Inside the shadowy Indian spy agency at the heart of Canada killing row

trudeau hardeep singh
trudeau hardeep singh

With his spectacles and sombre grey suit, Pavan Kumar Rai looks every inch the professional senior Indian civil servant.

His low-key, bureaucratic manner fits perfectly with the anodyne name of his employer: the Research and Analysis Wing.

Yet Mr Rai and his organisation were thrust into the spotlight this week, after explosive allegations from Justin Trudeau that India assassinated Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil.

Mr Trudeau’s announcement, which has provoked outrage in India, was followed by the swift expulsion of Mr Rai, who Canada identified as the local station chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW or R&AW), India’s equivalent of MI6 or the CIA.

The furore has turned rare attention on an intelligence agency serving the world’s most populous nation is much less well known further afield despite its reputation in its own region.

RAW was founded in 1968 under prime minister Indira Gandhi after New Delhi felt it had twice been blind-sided by its neighbours. The Intelligence Bureau, India’s internal security agency, its equivalent of MI5, had failed to foresee either the humiliating 1962 border war with China, or the 1965 invasion by Pakistan in disputed Kashmir.

Vappala Balachandran, a senior former RAW officer and special secretary in the government, said: “The 1962 Indo-China war gave us a big jolt because we could not really understand. We didn’t have much intelligence about the capabilities of China. India realised we ought to have a professional external intelligence agency.”

RAW was founded by executive orders to serve directly under India’s prime minister. That means it does not have the same parliamentary or congressional scrutiny as MI6 or the CIA, according to intelligence academics.

Its ranks have traditionally been filled by Indian civil servants, many of them former policemen like Mr Rai. The focus from the start was India’s own backyard, primarily Pakistan and China.

“East and West, RAW operates everywhere, but our main priority is the neighbourhood and to secure our neighbourhood,” explained AS Dulat, a former RAW chief.

From the beginning there was debate about what action RAW should be allowed to take. It needed to be able to conduct “covert action”, but it was decided that was limited to political action and influence, not assassinations.

Some of the most hawkish Indian securocrats have disagreed, believing instead that RAW should copy Israel’s Mossad, and be able to conduct killings.

Dr Walter Ladwig, an expert on South Asian security at King’s College London, said: “There’s always been this undercurrent, or at least one school of thought, that that should be the model for Indian intelligence.

“They should have the ability, like the Israelis allegedly do, to reach out and touch bad guys wherever they are in the world. That was an aspirational thing, but it’s not been seen to be their bread and butter.”

No assassinations

Former officials are adamant that assassinations have always been ruled out. Mr Dulat said: “We don’t do the kill work. If anything new has started, I have no knowledge about that.”

Mr Balachandran, added: “We never do that. It is against our philosophy. We are purely an intelligence agency. We win over people and collect intelligence through technical or human means. Assassinations have never been part of our culture.”

The wing instead has a reputation for a softer approach and wielding more subtle tools.

“They are more traditionally seen to wield money as a tool of influence and maybe occasionally blackmail, rather than a gun or a bomb,” said Dr Ladwig.

The stance fits in with a broader Indian approach to dealing with enemies and insurgents, said Dr Dheeraj Paramesha of Hull University, who has written a book on RAW.

“The first step is to try to make peace with the concerned party, then if that doesn’t work, the second step is to try and bribe them, and if that doesn’t work the third step is to try and divide them.”

Yet that softly-softly approach does not mean the Indian state has always been opposed to removing enemies, he said. From the 1980s, there was a feeling that Pakistan and its feared Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spies were so heavily involved in fomenting militancy in Kashmir and Punjab that “some individuals needed to be eliminated”.

Building on divisions they had already created, intelligence officers encouraged militants to kill other militants.

Dr Paramesha said: “You don’t have Indian-trained intelligence operatives who are trained assassins, but it would be wrong to consider that Indian intelligence agencies are above and beyond the practice of assassinations, because their way of doing it is to use one group against another group.”

Soon after RAW’s foundation, it helped train and supply rebels in then Eastern Pakistan and spied on Pakistan’s army ahead of the 1971 war which created Bangladesh. RAW has since fought a decades-long battle with the ISI which it accuses of supporting Islamist and Sikh militancy to weaken the Indian state.

Pakistan in turn accuses RAW of backing separatists in its own Balochistan province. Sri Lanka also in the past accused RAW of training and arming Sri Lankan Tamil militants.

More recently, China’s clashes with India at Galwan in the Himalayas mean Beijing rather than Islamabad is now again RAW’s main neighbourhood focus.

West’s discontent

However, further afield, the growth of diaspora communities in the West has also created another arena. Former RAW officials say it has no interest in spying on Western governments, but it is thought to be heavily involved in gathering intelligence in both the Indian and Pakistani communities there.

While Sikh militancy has been largely suppressed in northern India, Canada particularly, and to a lesser extent the UK, are seen as a hotbed of the Khalistan movement seeking a separate Sikh homeland.

Dr Ladwig said: “The thing that I think is hard for us looking at this from the outside, is to really understand how much this Khalistan is such a hot button. The Canadians have always been seen by India as being particularly soft on the Khalistani issue.”

Despite these occasional tensions, RAW had until this week traditionally prided itself on having good relations with host governments.

Mr Balachandran said its staff worked in embassies and consulates.

“There is nothing secret about it. In the West, we tell them our problems and threats and they help us. We don’t want to get into any confrontation. That is not our job at all.”

However, some analysts have questioned whether Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, may favour a more muscular and assertive RAW. The agency’s set up means it is difficult to glimpse policy shifts, but there have been reports of bigger budgets and the promotion of operational field staff over those with more analytical backgrounds.

Dr Ladwig said: “There are people who suggest that they are being encouraged to be more forward leaning. I think there’s just a general sense that the security challenges that India faces, India wants to try to deal with. Certainly part of Modi’s modus operandi is to portray himself as being tough on security and tough on threats to India.”

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