The birth of R&AW resembled the completion of a complex puzzle. The core team [Rameshwar Nath] Kao gathered around him had painstakingly helped him bring it together. Sankaran Nair, MBK Nair, IS Hassanwalia and PN Banerjee were some of his frontmen.

One of the rules that Kao had insisted upon during the formation of the agency was that nothing be written down.

Even the status reports prepared for the prime minister would be typed out based on memory, and the document would be hand-delivered to Gandhi by Kao himself. The rule was implicit – no copies, no rough notes, no trail.

Hence, when Kao called for a meeting with his core team, the visual was contrary to the popular image of a meeting between high-ranking Intelligence officers. There were no large boards with writing all over them, no notepads strewn on the table, and no files stacked on top of each other. It was just the spies and the spymaster, discussing strategy.

“Knowledge is power,” Kao said in one of the early meetings, addressing the core team assembled in front of him. “and the proverb holds true for Intelligence agencies more than any other entity. Where the IB failed, we have to succeed.”

The one thing that the new agency absolutely could not afford was to become a cheap knock-off of the IB.

“Unlike the IB, R&AW will dedicate time to asset building,” declared Kao.

Agents and on-ground informers are the assets of an Intelligence agency. They eventually become windows into foreign and enemy territories. HUMINT (human intelligence) is of utmost importance, Kao stressed. A spy would be able to gather information, interpret it in terms of threat perception and transmit it back home in a way that no machine or device – however technologically advanced – ever could.

The days of slipping currency notes to poor villagers living along the border in exchange for information were fast fading away, for the simple reason that those methods could not penetrate deep into enemy territory. The R&AW would rely heavily on the presence of foot soldiers or agents on the ground.

These soldiers would deal not in blood and bone but in knowledge. Every titbit, every scrap of information picked up from the ground, would be another brick in the edifice of national Intelligence.

At R&AW, it would be imperative for anyone joining the team to unlearn what they already knew. The Intelligence game that Kao had in mind was unlike any that had been played in the country before. The risks involved were going to be tremendous, the stakes sky-high.

For a spy, it was not just the potential risk of losing one’s life that was involved. It was also a question of giving up one’s identity completely. It was a selfless and instinctive game, played for the love of one’s motherland.

And the man who played it best was sitting in that room with Kao – Sankaran Nair.

Operationally, no one in the organisation could match Sankaran Nair. He had been given charge of the West Pakistan desk in R&AW, and had years of experience working the Pakistan desk at the IB. He also commanded much respect abroad, in the shadowy international world of spooks.

Sankaran Nair was a man with multiple aliases. He loved the thrill of clandestine operations on the ground. He had mastered the art of reconnoitre and making contacts. He was adept in the infiltration and exfiltration of field agents. He knew how to run agents without even meeting them.

There were rumours that Nair had an asset who was highly placed in the Pakistani administration. However, no one could know for sure.

R&AW’s first recruits would be operating in neighbouring countries under the cover of Indian embassies. Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul was to create new jobs at various embassies. The ultimate goal was to have Indian agents set up and run their own networks of informers, moles or operatives overseas.

“Phase 1 would be information gathering or COMINT – communications intelligence. The technology, the foot soldiers and the agents will all contribute to that,” Kao said. “But the hard work does not end there. We would need a capable team to decipher and analyse all the information coming through.”

Kao told his men that he envisioned a large team consisting of financial and economic analysts, scientists in space technology, as well as agents working on information security and energy security.

“Do not forget Dr Phadke,” MBK. Nair chipped in. Brig Nair had chalked out a network of wireless connections in every part of the world with the help of his assistant Dr Phadke. He would liaise with the Cryptography Division, headed by a cryptography expert who had been transferred to R&AW from the IB.

Brig Nair spoke about his plans. “We will train foreign Intelligence recruits in wire-tapping via wireless or telephone using a bug. With this method, we hope our agents will be able to infiltrate and obtain information from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, Southeast Asia, and Africa.”

Hassanwalia was curious. “And how will they communicate with us?”

“Morse code,” Brig Nair replied. “Needless to say, this is very risky and will have to be done in absolute secrecy.” He even joked, “If we can organise a team of operators who speak Tamil and Malayalam, we can communicate via open channels in those languages and no one will know.”

The men in the room burst into hearty laughter.

Apart from the technical and operational details, Kao had something else in mind that he believed would complement the agency’s information-gathering strategies.

“Psy-war?” Banerjee asked, curious.

“Psy-ops,” Kao said. “Psychological operations.” He looked at Banerjee and said with a smile, “Psychological warfare is essentially information management. With the leeway that the prime minister has given us, we will be able to handle the information that comes in and manipulate and share only what we want with the media. We can ensure that the international spotlight is drawn to topics in favour of the country.”

While the information network would secure India’s position in the world dynamics, Kao had also planned to tap into the excellent rapport he had built with his counterparts in various other countries over the years. Mossad could open doors for them with information about West Asia and North Africa. The KGB – the main security agency for the Soviet Union – could help with the supply of arms and ammunition for operations.

The CIA too could be of help. Kao’s relationship with the CIA had developed after India’s war with China in 1962. CIA instructors had trained the SFF, or the secret and elite commando training programme for Tibetan refugees in India, designed to fight the Chinese Army in Tibet. A sizeable portion of the special force consisted of Tibetan rebels.

The CIA and Kao discussed the possibility of SFF operating as R&AW’s paramilitary unit and being intimately incorporated in the agency’s plans. The SFF had since been transferred to R&AW and was now working on the eastern borders of India. Its commando forces were agile and able, and completely at the disposal of R&AW.

The wheels of R&AW were thus set in motion. A rough training module had been finalised. The criteria to look out for in potential recruits had been drawn up. Red flags when screening candidates were listed out. Safe houses to conduct the training of the recruits were identified. Nothing was recorded in writing. Everything was memorised.

The War That Made R&AW

Excerpted with permission from The War That Made R&AW, Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket, Westland.