Review of Vappala Balachandran’s Intelligence Over Centuries: the art and science of intelligence gathering

Vappala Balachandran does some plain-speaking on intelligence gathering and why incidents like Kargil and 26/11 could have been averted  

July 14, 2023 09:35 am | Updated 09:35 am IST

On October 2, 1986, India’s entire top leadership, including Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, could have been eliminated by an armed man, perched on a tree, at Rajghat. In his book, Intelligence over Centuries, Vappala Balachandran, who had a long stint with India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), gives a ringside view of the entire gamut of intelligence gathering. On the 1986 incident, he does some plain-speaking on the failure of the police to act despite the fact that intelligence was made available.

“Pinpointed intelligence” from R&AW was passed on to the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Delhi police and the Special Protection Group that an armed attack would take place on October 2, 1986, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and other VVIPs would be at Rajghat to pay homage. A terrorist, dressed as a gardener, would mount an armed attack, the intelligence said.

Failure to act

As it turned out, an assailant, perched on a tree at Rajghat, fired on the VVIPs after the prayers were over. But he was armed only with a muzzle loading gun, and that saved the day. The author claims the Delhi Police “had, in violation of standing instructions, pasted our secret alert on their staff notice board. No doubt, all of them [the security agencies] made searches of the periphery but the assailant had outwitted the security teams by climbing on a tree and hiding there for nearly 48 hours with his weapon!’

He conducts similar post mortems of the Kargil conflict of 1999, the 26/11 attack in Mumbai in 2008 and the Pulwama massacre in his fascinating book. The Kargil Review Committee had “primarily faulted R&AW for intelligence failure. The committee avoided the word ‘failure’ but said the intelligence was weak.’” Regarding the Mumbai attack by terrorists from Pakistan who came in a boat, Balachandran says, “there were as many as 16 clear intelligence pointers that the attack was coming. Both the Central and State Governments failed to convert these pointers into preventive action.” Balachandran, who was Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, and had worked in the Maharashtra police for 17 years, was part of the two-member committee set up by the Maharashtra government to go into the police response of 26/11.

Balachandran also traces the genesis of R&AW, which completed 50 years on September 21, 2018. Its founder was R.N. Kao, who had a formidable reputation; and Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister (1968). “Official records on why a separate foreign intelligence agency was created have not been released,” says Balachandran. “The still classified ‘Henderson Brooks review’ (December 1962) on our Chinese debacle could have been one of the reasons,” he says.

From the art of gathering intelligence, its successes and failures, technical aids to intelligence gathering, the “romance” of “intelligence liaison” between countries, interesting historical developments, moles, floor crossers, to a book jointly authored by R&AW and Pakistan’s ISI chiefs, the book offers insights, analysis and valuable background information.

The deeply-researched book should be a delight to anyone wanting to know more about India’s intelligence gathering exercise. As Tim Willasey-Wilsey, Visiting Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, put it: Balachandran brings not only an academic rigour to the subject but also a spy’s enquiring mind and a journalist’s instinctive scepticism.

Intelligence Over Centuries
Vappala Balachandran
Indus Source Books, Mumbai

The reviewer is an independent journalist.

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