovision spying drone image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement 

Formed in 1968 in the aftermath of the Sino-India war, India's external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) first stunned the global spy ring in 1971 when the intelligence agency dodged the US-Pak axis and showcased its covert capabilities, which led to a massive victory in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh. Later, from making India's first nuclear test (Operation Smiling Buddha) an airtight secret and taking advantage of the US's diverted attention in Vietnam to infiltrating Pakistan's nuclear centre in Kahuta. R&AW, during the Indira era, stood the test of time and successfully steered India in achieving its security and strategic interest under the overhang of the US-Pak sword. 

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The Research and Analysis Wing later on continued its covert offensives, especially during the upsurge of the Khalistani movement in the 1980s, as B. Raman, former Special Secretary R&AW, records in his book "The Kaoboys of R&AW" that R&AW was quite active in tracking and killing Khalistani leaders though no specifics were discussed. R&AW's engagement in dealing with the Sri Lankan civil war is one more case of the agency showcasing its carefully crafted covert response, both collective and offensive. As a decade passed, R&AW was advised by the political masters to exercise maximum restraint and go slow. The closure of some of the offensive covert units of the Research and Analysis Wing was the major setback for the agency after Morarji's slashing budget in 1976. 

Dimming the agency's clandestine offensive did not let the curtains down. The agency is said to continue bolstering its intelligence gathering capabilities and regularly briefed the political leadership. Unfortunately, R&AW was ground into political calculations. As a result, most of its reports were not taken very seriously, paving the way for disasters from 26/11 to a series of terror strikes in various cities across the country.

As the political leadership witnessed a change of guard in 2014, there has been a free hand to the Intelligence agencies, and the budget has been tremendously enhanced from ₹3,168 crore to ₹3,418 crore. Similarly, the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) budget increased by 108% to ₹200.53 crore in the 2023-24 Union Budget. Two cross-border strikes, Uri to Balakot, rapid coordination with domestic agencies in cracking down on internal threats, especially demolishing the Popular Front of India (PFI) last year. It seemed R&AW's old days were back. Since 2019, the agency has extensively expanded its networks and enhanced its covert operation capabilities under former R&AW chief Samant Goel, who served R&AW for four years.

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Going All Out Offensive: Unknown Men 

After experiencing a prologue of changed dynamics, the Research and Analysis Wing recently went on a full offensive against terror outfits operating in many parts of the world. A series of assassinations by "Unknown Men" in Pakistan and various parts of the world, especially in the West, has thrown the limelight on R&AW's offensive capabilities. The recent case of Sajid Mir, who is one of the main masterminds of 26/11 getting poisoned, is also sending shockwaves through Pakistan's security establishment. The covert offensive operations against India's enemies are the result of the expansion of the intelligence network. However, plausible deniability will surely be there as these hit-and-run assassinations will hardly leave any trail. 

If we pay close attention to New Delhi's decision to step up its offensive tempo, perhaps we will be guided by two considerations. 1) Heightened threat perception, which in the past has slowly gained some traction in the form of new tactics of tying down security forces, hit and run, and targeted killings in Kashmir. This year's lethal Kokernag ambush and the recent one, the Rajouri operation, led to the martyrdom of five army personnel. A hard response to these new tactics was expected, and perhaps the assassination campaign is the response to avenge and serve as a reminder to terror leaders that if you hit us, we'll hit you inside your home. 2) Scaling deterrence. The second reason may be scaling the deterrence through covert means. These assassinations have not gone unnoticed by the world; a message indeed would have been conveyed about India's growing hard power and intent to strike back.

However, R&AW's ballistic mode has led to some consequences that are hard to overlook.

Geopolitical Effect On Tradecraft 

A few months ago, Canada accused an Indian intelligence agency of being responsible for the assassination of Khalistani leader Nijjar on Canadian soil. This accusation sparked a diplomatic dispute and heightened tensions between India and Canada. The Indian government in New Delhi has consistently denied these allegations, emphasising the lack of concrete evidence and describing the accusations as baseless and unsubstantiated.

Concurrently, a new challenge emerged for the Research & Analysis Wing from the United States. The U.S. authorities recently submitted a comprehensive report claiming the involvement of an Indian official in an assassination plot. This claim has caused significant strain in the intelligence-sharing relationship between India and the United States, highlighting a potential rift in their cooperative efforts.

According to a report, this incident resulted in the expulsion of senior officials of R&AW stationed in San Francisco. This action has notably diminished R&AW's operational capabilities and presence in North America. Beyond the issues in Canada and the United States, a similar situation unfolded in London. The United Kingdom expressed its dissatisfaction with India conducting alleged assassination operations on its soil. Consequently, the second in command of R&AW's London station was also instructed to leave.

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While covert operations in hostile territories are often understood and expected in the realm of international espionage, carrying out such operations in countries with friendly ties presents a different set of challenges. These activities can lead to strained relations, both internally within the operations of an intelligence agency and externally in diplomatic relations. Such actions underscore the delicate balance that intelligence agencies must maintain when operating abroad, particularly in nations that are not adversarial.

The famous case of the bombing of the Greenpeace Environment Ship in 1985 by the French intelligence agency on New Zealand soil to stop the ship from going to the French nuclear test site created a total mess where French agents were captured, leading to the resignation of the French defence Minister. This episode strained the relationship between France and New Zealand. Therefore, risks and ramifications are high when playing tradecraft with friends. Some dust it under the carpet, and some make it a geopolitical issue. Regarding the Indo-US relationship, strategic and core partnerships will remain unaffected for obvious reasons, but intel cooperation may experience the after-effects.

New Delhi's worries are justified, considering that terror groups active in Western countries often escape legal action or any significant response, despite India's repeated appeals for intervention. This lack of action compels India to independently address these threats. However, it's crucial for the Research and Analysis Wing to carefully consider and reflect upon the implications of undertaking covert operations on the soil of friendly nations. These actions, while possibly necessary, can lead to more complications than benefits.

Srijan Sharma, a national security analyst with a focus on intelligence and security, serves as a Research Assistant at the United Service Institution of India (USI), a leading national security and foreign policy think tank. He has contributed extensively to various institutions, journals, and newspapers, including The Telegraph, ThePrint, Organiser, and Fair Observer, in areas of security and strategic affairs. Presently, he contributes as a guest to the JNU School of International Studies. 

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