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Earlier this month, the CIA made millions of its declassified documents available online. None of these files are new – the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) has been available for over a decade now – but researchers and the wider public are now spared the trudge to College Park and can access the documents from the comforts of their own homes. Predictably, some of the information contained within has caused much consternation in foreign countries. For example, many Indians were shocked to realise that many of their political leaders during the Cold War provided information to foreign intelligence services.

Actually, this is nothing new. The CREST documents merely corroborate what several other sources have already told us for years. Academics who have accessed archives in the United States, Germany, Canada, and elsewhere can readily attest to discovering memoranda with sudden and out-of-place insight, references to meetings which produced useful information, and even minutes of meetings with loose-lipped Indian officials. For those unable to make a trip to College Park, Lichterfelde, or Wellington Street, there is enough material already available on the internet – the Foreign Relations of the United States series, for example, or the Documents on Canadian External Relations – that have been available for years.

Although academics have stayed away from dedicated research on intelligence gathering in India, several studies have mentioned rumours and documented instances of Indian officials passing information on to foreign parties. For instance, Christopher Andrew’s The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB And The Battle For The Third World briefly describes how Soviet intelligence received insights into the thinking of the Indian government from politicians belonging to the Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The KGB also sowed propaganda in Indian media to emphasise Moscow’s friendship and downplay Western assistance to India which was greater in volume if not always in the critical areas that India sought. Similarly, Maloy Krishna Dhar’s Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled reveals that the Intelligence Bureau had identified four Union ministers and over a dozen members of parliament on the KGB’s payroll.

Delhi leaked like a sieve, of that there is no doubt. Indira Gandhi’s “foreign hand” paranoia has been the butt of many an eyeroll but it seems that the former prime minister was actually correct in her fears, even if expressed crassly. Of course, the delicious irony of all this is that foreign governments could not figure out what was going on in India, not because of the scarcity of information but because of its glut! In a discussion between US and Canadian officials in 1973 over rumours that India might conduct a nuclear test, the Americans tell their Canadian counterparts that they, too, had heard such gossip but so many times that it was difficult to attach any importance the reports anymore! The same is likely true in the Soviet Union and East Germany as well, whose knowledge of India was so deep that they were even aware of train timetables and harvests thanks to their friends in the CPI.

Although none of this is new, two things need to be pointed out. One, that it is not necessary that all informants knew that they were working for foreign intelligence agencies. Spies are not so indelicate as to just provide a business card and ask someone to betray their country. Requests could be as benign as addressing a small gathering or writing an article on a particular topic in an unheard of magazine. Agents, even diplomats, may play on an official’s desire to brag to – feign greater access, information, or importance – to impress his interlocutor. For example, Indian intelligence in the early 1970s received reports that Pakistan was worried about an imminent Indian nuclear test. Their source, it turns out, were loud-mouthed Indian diplomats at a United Nations conference on disarmament! Similarly, KR Narayanan’s November 1964 memo, when he was the director of the Ministry of External Affairs’ China division, urging the government to develop nuclear weapons in response to the Chinese nuclear test, was leaked by his own deputy to the United States. Payments can also take many forms – trips abroad, personal gifts, fellowships at universities and think tanks, college admissions, or contributions to the party fund.

Two, the Indian goverment has not acted on any of this information. The earliest and most substantial evidence from external sources probably came from the Mitrokhin Archives. However, these allegations were dismissed in the newspapers as Western propaganda. With more evidence from foreign archives, it seems only appropriate to launch a thorough investigation into the misconduct. Many of the leaks may no longer be alive but it is also very likely that some of them are still around and in senior positions in government or parliament. The lack of seriousness on the part of the Indian government is deeply unnerving.

The reemergence of these allegations upon the CREST database becoming available online and the nonchalance with which it has been received, except, perhaps, in certain circles on social media, is simply another indication that India is simply not serious about security. There may be an internal inquiry, certainly, but there has been no public reaction to the latest documents, nor has there been any public pressure. This lackadaisical attitude, whether it is in foreign policy, defence, or the cyber domain, does not bode well for the country.


This post appeared on FirstPost on January 30, 2017.

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