Getting His Own Way?
- Diplomatic passports are issued under the Vienna convention
- They provide diplomatic immunity and other advantages to the holder
- Many countries do not charge visa fees from diplomatic passport-holders
- Such passports also ensure priority in customs and immigration checks
- The officer who helped Chaturvedi get this passport was posted abroad against strict operational guidelines
- He was posted in the host country covertly and has now been sent there as a declared RAW official
- This is cause for embarrassment
For years, RAW chiefs, used to a life of anonymity, would quietly fade into retirement after a whole career spent snooping in foreign lands. Some ended up as governors; others took to the seminar circuit and kept themselves busy writing papers or catching up on hobbies. But that wasn’t the course charted by Ashok Chaturvedi, the paan- and gutka-chewing head of RAW who retired shortly after the 26/11 terror strikes on Mumbai.
Chaturvedi headed the organisation for a little over two years and took the top job in controversial circumstances—it is said his proximity to then cabinet secretary B.K. Chaturvedi helped. As his retirement neared, while the government and its security experts were agonising over the all-round failure to prevent 26/11, Chaturvedi, it seems, was preparing for the pleasures of globe-trotting.
Between November 2008 and January 2009, the last months of his job, Chaturvedi is learnt to have done the rounds of the prime minister’s office (PMO) and the ministry of external affairs (MEA) wangling for a few “goodies” before retirement. And, as a special consideration, the government waived its own guidelines: not only did Chaturvedi become the first ex-RAW chief in over a decade to tote a diplomatic passport, he also got one for his wife Asha.
The passports (No. D 1021949 for Chaturvedi and No. D 1027182 for his wife) were issued on October 4, 2007, and their validity ran till September 30, 2009. The diplomatic immunity and other privileges he would have enjoyed on this as RAW chief should have automatically lapsed on his retirement—this is what was waived. Sources told Outlook these two passports were renewed again and continue to be valid to date.
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Man in the muddle Former RAW chief Ashok Chaturvedi wangled a diplomatic passport for himself and his wife Asha. It’s a post-retirement privilege only top ambassadors get.
There were a couple of problems with this. Only grade ‘A’ ambassadors—usually ifs officers posted in key countries like the UK and US—are allowed to hold diplomatic passports after retirement. The majority, who do not fit that bill, hold passports issued to ordinary citizens. In fact, all former RAW chiefs Outlook spoke to confirmed they had surrendered their diplomatic passports the day they retired. And their spouses weren’t entitled to diplomatic passports even while they were in service.
When contacted, this is what Chaturvedi said: “The passports were issued to me and my wife on the written instructions of then external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee. Their validity was extended by a year.” He said he and his wife continued to travel on the diplomatic passports, justifying it with the irrefutable logic of “passports miley hain travel karne ke liye (It’s for travel that we were given the passports)”.
Chaturvedi’s tenure also ensured that his wife toured extensively every time he went abroad on tour. Between 2007 and 2009, Asha went to Algiers, the US, the UK and Europe on several occasions. On each trip she used her diplomatic passport while all cost of travel was borne by the government of India. Chaturvedi too chalked up several trips, being abroad almost every month of his two-year tenure. In fact, during a crisis—when the Islamabad Marriot was bombed—Chaturvedi was returning from what was ostensibly an “official tour” of the US with his wife. Sources say the couple took time off from the official schedule, extending the trip to almost a month to spend time with family members residing in the US.
There’s more to the story. Chaturvedi’s tenure as RAW chief marked some of the worst years for the country’s external intelligence agency. He had been overlooked for promotion at nearly every stage of his career, but managed, as chief, to sabotage the careers of many Research & Analysis Service (RAS) cadre officers—among them P.V. Kumar, Jayadev Ranade, Ravi Nair and Sharad Kumar—wiping out decades of their collective experience in favour of his protege Sanjiv Tripathi. As scores of RAS officers quit the service or found themselves overlooked, Chaturvedi played around with the mandatory guidelines at the cost of the organisation’s operational effectiveness. He even got his own house declared a “safe house” and made RAW pay for its upkeep.
A classic example of Chaturvedi’s scant regard for operational guidelines was the foreign posting of the then joint secretary (Q)—a typical intelligence nomenclature for a post that oversees the coordination of foreign visits, liaison and other administrative responsibilities. This officer, a 1981 batch IPS officer from Chaturvedi’s own Madhya Pradesh cadre, was recently posted as a “declared” intelligence-gatherer in a western European nation after having been given an “undeclared” posting in that same country before.
A brief explanation: RAW officers are posted in Indian embassies and missions abroad under two categories, “undeclared” and “declared”. In “undeclared” postings, they go undercover as ifs officers, although their real assignment is to gather intelligence. But most embassies and high commissions also have “declared” posts, allowing Indian embassies to liaison with the intelligence agencies of that nation. As a rule, once an officer is posted in a country in an “undeclared” or covert post, he is never posted back there openly for obvious reasons. Chaturvedi broke that cardinal rule, creating a sticky situation for the MEA. “Operationally, it’s just suicide,” a senior RAW official says. “Once you have been posted as a covert operative posing as a legitimate ifs official, the host country is bound to raise questions when you return as a declared RAW officer.” But Chaturvedi couldn’t care less, and with then NSA M.K. Narayanan ruling the roost, these matters were hushed up.
There’s a connection to those diplomatic passports: the officer in question is the man who helped Chaturvedi and his wife obtain the passports.
Many in RAW had hoped that, post 26/11, the intelligence agency would do some introspection on the systemic rot that has set in. Instead, Chaturvedi chased petty post-retirement pleasures such as a Delhi Golf Club membership even as India’s security architecture was spiralling out of control. The slide stopped only after then Union finance minister P. Chidambaram was moved to the Union ministry of home affairs. He brought about a semblance of order.
But by then, quite some damage had been done. A vicious file noting from Chaturvedi sidelined P.V. Kumar, who was then next in line for chief. Chaturvedi was keen that his protege Sanjiv Tripathi, far down the pecking order, be chosen to head the agency. However, Chidambaram stepped in and brought in K.C. Verma, putting an end to one of the most sordid chapters in RAW’s long and chequered history.
And what of Chaturvedi? A month into retirement, Chaturvedi and his wife were off to London on their special diplomatic passports for a summer in the English countryside. Life has been quite good for the former RAW chief.