Book on India’s spy agency hits a nerve

Times Staff Writer

As tell-alls go, it’s fairly tame stuff. A new inside look at India’s equivalent of the CIA contains some modest allegations of corruption, mismanagement and petty behavior, but no bombshell revelations.

Try telling that to the Indian government, which has accused the author of leaking classified information and raided the man’s home, turning what otherwise would have been a minor annoyance into a headline-grabbing imbroglio.

The case has raised questions as to whether the author, a retired military officer, is being harassed for blowing the whistle on one of India’s most shadowy institutions, the Research and Analysis Wing, which gathers foreign intelligence.

Beyond that, the reaction to the book has ignited sharp debate over why India, which likes to trumpet its 60 years of independence, continues to cling to a colonial-era Official Secrets Act inherited from British rulers, who used it to control a population increasingly restless for freedom.


Efforts to amend the law have come up empty. But proponents of reform hope the current storm will give the drive an added push.

Among their ranks now is Maj. Gen. V.K. Singh, who said he had no idea when writing “India’s External Intelligence: Secrets of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)” that so much trouble lay in store.

Singh, 63, left a lifetime of military service in 2000 to join RAW in its communications intelligence department, where he worked for nearly four years. What he found there did not match his expectations.

“I had imagined RAW to be full of hard-nosed, tough-as-nails agents,” Singh wrote. “However, most of the personnel I came across appeared to be soft. . . . The junior staff had got used to being mollycoddled and seemed reluctant to face danger and hardships. Of course, it was only a question of leadership, which most senior officers appeared to lack.”

The book describes petulant conduct among the top brass, including one unnamed officer who went on a long unauthorized leave in protest of being passed up for promotion. The Indian media have identified the man as Ashok Chaturvedi, now head of the agency.

More serious than the bad behavior, Singh wrote, were instances of malfeasance and ineptitude.

One chapter recounts how antennas were bought for 100 times their actual price. Another criticizes the agency for failing to develop effective counterintelligence mechanisms, saying that failure may have enabled the escape of an officer suspected of being an American mole.

The stories are unflattering without being sensational, and Singh’s call for greater parliamentary oversight of the agency is not original. The book, which came out in June with an initial run of 3,000 copies, probably would have become another niche title had the government not stepped in.

Acting on a complaint by the Cabinet Secretariat, to which RAW reports, agents from the Central Bureau of Investigation descended on Singh’s home outside Delhi on Sept. 21, seizing his passport, computer and personal papers.

The following day, the publishing house that released his book was raided.

After a long career in public service, Singh was bewildered to find himself facing charges of harming the national interest and leaking state secrets.

“Nothing which I have written really is against the national interest. In fact, I pointed out some cases of corruption, . . . which I think is helping the national interest,” Singh said. “I think it’s the duty of every citizen to point out cases of corruption. It certainly cannot be considered an anti-national act.”

What critics blasted as a government attempt to squelch Singh’s book resulted in a firestorm of publicity, as India’s raucous news media took up the story.

The government was further embarrassed when it was discovered that investigators had not read the book.

Vijay Shankar, head of the Central Bureau of Investigation, said in a telephone interview that it was immaterial.

“The book does not have to be read by me,” Shankar said, as long as a complaint had been lodged that, based on prima facie evidence, the law had been broken.

“This is not a banana republic,” Shankar said. “This is a country that is a long-standing democratic state. We have the rule of law.”

The law is precisely the problem, critics say.

Although they agree that there must be legal safeguards to protect matters of national security, advocates of change say that the 84-year-old Official Secrets Act is a relic of another era, draconian and overly broad in scope.

What constitutes a “secret” is ill-defined. Even a flier for a RAW tea party could count as classified, Singh says. So could a photo of an airport, though we live in the age of Google Earth.

“Our classification [system] is vague, non-transparent and arbitrary,” economist Bibek Debroy wrote in the Indian Express newspaper. “It is small comfort that China’s classification is just as vague.”

Activists say that the government has used the law selectively to suppress information and retaliate against the outspoken.

Last year, the government’s Administrative Reforms Commission recommended that the Official Secrets Act be scrapped. A new Right to Information Act has let in more light on the workings of the government and its mammoth bureaucracy, but many Indians remain unaware of it.

Singh faces a court hearing Monday.

Despite the accusations that he leaked classified information, his book has not been banned. In fact, another print run of 3,000 copies is underway, said publisher Vivek Garg of Manas Publications.

Garg expressed outrage over the seemingly backward priorities of those investigating his client.

“Why is the CBI not taking action against those . . . whom he exposed, the people who indulged in the mismanagement and corruption?” Garg said. “But instead of doing that, they have taken unnecessary steps against the author.”