‘Escape To Nowhere’: A Mix Of Facts And Fiction – OpEd


“Escape To Nowhere”, a gripping spy thriller written by Amar Bhushan, who retired as Special Secretary (No.3 ) in the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) in 2005, has been described by the publishers as a spy fiction “loosely inspired by a true incident that took place in 2004 when a senior intelligence officer suspected of being a spy for decades vanished.”

The true incident alluded to is the clandestine escape of Major (retd) Rabinder Singh, a Joint Secretary of the R&AW, and his wife to the US via Kathmandu with the help of the station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the US Embassy in Kathmandu in May,2004. Rabinder Singh escaped while he was under surveillance by the Counter-Intelligence & Security Division (CI&S) of the R&AW because of suspicion that he was working for a foreign intelligence agency.

Escape to Nowhere
Escape to Nowhere

While the R&AW suspected that he must be working for the CIA, the first concrete evidence that he was a mole of the CIA came after he had escaped to the US evading the surveillance mounted on him. Enquiries made in Kathmandu after he gave a slip to the surveillance teams and vanished from Delhi brought out that the CIA station chief in Kathmandu had made arrangements for his clandestine flight to the US in a British Airways flight with US passports issued to him and his wife. They were escorted to the US from Kathmandu by a woman officer of the CIA named Angelien.

The Manmohan Singh Government, which assumed office on May 22, 2004, had Rabinder dismissed from service under Article 311 (2) ( c ) of the Constitution of India on June 5,2004.This Article enables the dismissal of a public servant on grounds of national security without holding a formal departmental enquiry. The dismissal order was issued after he had taken sanctuary in the US and did not serve much purpose.

At the time this embarrassing incident took place, Shri C.D.Sahay was Secretary ( R ), as the head of the R&AW is known. In his capacity as Special Secretary and No 3 to Shri Sahay, Amar wore many hats. One of them was as the head of Counter-Intelligence and Security (CI&S). In that capacity, he was the Chief Spy Catcher of the R&AW and the Czar of its counter-intelligence.

The initial suspicion regarding Rabinder Singh was aroused by the observations of a young directly-recruited officer of the Research & Analysis Service (R&AS), who had noticed that Rabinder exhibited undue curiosity about classified matters of various divisions of the R&AW with which he was not connected and was in the habit of cultivating other officers through expensive entertainment in order to collect details of the happenings in the divisions under their charge.

This young officer, as he was expected to do, immediately reported his observations to Amar, who ordered the CI&S Division to mount a surveillance on Rabinder. The surveillance lasted 91 days. It covered his office, car, his residence and a gym visited by him.

The surveillance teams collected considerable details confirming the observations of the young R&AS officer. They also found out that Rabinder was in the habit of extensively Xeroxing classified documents passing through his hands and carrying the Xerox copies to his house. While there was thus strong evidence that he was probably working as an agent of a foreign intelligence agency, suspected to be the CIA, there was no provable evidence connecting him to the CIA.

Normally such evidence regarding the agency for which Rabinder was working could have come only from clandestinely recorded meetings of Rabinder with his handling officer. During the entire period of surveillance, the surveillance teams did not come across any instance of Rabinder clandestinely meeting his controlling officer in the agency for which he was suspected to be working.

In the absence of such concrete evidence regarding the agency for which Rabinder might be working, differences arose between Sahay and Amar as to what should be done. Sahay urged Amar not to allow any more leakage of classified information and documents through Rabinder to the agency controlling him. He advised Amar to act against Rabinder on the basis of whatever incomplete evidence that he had been able to collect, have him arrested and interrogated and dismissed under Article 311 ( 2 ) ( C).

Amar took a legalistic approach. He advised Sahay against any premature action. He wanted to move against Rabinder only after irrefutable evidence that would facilitate his successful prosecution had been collected and the agency for which he was working had been clearly identified.

Such evidence and such identification were not forthcoming from the R&AW surveillance teams. Sahay thereupon urged Amar to officially inform the IB and hand over the responsibility for further surveillance to the IB, which is the principal CI agency of India and has the responsibility for counter-intelligence in all departments of the Government of India, including the R&AW. Amar, who seems to have had a strong distrust of and ingrained prejudice against the IB, was not in favour of this.

At this stage, Sahay started getting worried that even Brajesh Mishra, the then Principal Secretary to the PM and the National Security Adviser (NSA), had not been kept informed of the suspicions regarding Rabinder and the surveillance mounted on him. On the 74th day of surveillance, Sahay insisted that the case should be brought to the notice of Brajesh Mishra. Amar opposed this. Sahay put his foot down and asked for a note so that he could brief Brajesh Mishra.

After Rabinder Singh escaped from Delhi, the CI&S staff found in his house two laptops. Amar gave them to the young R&AS officer, who was a computer expert, for examination. After examination, the R&AS officer reported that Rabinder had been transmitting the information and documents to his controlling officer through his laptops which had imprints of 23,100 files, some of which were probably Rabinder Singh’s correspondence with his children in the US.

Enquiries made after Rabinder’s escape to the US brought out that he was being controlled by the CIA from the US Embassy in Kathmandu and not that in Delhi, that he used to transmit his reports and documents through the Internet and that he was making clandestine visits to Kathmandu to meet his controlling officer for instructions.

What I have stated above is my reconstruction of the Rabinder Singh case on the basis of my study of the so-called spy fiction and the details given in it. The book is an intelligent and intricate mixture of facts and fiction based on the Rabinder Singh case. It is not a case study or a critical analysis of the Rabinder Singh incident by Amar. Instead, it is his version, in the form of fiction, of why he handled the surveillance in the way he did.

After reading his narrative carefully, I have come to the conclusion that it will be uncharitable to describe the book as an attempt by Amar to deny allegations made by the media and analysts that he was personally responsible for this fiasco. He has not tried to conceal what in retrospect might appear to be his sins of commission and omission in the handling of the enquiry and surveillance. It is more an attempt by him to justify the way he handled it which, in his own admission, was different from the way Sahay wanted it handled . He does not come out as an intellectually dishonest person or a bungler. Instead, he comes out as a sincere operative who believed in certain ways of doing a CI investigation which enabled Rabinder to escape.

Sahay comes out very creditably out of this narrative. His was a pragmatic, feet-on-the-ground approach. He had no compulsive distrust of the IB or of Brajesh Mishra. Sahay rightly believed that it was the job of the IB to conduct the surveillance and that Brajesh Mishra had a right to be kept informed. The only reproach I will make against Sahay is that he did not put his feet down and direct Amar to carry out his orders. The fact that Sahay and Amar belonged to the same 1967 batch of the IPS and were close personal friends seemed to have come in the way of his taking a strong line.

In contrast to Sahay’s pragmatic approach, Amar’s legalistic approach dictated his view that even in counter-espionage investigations, the law should be scrupulously observed and that nothing should be done on the basis of suspicions alone, however strong.

It is an interesting study of the dilemma faced in counter-espionage investigations. Apparently to avoid motivated allegations of violations of the Official Secrets Act (OSA) by his detractors, Amar has chosen a fictional format to present the salient points of the case to the public. He has carefully concealed the identities of all those involved by giving them fictitious names and even fictitious particulars. He has avoided giving any dates and in some places given wrong years of events.

Those carefully studying the so-called fiction would notice that he has sought to give the impression that the fiction relates to the period after he retired in 2005.In one of the discussions between Wasan as Sahay is called and Jeevnathan, as Amar calls himself, there is even a reference to the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai that took place long after the escape of Rabinder and the retirement of Sahay and Amar. There is similarly a reference to the Times Now TV channel which came into existence long after the Rabinder episode. There is even a well-disguised reference (without naming him) to Arnab Goswami, the anchor of Times Now. Jeev refers to Arnab as “a man who matched the hypocrisy and banality of his panellists with his supercilious eloquence and insufferable interruptions.”

The book, which is extremely well written in excellent English, is bound to become a best-seller and could attract our movie producers who are dying for an exciting spook story in Indian colours. It has high literary merits and one shouldn’t be surprised if it also picks up a reward or two for fiction.

The fictional format restricts its educative value for analysing and bringing out the state of our counter-intelligence. The Government and the R&AW should resist the petty urge to harass Amar for writing this. He has not done any harm to national security by writing this book.

Applaud Amar for writing an enjoyable book of facts and fiction. Don’t needle him.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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