The tussle between the Intelligence Bureau and the CBI over the Ishrat Jahan case reflects the dangerous trend of policymakers eroding their independence and objectivity
The theatre of the absurd is being played out right before us. India’s two premier security agencies are at loggerheads and the battle is being waged through the media. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seems set to charge sheet senior intelligence officer Rajinder Kumar and three of his juniors in connection with the Ishrat Jahan “fake encounter” case.
The Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief Asif Ibrahim has written to the Home Ministry complaining about the “witch-hunt” against its officers. It was reported in the media last week that in a strongly worded letter to the Home Secretary, R.K. Singh, Mr. Ibrahim registered his disapproval of the CBI’s investigation against its officers and said it was “disastrous for the morale of IB officers.” The CBI director, Ranjit Sinha, responded by suggesting that it was up to the IB to appeal to the right quarters if it wants immunity from prosecution. He went on say that “a bogey is being created that thanks to the Ishrat Jahan case, the entire IB will stop functioning and national security will be in jeopardy.”
The government, meanwhile, is busy doing what it does best — fudging the issue while trying to get as much political mileage out of this unfortunate spectacle as it possibly can. Commenting on the CBI’s submission to the court, the Union Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, said that those guilty of carrying out the alleged fake encounter should be punished. “Facts are facts. Guilty should be punished,” was his profound response as if in the cloak-and-dagger world of intelligence, things are that straightforward. His junior minister, R.P.N. Singh, was more nuanced when he suggested that “when they [the CBI] ask us for sanction, they will have to come up with reasons and proof” while bemoaning the fact that “over the past few years, we have been dismantling our own organisations, be it the IB or RAW.”
This raises the question of who has been responsible for dismantling these organisations. And the answer is very clear: the nation’s policymakers. Intelligence in India has long ceased to be a profession and a craft but has turned into a tool to be used for partisan gain by the political dispensation of the day. Successive governments have systematically misused the IB as a result of which the agency’s officers are much better at doing domestic political intelligence than they are at targeting internal security threats. A nation’s intelligence community is expected to be a source of unbiased and objective information; if it were considered no more objective than other sources, it could not fulfil this role. Stated another way, the role and goal is to inform decisions, not to promote any particular outcome. A balance has to be struck between the policymaker and the analyst: relationships have to be close enough to ensure the relevance of the intelligence product while maintaining a sufficient distance to ensure that independence and objectivity are not compromised, but not so distant that the value of the product decreases. Managing this tension successfully requires an awareness of its existence on both sides of the relationship. In India, the skewed priorities of policymakers have meant that ensuring the independence and objectivity of the nation’s intelligence organisations was never a prime objective. And the result is for all to see.
As intelligence exists to understand and convey objectively information and knowledge of the context within which decisions must be made, the perennial question facing mature democracies has always been one of how to shield intelligence reporting from policy bias or from having political pressure exerted to make it conform to preconceived policy. In addressing this, policymakers face the challenge of providing effective direction to the intelligence community under their control while exercising self-restraint to avoid distorting the product they receive. Additionally, there is the question of how to avoid internal politicisation and policy advocacy on the part of those within the intelligence community.
This issue is complicated when policy recommendations incorporate covert intelligence which is to be kept secret as this can result in the formulation of policy options which, due to their sensitive nature, limit their exposure to independent assessment and criticism. In the case of India, not only have the policymakers routinely failed in providing effective guidance to the intelligence agencies but have also left no stone unturned in politicising institutions that often form the bedrock of a nation’s security. The recent turmoil in the intelligence ranks over the Ishrat Jahan case is merely a manifestation of these trends.
To address this, organisations should be structured so that the intelligence provider is not simply a part of the policymaking process, and systems and processes should be designed to incorporate checks and balances to make it unlikely that one person’s political viewpoint can sway the analysis. This balance between the intelligence practitioner and the policymaker has come unstuck in India. And unless rectified soon, it will have damaging consequences not only for India’s ability to practise the art of intelligence effectively but also for wider national security.
(Dr. Harsh V. Pant is Reader in International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London.)