In his R.N.Kao Memorial lecture delivered at the headquarters of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) on January 19,2010, Vice-President Hamid Ansari has done well in raising in public issues such as accountability and parliamentary oversight to which the Indian intelligence community is still a stranger.
The concept of an accountable and competent intelligence community, which uses the need for secrecy only for protecting its operations and not for covering up its inadequacies and irregularities, has been accepted and implemented by the intelligence agencies of many democracies--parliamentary as well as Presidential types-- of the world during the last three decades. Nobody in those countries has since argued that these concepts have come in the way of the effectiveness of the intelligence process and hence should be re-considered. The overall consensus is that these changes have proved beneficial and hence should be continued and, if necessary, further refined.
In India too, these issues have been raised from time to time since the State of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975-77, but follow-up action has been avoided either because of resistance from sections of the intelligence community or because of the reluctance of the political leadership to introduce any changes which might dilute the scope for political misuse of the intelligence machinery for partisan purposes or both.
Accountability of intelligence agencies demands, firstly, that they should have a legal existence and, secondly, that they should have a formal charter of their functions and responsibilities. Forty-two years after its formation in 1968, the R&AW still does not have a legal existence. It was set up by a brief executive order issued on behalf of Indira Gandhi in September 1968. Till today, this order has not been accorded parliamentary sanctity by having necessary legislation authorising its creation passed by the Parliament. No government, which has held office since 1968, has considered it necessary to have an Act passed by the Parliament providing legal legitimacy to the R&AW. No one has raised the question as to how the various governments have been incurring expenditure on the R&AW year after year without having its creation approved by the Parliament.
In the 1980s, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, a law was enacted by the Parliament banning strikes in the intelligence agencies. To my knowledge, that is the only Act of the Indian Parliament in which there is a reference to the R&AW by name. When that law was passed, nobody in the Parliament thought it fit to ask: What is this R&AW about? When was it created? Who created it? Has its creation been approved by the Parliament?
It goes to the credit of A.K.Verma, who headed the R&AW from 1987 to 90. that he took the initiative in drawing the attention of the governments of Rajiv Gandhi and V.P.Singh to the fact that the R&AW had been functioning without a legal cover and a formal charter. He wanted the government of the day to do something about it, but nothing was done.
The fact that the Intelligence Bureau , which was created by the British before 1947, and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which came into existence after 1947, had been functioning without formal charters of their functions and responsibilities, was highlighted by the L.P.Singh Committee, which was set up by the Morarji Desai government to enquire into the functioning of these two organisations during the State of Emergency. It not only stressed the need for formal charters to prevent their future misuse, but also prepared for the consideration of the government detailed model charters for adoption. No action was taken on its recommendations by the Indira Gandhi government which came back to power in 1980 or its successors. The report was consigned to the Archives--seen, but not read and implemented.
Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee and Shri Lal Krishna Advani were among those who were in the forefront of those who criticised-- during the election campaign of 1977-- the alleged misuse of the intelligence agencies by the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency. When Shri Vajpayee became the Prime Minister and Shri Advani the home minister in 1998, one naturally expected them to take the initiative in taking the L.P.Singh Committee report out of the Archives and implement it. The expectations were belied.
The Task Force for the revamping of the intelligence apparatus set up by the Vajpayee government in 2000, which was headed by Shri G.C. Saxena, former head of the R&AW, recommended the acceptance by the government of the principle of formal charters for the intelligence agencies. To give greater meat to its recommendations, it wanted to have a look at the detailed charters for the IB and the CBI proposed by the L.P.Singh Committee. The home ministry, then headed by Shri Advani, avoided making available to the Task Force the entire report of the L.P.Singh Committee. However, the Task Force's recommendation for formal charters was accepted and implemented by the Vajpayee government. One does not know whether the recommendations of the L.P.Singh Committee were taken into consideration while drafting the charters.
The credit for first raising the idea of a parliamentary oversight on the intelligence community should go to Shri Jaswant Singh, who was the Chairman of the Estimates Committee of the Rajya Sabha when Shri V.P.Singh was the Prime Minister. Shri V.P.Singh saw merit in the idea and wanted it to be examined. There was no opposition to the idea from the intelligence professionals then in service including this writer, but when Shri V.P.Singh developed differences with the BJP, he did not pursue it.
Since then, none of the political parties has shown interest in making the intelligence agencies accountable for their performance and integrity and in making their professional performance subject to an independent assessment. Secrecy is an important operational principle for an intelligence agency. Unless an intelligence agency is able to ensure the secrecy of its operations, no source or agent will stick his neck out to work for it. Its capability for collecting technical intelligence will also be affected.
But secrecy should not be allowed to be used as an excuse for covering inefficiencies in performance and irregularities in functioning and financial management. Irregularities do occur in matters such as the personnel policy and diversion of the resources sanctioned by the government for operational objectives for non-operational purposes. The public and the Parliament have a right to know to what extent the agencies have been producing results and what are the areas of their non-performance. The Parliament has a right to know what kind of financial controls are in place, who exercises those controls and to what extent they are effective. The Parliament has similarly a right to check whether the principle of secrecy in recruitment is being misused to pack the organisations with unsuitable persons, taken not for their qualifications, but for their connections.
It is possible to introduce some of these checks and balances in the functioning of our intelligence community without damaging their operational secrecy. There is reluctance from the political class because it sees the agencies as instruments for partisan exploitation and not for defending national interests. There is reluctance from sections of the intelligence officers themselves because they think that unchecked secrecy gives them an aura of power and influence which they do not want to lose.
Ansaris may come and Ansaris may go, but the intelligence agencies will go on functioning in the same manner with the complicity of the political class unless there is sustained public pressure on the political class and the agencies to change the culture of our agencies. I am not very optimistic because I do not see on the horizon any political leader who is genuinely convinced of the need for a change.
Every country gets the intelligence community it deserves. We will continue to have the community which we have deserved unless Shri Ansari's call is followed up.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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