The year was 2000. The NDA government was restructuring the Indian security apparatus following the Kargil war. Kabir’s grandson had been cleared for induction into the RAW’s air wing, the aviation research centre (ARC). He was found to be competent for the job and met all the required parameters. His interviewers were very impressed with him. They had no doubt that they had found their man.
But hours later the decision was reversed. The members of the selection board came to the view that there was a question mark on Kabir’s suitability for the job. He was a Muslim and the unwritten code within the agency was that Muslims could not be inducted it. That code vis-a-vis Muslims is still followed. From 1969 till today—RAW’s current staff strength is about 10,000—it has avoided recruiting any Muslim officer. Neither has the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), a crucial arm of external intelligence. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) with 12,000 personnel has been a little more open. It has a handful of Muslim officers, the senior-most is a joint director.
Many intelligence officials say keeping Muslims out or minimally represented is unwise. Post-9/11 the Indian intelligence community has been tasked to keep its eyes and ears open to global Islamic terrorism. It is here that the presence of dedicated Muslim officers will add to the expertise and capabilities that an organisation like RAW requires. But, senior officers are quick to point out that this should be done not to appease the community. "We have to realise that by following the unwritten code we are denying a pool of talent that is readily available. We need bright, dynamic, intelligent operatives. Should we deny them an opportunity just because they are Muslims?" asks a senior official.
According to former RAW chief A.S. Dulat, appointing Muslims is not only necessary but also critical. He feels that only a Muslim is capable of understanding the psyche of the community. Says Dulat: "The Muslim psyche can be baffling to non-Muslims. However much a person claims to be in tune with what the community feels, he can never really know all the nuances. A Muslim, on the other hand, would have the feel for the language, the metaphor and the culture. If you have to know what is happening in Aligarh Muslim University or SIMI, a Muslim will be much better informed. And you cannot wish away the feeling of neglect, the hurt and the discrimination that the community feels. That too is something a Muslim would be able to understand better."
Similarly, while dealing with intelligence inputs from Pakistan and Bangladesh, a Muslim could be far more effective. But officials point out that appointments should not label Muslim officers as Pakistani specialists. As Indians, their expertise can be deployed elsewhere too. The point they make is that efficient and qualified candidates should not be barred because of their religious identity.
As opposed to RAW, the IB, tasked with internal security, took a decision during the Narasimha Rao government to induct Muslim officers. Soon a couple of young IPS officers were taken in—one from the Uttar Pradesh cadre became the first inductees into the IB. Since then a few more appointments have taken place. According to official feedback, the performance of Muslim officers has never been under question. In fact, some of them went on to hold senior positions and one officer has risen to the rank of joint director presently handling a sensitive unit.
"There was some discussion within the IB before the doors were thrown open. The bottomline for us was that only merit would be the criterion. As intelligence officials our backgrounds are checked periodically. It applies to everyone irrespective of religious or ethnic identities," a senior official told Outlook. Some of the Muslim officers proved to be a big asset in several anti-insurgency operations in J&K. "They could identify with the sensibilities of the Kashmiris and were much more sensitive in their approach which paid off in 1994-95 when militancy was at its height. In fact, these officers helped us counter the Pakistani propaganda that was dominant in the Kashmir valley during that time," he adds.
Now several RAW officials agree a lack of Muslims in the organisation has created a void. They say a large part of India’s strategic outlook covers countries in the Middle East and the Gulf which are primarily Islamic. "These have been traditionally weak areas for us and the induction of Muslim officers could help us. But, we have to also side-step the narrow vision of hiring Muslims in Islamic states and just look at them as professionals," an official told Outlook.
Things could change if the present RAW chief, P.K. Hormese Tharakan, can push the case for a review of the recruitment policy. He has already embarked on an exercise to recruit talented manpower irrespective of religious or ethnic identity. A senior retired naval admiral has been hired as a consultant for this task. However, a final decision on any change in the present position has to come from the government.
Soon after the task force on intelligence submitted its report to the NDA government in 2000, it began an exercise to revamp intelligence agencies. While new organisations were being set up, a senior bureaucrat approached the then national security advisor (NSA) Brajesh Mishra for guidance. "I asked him if we could induct Muslims into the organisations that were being set up. He promised us that he would look into it. I never heard from him after that," he told Outlook.
The matter was taken up once again when J.N. Dixit took over as the NSA in the UPA government. Points out a bureaucrat: "He heard us out and gave instructions that there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion while recruiting competent officers. Days later he passed away and the instructions were not recorded on file and did not become official policy. So things continue to be the way they were."
Recruiting Muslims into the intelligence agencies finds support from within the strategic community. Says Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who was part of the committee set up to restructure Indian intelligence in 1998. "I would emphasise that religion must not be a criterion. We have had an eminent chief of air staff in Idrees Latif and Lt General Jameel was army commander of Eastern Command while Lt Gen Zaki was security advisor to the J&K government at a critical period of militancy in the early 1990s. India is a country of minorities, whether religious, ethnic, linguistic or caste. And this is the strength of the nation," Those who argue for an all-inclusive policy based on merit like to remind the sceptics that it was Sikh officers and men who finally rooted out militancy in Punjab. Is the ‘secular’ Indian state listening?
By Saikat Datta and Bhavna Vij-Aurora