Central & South Asia

India’s Stumbling Spy Agency Needs Reform


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October 28, 2014 11:27 EDT

India’s imperial-era intelligence apparatus has multiple flaws and needs radical overhaul.

Since India’s independence in 1947, the country has been a democracy. Elections are held as scheduled, the press is largely free and parliament convenes regularly. Despite these democratic practices, India retains a strong streak of authoritarianism.

India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) is the classic example of the limits of Indian democracy. It has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception under British rule. The British never gave the IB a legal basis, a clear charter of objectives, a mission statement or a definition of its scope of activities. No mechanism was created to hold the IB accountable for its actions. Today, it continues to be opaque and still lacks statutory basis. This means that the IB essentially functions as an extra-constitutional authority with complete legal impunity.

The IB as a Chicken: A Bird? Yes, Can it Fly? No

When India became independent, the IB should have been revamped and given a statutory basis. After all, it was the organization tasked with spying on those fighting for freedom. In some other cultures, the IB would have been seen as a nest of collaborators who sold out to foreign conquerors. Instead, in the upheaval of partition, the IB escaped unscathed, retaining its full array of colonial powers. Poor prioritization and petty feuds in the post-independence government helped, but the main reason the IB retained power was the fear of balkanization. India’s new leaders were terrified of the country splintering into many independent nations and becoming less than the sum of its parts.

In a scathing judgment pertaining to discrimination against a woman officer, the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) stated that the IB required systematic clean-up. “It is like a chicken. A bird? — Yes. Can it fly? — No,” declared CAT. Unlike intelligence agencies in other countries, the IB does not recruit people on the basis of aptitude and is not run by its own professional cadre. Instead, the IB’s senior personnel arrive on deputation from the Indian Police Service (IPS), the successor to the elite Imperial Police of the British days.

There have been no attempts to reform the IB despite its numerous lapses over many decades. The most spectacular one occurred in Mumbai in 2008, when terrorists arrived into the heart of the city and proceeded to unleash mayhem. Yet, the Indian government has failed to reform the IB.

The lack of oversight means that no one knows how the IB functions. There are no mechanisms holding it accountable for its actions.

Why does the IB continue to remain an extra-constitutional entity? Why does it not have autonomy from political interference and a clear set of responsibilities? The official line is that national security is too sensitive a matter to be legislated on. This is nonsense, given the fact that both the CIA and MI6 have legal charters and legislative scrutiny. The reason for keeping the IB as an ad hoc agency is simply that those in power have used it to further their personal interests. A large proportion of the blame can be assigned to the Congress Party, which has been in power for most of the period since independence. But each elected government also deserves condemnation for turning a blind eye to urgently needed institutional reform.

Even the current government has failed to indicate that it plans to change the status quo. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an absolute majority in parliament and can easily push through legislation giving statutory basis to the IB. The big question is whether he will do so, or succumb to the temptation of earlier governments and use the IB as his handmaiden.

The Need for Oversight

The lack of oversight means that no one knows how the IB functions. There are no mechanisms holding it accountable for its actions. One analyst has remarked: “The cover of secrecy is often serving as a carpet of immunity from penal action, accountability, professional acts of omission and commission and misuse of resources for tracking the political opponents of ruling parties, at the expense of the taxpayers’ money.”

Three of the IB’s sins are particularly harmful to the country. First, its operational incompetence has now become legendary. The tragedy in Mumbai is only the most spectacular in a long list of failures. Many IB personnel have no aptitude for the job and some have no interest in what they do. Quite a few IPS officers apply for a deputation to the IB simply to get away from tough areas such as Nagaland and Kashmir. Upper echelons of the organization often conduct haphazard studies into security threats while subsidiary units are left to pursue their own agendas. The organization is poorly managed, with fragmentation and chaos being order of the day.

Second, the main task of the IB seems to be furthering the political interests of its masters instead of bolstering internal security. India has now become familiar with the sorry practice of paid journalism. This phenomenon involves politicians paying journalists for favorable coverage. When the Congress Party was in power, many IB officers were reportedly the conduit for cash to journalists who sang paeans to the government.

Third, discrimination is rife in the IB. It has a culture of wall-to-wall hierarchy that favors sycophants. The personal track records of employees are often inconsequential. What matters is whether their superiors like them personally, making the IB an organization tailor-made for fawning courtiers. There is a widespread perception that the IB is not a good place to be if you belong to a lower caste. Harassment is rife, and there is no clear means of recourse to employees who are wronged.

Women officers get short shrift. N.B. Bharathi, an IPS officer of the 1998 batch from the Orissa cadre, was sidelined for no reason. The government ignored a litany of letters and appeals from her. Finally, she had to go to court, and the Central Administrative Tribunal ruled in her favor, calling the IB chicken in the process.

The Modi government has an opportunity to create an IB with a clear legal charter, democratic oversight and much-needed accountability. The big question is whether it will have the vision, imagination and courage to do so.

Given the state of affairs, it is important that the government reins in the IB and ensures accountability. The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) believes that oversight should be four-pronged. First, there must be some internal mechanism to account for what the IB is up to. Second, executive control at the level of the government has to improve. Third, parliamentary scrutiny is a must. Finally, there has to be some supervision by independent bodies such as India’s well-regarded auditors and the judiciary.

Most of all, there is need for a new legal and constitutional charter for the IB. India’s vice president, Hamid Ansari, once suggested a parliamentary framework for scrutiny. Former Congress MP Manish Tewari introduced the Intelligence Services (Powers and Regulation) Bill in Parliament in 2011, to bring all intelligence agencies under the ambit of law. The bill laid down charters for all intelligence agencies, defining the scope of operations for them and establishing an oversight mechanism. The truth is that this bill is badly conceived and poorly drafted. Even so, the bill sets a precedent, and India’s intelligence establishment needs some legislative basis sooner rather than later.

What Now?

In the 2014 budget, the newly elected Modi government allocated over $19 billion to the IB for the year. The average Indian citizen has no idea how this money will be used. It will not even be audited. A Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court of India two years ago argued that India’s security agencies, such as the IB, should be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. Currently, India’s home secretary provides a certificate stating that the IB’s expenditures are in order and that suffices for scrutiny. Many so-called security experts claim that an audit would damage national security by compromising the need for secrecy. This is nonsense. If the CIA can be audited, what is so special about the IB?

R.N. Kulkarni, an old IB hand, remarks that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first home minister, “failed in their governmental obligation to ensure the creation of an intelligence organization based on statute and in response to ground realities.” Partition and conflict with Pakistan distracted them. As a result, India is saddled with an institution that is not fit for purpose.

If India wants to be a great power then it needs robust institutions. Congress failed to reform the IB for decades. The Modi government has an opportunity to create an IB with a clear legal charter, democratic oversight and much-needed accountability. The big question is whether it will have the vision, imagination and courage to do so. Sixty seven years after independence, India still awaits.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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