India’s Foreign Intelligence And A Need For Narrative Management – Analysis


By Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya

The Western media coverage of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) has turned into outright propaganda against the organisation and the Modi government.

The recent reports by The Guardian and The Washington Post, among others, have criticised the agency for espionage in friendly countries and offensive counterterrorism measures, both of which the Western intelligence agencies have historically practised. In addition, there have been allegations of the agency targeting dissidents abroad.

Following standard practice, the R&AW has refrained from responding to these allegations and misinformation. Given the sensitive nature of foreign intelligence operations, refraining from public commentary during times of crises is understandable. However, the agency’s unregulated relationship with secrecy has arguably provided fertile grounds for such negative propaganda to flourish. Therefore, the current international media slandering must provoke a discussion regarding the limits of secrecy and instituting a public relations (PR) mechanism.

Secrecy, unnamed sources, and negative propaganda

The principal agenda that emerges from reading the reports by The Guardian and The Washington Post is to blame the R&AW as Modi’s tool for targeting and harassing dissidents in the global diaspora. In so doing, the agency is clubbed with the likes of Saudi, Iranian, Chinese, and Russian intelligence services, which have a track record of targeting enemies of the regimes in foreign lands.

Despite the lack of any credible evidence, the media reports rest on comments made by unnamed sources within the R&AW. For instance, The Guardian quotes an official saying that the R&AW had drawn inspiration from Mossad, the KGB, and the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post article too relies on unnamed Indian and American officials to support claims of the R&AW targeting dissidents, rather than citing a single incident.

Such planting of concocted stories in the media by unnamed R&AW sources has a precedent and dates to the 1980s. Between 1980-1985, reports began emerging in the media accusing the R&AW of creating and sponsoring insurgencies in the Northeast and Punjab. These stories had turned legitimate human intelligence operatives into agent provocateurs who were conspiring with the agency to foment violence in the border states. With no history of interacting with the media, the agency could officially do little to counter such misinformation. A.K. Verma, the then Secretary, had to rely on some of his officers with contacts in the media to try and correct the narratives. Little was achieved in the atmosphere of sensationalism whilst checking the flow of misinformation from disgruntled elements within the organisation was taking a toll on other core intelligence activities. A large portion of the agency’s manpower had to be used to monitor the union members. Alongside this, a ban against unionisation helped manage the problem by 1985.

The R&AW’s inability to manage the 1980-85 crisis sooner owed in large part to the agency’s penchant for secrecy. Guided by its founding father, R.N. Kao, who never gave a press interview and is reported to have “hated to be photographed”, the agency had embraced secrecy as its strongest virtue. Even when it was wrongly accused of enforcing the Emergency, there were no attempts made to challenge the narratives peddled by Indira Gandhi’s opponents. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, the perception of the R&AW’s involvement in the Emergency survives to this day. Besides negative public perception, the agency faced severe purges under the Morarji government. Yet, the oath of secrecy forbade any intelligence-media relationship from emerging. The net effect was that the contributions of the agency towards India’s national security were hidden from the public whilst false propaganda adversely affected its public image, operational capacity, and human resources.

Today, once again the R&AW is in the news over allegations of targeting dissidents. Like the 1980s, secrecy has inhibited the emergence of counternarratives from the agency but stemming the flow of misinformation from disgruntled elements within the agency has remained a persistent challenge. Therefore, the conditions are ripe for India’s intelligence bureaucracies to rethink their relationships with secrecy and openness.

The need for public relations: Lessons from around the world

The idea of instituting a public relations mechanism for Indian intelligence agencies is not entirely new. In the aftermath of the 1980s crisis, the R&AW pondered over establishing a PR position, which was squandered over a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the potential officer. In 2012, the current National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval, advised that “the intelligence agencies should start deliberating on a public interface mechanism which, in the long run, may even include a media and public relations exercise. The way Indian democracy is evolving, it will be in the national interest to educate the media and have working relations with it, rather than allow it to go haywire for want of knowledge and authentic information. A well thought out action plan, on this count, may take 2-3 years before it is made operational.” Therefore, the challenging question for the R&AW is not whether it should develop a public relations mechanism, but rather how should such a programme should be achieved. The experiences of Western democracies can lend valuable lessons for consideration while the agency tries to craft its own.

The first and foremost lesson that the R&AW can draw from the Israeli experience is that commentary from the agency during a crisis will remain impossible since the protection of assets and operations abroad will be the top priority. Therefore, intelligence-media relations in Israel are managed by ‘silence’ during a crisis and ‘leaks’ of achievements and threat perceptions during peacetime. As a result, the failures of Israeli intelligence agencies are public knowledge, but the narrative is overwhelmingly dominated by its daredevilry and offensive posture. Additionally, the threats to Israel from the German scientists working on Egyptian missiles programme during the 1960s to the present-day Iranian sponsorship of terror proxies are carried regularly in the media, backed by intelligence sources. The net effect is that the Israeli Mossad is largely known the way it wishes to be known, despite numerous strategic and operational blunders.

The second lesson that the R&AW can draw from the British experience is the need for balance between public outreach and intelligence scholarship. The British intelligence services have a social media presence, which serves the purpose of informing the public about national security priorities and policies, eliminating conspiracy theories, and building a reputation favourable to the intelligence services.

In the recent times, the British military intelligence has been active on X (formerly Twitter) sharing information about the Russia-Ukraine War. All these measures are meant to enhance public trust and also drive recruitment. Beyond such organisational initiatives, the added advantage to the British intelligence is the availability of a large and growing number of scholars working on various aspects of British intelligence history, organisations, and operations. Supported by access to declassified government documents and interactions with intelligence practitioners, these scholars play an important role in correcting public narratives about the British intelligence. For example, British public misperception of the MI6 in the James Bond sense regularly invites resistance from at least a platoon of world-class intelligence scholars to balance the truth.

The third lesson that the R&AW can learn is from the United States (US). In 1975, the CIA’s domestic espionage operations were exposed, leading to a loss of public reputation. To remedy this, the CIA created an Office of Public Affairs in 1977. More importantly, the agency relied on an Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) and Hollywood to promote content favourable to the agency. Whilst the former wrote memoirs boasting of successful operations, the latter resulted in popular movies such as The Recruitand Zero Dark Thirty. Despite criticisms that the PR mechanism has not resulted in much transparency, it is widely recognised that it has been “remarkably effective in allowing the CIA to control its history”.

India’s experience with PR and the way forward

Indian intelligence has had some success with PR, albeit not by design. In the past, a website named South Asia Analysis Group provided a wealth of information on Indian intelligence and Indian intelligence perspectives on global security developments. This website was the closest initiative that came to resembling the American use of AFIO for building the reputation of the R&AW. With the demise of former Additional Secretary S. Chandrasekharan, who had managed the website, the initiative collapsed. Today, the R&AW needs such platforms, but with stricter laws against retired government officials writing about their professional experiences, the advantage has been completely conceded to the enemy.

Within academia, there are few genuine scholars working on Indian intelligence. Consequently, western journalists have largely relied on Western scholars who work on tangential aspects of India’s national security for commentary. Such interactions have done little to correct the narratives. Therefore, moving forward, the R&AW will need a PR mechanism supported by peacetime media engagement, academic collaborations, and engagement with popular culture. As India’s international stature grows, its intelligence agencies will come under greater scrutiny. In such an environment, the R&AW will need to decide how it wishes to be known.

  • About the author: Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya is a lecturer in intelligence and security at the Department of Criminology, University of Hull, United Kingdom
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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