As the Cold War gained momentum, Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist India was a CIA target as well. Recall that Nehru had remained silent when the Soviets invaded Hungary in October 1956 but had admonished the British, French and Israelis for their invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis a week later. This was enough for the Americans to make India a country of interest in the Cold War and differentiate it from Pakistan. India’s participation in the Bandung Conference in 1955 that helped the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement was also viewed with extreme suspicion in Washington, DC and other Western European capitals.
Jayaprakash Narayan, at that time honorary president of the Congress for Cultural Freedom’s India chapter and a staunch anti-communist, had condemned Nehru for his silence on Hungary. Eventually, the two broke off and JP became Nehru’s strident critic. Earlier, young JP, upset with the way the freedom movement was meandering in India in the 1920s, had gone to the US. He returned in 1929 after an eight-year stay during which he saw the dark side of capitalism. Minoo Masani, a freedom fighter and later a member of the rightist Swatantra Party, was another prominent Indian member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
India “was mission critical”, according to Encounter. Other magazines were launched as well – Quest and Imprint.
Quest got off to a poor start and received critical comments from US Ambassador Galbraith, while the Indian communists described it as American propaganda. It lasted for more than twenty years with many prominent Indians contributing articles, poems and essays to it. Its first Indian editor was Nissim Ezekiel, and it ran advertisements for Encounter and later for oil giants Mobil and Standard Oil. The American Committee of the Congress for Cultural Freedom also canvassed for funds from other CIA fronts like the Asia Foundation.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA was desperate not to let the KGB have the run of play in India. Philip Knightley, author of The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century, became managing editor of Imprint. Based out of Mumbai, where Knightley lived at the time, this literary magazine was sold for one rupee. The content included condensed versions of American bestsellers. The magazine was owned by two Americans, Gloria and Arthur Hale. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, Knightley met Harry Rositzke, former chief of the CIA’s Soviet Bloc division in Washington while working on a documentary. It was during this meeting that Rositzke disclosed to Knightley that he knew Imprint very well since it was one of his little operations when he was CIA station chief from 1960–64! Imprint was intended to counter the influence of the numerous cheap and glossy Soviet magazines that were easily available in India.
Besides this, the publication had other benefits for the Americans. It had a legitimate bank account that could be used for other covert operations, it was a kind of safe house for the CIA’s agents and a listening post for gossip.
A listening post is usually a good starting point for recruitment and other operations. The magazine eventually shut down in 1986. Spies being spies, Igor, the KGB man in Mumbai, tried to recruit Knightley, who caught on and declined. The CIA was much smarter and Knightley would never have guessed that he had been working for the CIA had Rositzke, under the assumption that Knightley already knew something, not blurted out the secret.
India was the playground of intelligence games between the CIA and the KGB. The KGB claimed they had ten Indian newspapers and one news agency on their payroll and thousands of articles were planted in these outlets. It claimed to have funded several politicians, senior bureaucrats (including diplomats, police officers and intelligence officers) and members of Parliament. Surely, the CIA would not have lagged behind in this kind of activity. The espionage case of the Larkin brothers in the 1980s was an example of the CIA’s successes. The game of suborning important Indian entities had begun early and by the 1960s the KGB had acquired a considerable hold on the Indian system. This was classic intelligence business, with Indira Gandhi’s code name being VANO in KGB records.
A 1985 secret CIA report declassified in December 2011 gives details of how the Americans saw KGB activities in India up to November 1985. Allowing for exaggerations, both by the CIA and the KGB, for different reasons, the presence of both was significant. They probably matched each other personnel for personnel. The CIA’s assessment of that time was that the Soviets gave substantial financial assistance to Indira Gandhi’s Congress (I), the two communist parties and individual politicians of different political parties. Consequently, the Soviets had easy access to the corridors of power and to Indian newspapers.
At one time, Moscow planted covertly and overtly more than 1,60,000 items in the freest press in the Third World and its access to the Press Trust of India earned the agency the title “Press Tass of India” (after the Soviet news agency TASS).
In addition, the Soviets covertly financed the publication of books and distributed about 25 million magazines, books and pamphlets.
The Soviet press section was always a highly active section of its embassy in India. At one time, there were about 800 Soviet officials there in different capacities – as diplomats, intelligence officers, trade and information officials, military personnel, TASS and Novosti journalists and Aeroflot representatives. Vyacheslav Trubnikov, later the head of SVR and ambassador to India from 2005 to 2009, had been on an undercover assignment to the country between 1971 and 1977 as a representative of Novosti. At that time, the CIA estimated the KGB and GRU strength to be about fifty, with another thirty suspected intelligence officers. These officers could draw on logistical support from the Soviet information department, trade mission and cultural centre. The embassy ran an efficient and fast-reacting disinformation campaign, mostly against the US, even implicating the US in the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and linking former US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick to a so-called plan to “Balkanize” India. The Americans surely played their own games as well and there was no shortage in their numbers either.
It was General Oleg Kalugin, former chief of the First Directorate of the KGB, who said that it looked as if India was for sale. Both the CIA and the KGB had penetrated the Indian government. As a result, neither the Soviets nor the Americans entrusted sensitive information to the Indians fearing it might reach the other camp. A devastating indictment from a friend that felt no guilt for spying and suborning an ally.
Excerpted with permission from The Unending Game: A Former R&AW Chief’s Insights Into Espionage, Vikram Sood, Penguin Random House.