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July 10, 2019

Strengthening the Indian Intelligence Edifice

Down the ages, the edifice of a nation’s Intelligence machinery and proficiency in this vital expertise has been a critical constituent for not only thwarting strategic and security challenges to it, but importantly, in the successful pursuit of its statecraft.  Additionally, ever evolving global and regional geopolitical threats, constantly accelerating warfare-waging capabilities coupled with revolutionary and highly lethal technological advances, available to not only nations but alarmingly to non-state actors and unknown entities, has made the responsibilities and tasks of intelligence agencies more than exacting and nightmarish.

History is replete with examples that whenever a major security or strategic lapse occurs, the first convenient fall-out is to ascribe it as an intelligence failure! A cataclysmic or a major tragedy may be attributable to a systemic shortcoming, a failure of leadership, lack of requisite resources, inadequate vigilance or sheer negligence but more often than not, supposedly, the lack of intelligence becomes the most expedient fall back option. Nevertheless, it is also a cardinal truth that lack of accurate and timely intelligence has often led to national failures and wrong decision making; even countless fatalities and destruction. Thus countries, their governments and its security institutions must confer, on this critical tool, adequate weightage in their national strategic preparedness.

Challenges for Indian Intelligence Agencies

India is located in one of the most violent expanses in the world with some not so friendly neighbours. What needs analysis is that since its independence in 1947, whether the desired level of import to the art and science of intelligence to counter challenges to its political integrity, security and economic resurgence has been accorded. The answer perhaps is not very encouraging. India has reacted to developments only after being harshly surprised, and only then has taken steps to review and improve its intelligence edifice!

India’s strategic domain extends from the Strait of Malacca in the East to the Gulf of Aden in the West, running southwards along the eastern African coastline and down to the southern expanse of the Indian Ocean. In addition, the entire Asia-Pacific region (now being increasingly referred to as the Indo-Pacific) also impinges on India’s security calculus. India’s land borders exceed 15,000 sq. kms which it shares with seven nations, including a small segment with Afghanistan (at present India’s border with Afghanistan adjoins Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir).

India has a coastline that is 7,683 km long and an EEZ of over 2 million sq. km in size. With an adversarial “string of pearls” being assiduously established around the Indian rim coupled with a few “sieges within” emanating from terror sponsored from across India’s frontiers and a credible Left Wing Extremism (LWE) insurgency, the responsibilities of and challenges to Indian intelligence are mind boggling!

The phenomenal growth of China, both economically and militarily, in India’s immediate neighbourhood, which has led to its alarming assertiveness in Asia and its ever expanding global and regional ambitions has to be carefully monitored. Not only owing to the unresolved border dispute with China, but threats along India’s vast coastline due to the growing rivalry between India and China in the Indo-Pacific maritime commons and the consequent security challenges from China in this entire strategic region has to be scrupulously watched. China expanding its footprint in India’s north-west by its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative, which passes through Indian territory (Gilgit-Baltistan) illegally occupied by Pakistan, has also to be kept under surveillance.

Military dominated, nuclear sabre-rattling Pakistan remains firmly entrenched in its myopic anti-India agendas employing terror and fomenting anti-India unrest in J&K. Pakistan’s devious role of keeping the pot boiling in fratricidal violence stricken Afghanistan in its efforts to install a Taliban and Islamabad friendly regime in Kabul, and keep at bay even India’s soft power forays in Afghanistan compounds the diverse challenges already existing for Indian intelligence. The devious activities of Pakistan’s protégés in Afghanistan, namely the Afghan Taliban, the al-Qaeda elements and those of the Haqqani  network – and now the emerging footprint of the ISIL/IS – will have to be constantly screened by Indian intelligence as they plot against Indian interests at the behest of Pakistan’s notorious ISI. In addition, threats to India from Pak sponsored non-state actors like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi etc,  are likely to  intensify in the years ahead.

India, which has been afflicted by the scourge of terrorism, since the last three decades or so, has to also vastly upgrade its economic intelligence capabilities. Terror needs adequate funding support and thus the tools for revenue and economic intelligence gathering, including effective liaison with friendly foreign nations, has to be ensured. Strict and discreet monitoring of the sizeable fund availability through financial laundering to the separatist leaders in J&K, insurgent groups in India’s Northeast and equally to the LWE chieftains and Indian Mujahideen elements has to be scrupulously ensured besides on other anti-national elements and suspect NGOs. It is a matter of satisfaction that recent raids on certain suspect separatists in the Kashmir Valley by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) have yielded some tangible results against money laundering criminals engaged in anti-national acts.

Intelligence agencies, importantly, also have to analyse the innovative transformations in terrorism developing across the globe and especially in the volatile region around the country.  Asymmetric threats from land, sea and air will also have to be factored. In addition, serious security threats emerging in the cyberspace domain and narco-terrorism et al, will also require Indian intelligence to be geared to counter these diverse threats.

With the global terror conglomerate, the rise and influence of the ISIL, also referred to as the Islamic State (IS) – though currently under acute pressure in Syria and Iraq – will need to be watched and counter measures adopted before it becomes a potent threat. Indian Intelligence will have to keep under surveillance, the spread of this evil terror outfit’s influence towards the borders of India. In cooperation with the police organisations of the states, intelligence agencies will need to check  the efforts of the IS to recruit volunteers for itself  from the Indian hinterland. Regrettably, there have been some re-energised efforts by Pakistan’s ISI and some in the misguided Sikh community, once again, to revive ‘Khalistani militancy’ in the Punjab which too needs monitoring by our intelligence agencies.  Similarly in Punjab, the major problem of drugs is also related to a direct Pakistani hand and Indian intelligence agencies have to work assiduously to thwart the spread of this evil.

In summation of the challenges faced by the Indian intelligence community, these are similar to those that are confronted by their counterparts across the world and all these relate to strategic intelligence, anticipatory intelligence, current operations, cyber intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter proliferation and counter intelligence. Historically, as stated earlier, intelligence agencies are forced to reform and restructure because of crises and failures! In India, notwithstanding  some of our major intelligence lapses occurring, hardly anyone, if at all, is held accountable for serious failures on this front. Some glaring examples are:

  • The inability to assess Chinese intentions during the 1959-62 period.
  • Inability to pinpoint Pakistan’s raising of an additional armoured division in 1965.
  • Inability to detect Pakistan plans for Operation Desert Hawk (the Akhnur attack in 1965 operations)
  • Inability to gauge Pakistani intentions in failed Operation Gibraltar (mid 1965 attempt by Pakistan to create a popular uprising in the Kashmir Valley)
  • Being taken by surprise in Operation Grand Slam (the launch of Pakistan armoured division in the Khem Karan sector in Sep 1965).
  • Being unable to prevent the assassination of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
  • Inability to gauge the LTTE’s reaction to the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.
  • Being taken by surprise by the Kargil incursions in 1999.
  • Being surprised by the attack on India’s Parliament in 2001, Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, and the many major attacks since then.

Overall, the accountability of intelligence agencies also must be ensured.

Indian Intelligence: Defining Benchmarks

There are currently 14 intelligence agencies operating in India with different and sometimes overlapping mandates. Most of these intelligence agencies have come up into being as a response to the changing regional dynamics but largely whenever there was some national embarrassment owing to faulty or the absence of timely and actionable intelligence. The oldest intelligence set-up is the Intelligence Bureau (IB) which  was established by the British in December 1887 as part of the Indian Special Branch to monitor all anti-British activities which had commenced gaining momentum owing to the stirrings of the Indian freedom movement. Amazingly, to date it has no legislative authorisation! Similarly, barring the National Investigative Agency (NIA), no other intelligence organisation too has!

Post-independence, a few efforts were made by some governments at the Centre to institutionally review the adequacy or otherwise of India’s intelligence organs and some restructuring was implemented.  Following the debacle in the 1962 war with China, the Directorate General of Security (DGS) was set up within the Intelligence Bureau (IB), with its operational unit, the Aviation Research Centre (ARC) tasked with obtaining intelligence on China. Following the failure of the IB in providing the requisite inputs in the 1965 war against Pakistan and the Mizo revolt in 1966, the government decided to hive off external intelligence under a new agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and linked the DGS with it. The proposal to raise the R&AW (1968) was enthusiastically and speedily cleared by the then PM Indira Gandhi for she appreciated the value of external intelligence in the pursuit of the nation’s strategic goals.

In recent years, the other significant benchmark in the evolution of Indian intelligence has been as a consequence of the Kargil War in 1999. India was taken totally by surprise as regards major incursions by Pakistani troops crossing the Line of Control (LoC) and occupying some of the Kargil heights dominating the Srinagar-Kargil road in the  Ladakh sector. The Kargil crisis led to a major and much required review of India’s higher defence management, security and intelligence architecture. The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) was chaired by the eminent strategic analyst, the late K. Subhramanyam and subsequently the comprehensive KRC Report was vetted by a high powered Group of Ministers (GOM). The GOM appointed four task forces to go into the details and various aspects of higher defence management. The Task Force on Intelligence Reforms was headed by former R&AW chief Gary Saxena who, after analysing the entire gamut of intelligence structures in India made some stellar recommendations which were incorporated in the final GOM Report (chaired by then Deputy PM LK Advani) and approved by the Vajpayee government in 2000-01.

The KRC had succinctly observed “…there is no institutionalised mechanism for coordination or objective oriented interaction between intelligence agencies and consumers at different levels. Similarly, there is no mechanism for tasking the agencies, monitoring their performance…nor is there any oversight of the overall functioning of the agencies.”  The KRC also opined “The resources made available to the Defence Services are not commensurate with the responsibility assigned to them. There are distinct advantages in having two lines of intelligence collection and reporting with a rational division of functions, responsibilities and areas of specialisation… Indian threat assessment is a single process dominated by R&AW…Indian intelligence structure is flawed since there is little back-up or redundancy to rectify failures and shortcomings in intelligence collection and reporting…”

The Task Force on Intelligence had recommen-ded the creation of a tri-service Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) as the nodal agency for the analysis of all military intelligence and to synergise the functioning of the three Services Intelligence Directorates (SIDs). Strategic intelligence assets of the Services like satellite imagery and Signals Intelligence were placed under the DIA. In addition, the GOM’s recommended the establishment of the National Technical Facilities Organisation (now renamed as the National Technical Research Organisation – NTRO) as the nodal agency to procure and provide all forms of TECHINT to the nation. The DIA came into existence in March 2002 and the NTRO in early 2003 after taking over some erstwhile technical assets of the R&AW’s ARC.

The Saxena Committee had also called for a Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and a Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI) to be set up under the IB. The MAC was to collect and coordinate all terror related information and the JTFI to share information with the state governments. In addition, the GOM report had rightly concluded that it was “neither healthy nor prudent” to endow R&AW with “multifarious capabilities” for both HUMINT and TECHINT responsibilities. Subsequently, while the Vajpayee government whole heartedly approved the GOM recommendations, it also streamlined and established the National Security Council (NSC) and the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and various coordination groups for the macro-management of intelligence in a more cohesive manner. It also established the Intelligence Coordination Group (ICG), chaired by the National Security Adviser (NSA) to task various intelligence agencies at the apex level.

Mumbai Terror Attack 2008 and the Need for Synergy  

Over the years, systemic shortcomings in India’s intelligence structures and functioning are unanimously accepted by most veteran security analysts in the country. Despite some much needed changes having been made in the intelligence edifice in India post Kargil operations, the intelligence failure seen during the dastardly Pakistan sponsored Mumbai 2008 terror attack had again shown the intelligence community in India in poor light. Once again, the lack of intelligence coordination between not only the various intelligence agencies but importantly between the IB and the police forces of the various states came to fore. The then Government of Maharashtra established the Ram Pradhan Committee to go into various aspects of countering terror and streamlining governmental responses for similar terror attacks. The UPA government, after some in-house deliberations, announced the setting up of the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID). Owing to acute professional differences, the former never got to be established and the functioning of the NATGRID, according to some analysts, requires further Agency Centres (SMACs) for effective liaison and coordination with the Ministry of Home Affairs at the Centre.

A significant fall-out of the post Mumbai terror attacks was the UPA government establishing the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for investigation of terror related matters. It is the only federal agency, chartered to supersede the state police forces in investigation and prosecute offenders for particular offences as required. Legally sanctioned by an Act of Parliament, according to most security analysts, the NIA is doing a reasonably effective job.

In June 2011, the UPA 2 government also constituted a Task Force under former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra, to carry out a holistic review of the nation’s security preparedness. This committee had recommended the creation of a new post of Intelligence Adviser to the NSA and the National Intelligence Board, which will coordinate and oversee the functioning of all civil and military intelligence agencies in the nation.

Recommendations to Energise Indian Intelligence

It will be stating the obvious that challenges to India’s integrity, internal stability and economic resurgence will only multiply in form and formidability in the near future. The myriad and plethora of challenges to Intelligence agencies in India requires them to make all efforts to keep themselves fully geared to counter these multiple threats. The first step should be to put into sync the national intelligence collection policy with national security objectives. Subsequently, other measures to energise Indian intelligence are enumerated in the succeeding paras.

(a) It will be prudent on the part of the government to carry out institutionalised reviews of our intelligence agencies on a fixed time basis, like a 10 yearly Pay Commission review or what is referred to in the UK as Blue Ribbon Commission reviews. This will ensure that we move beyond the reactive and every 10 years, stock is taken of our intelligence outfits to fulfil their mandates and corrective measures instituted.

(b) It is the considered opinion of many security analysts that the NSA is overburdened with exacting geopolitical, external affairs and internal security responsibilities apart from advising the PM on countless and diverse matters of national import! It is thus recommended that a separate post of a Director National Intelligence (DNI) for coordination of all intelligence, from civil and military intelligence agencies, liaison with friendly foreign countries intelligence outfits be created. This appointment would thus be an independent intelligence adviser to the PMO/NSA as also provide, as necessary, integrated intelligence inputs/advice to various ministries of the government. The NSA, in his present avatar, need not be over taxed with also being the chief coordinator or analyst of the nation’s intelligence endeavours.

(c) With India being the largest established democracy, it is only proper that its intelligence agencies must be subjected to some form of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. It is suggested that an Apex Board for Intelligence Norms and Scrutiny be constituted, by an Act of Parliament and all intelligence agencies function under its oversight. This board could be headed by the Vice President of India and have the PM, Home Minister, the Defence Minister, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, leaders of Opposition of the two houses of Parliament as its members.

(d) Notwithstanding revolutionary accretions in TECHINT, our HUMINT capabilities need vast improvement. This aspect must be given adequate weightage and we develop sufficient penetrative intelligence capabilities in HUMINT, across the concerned regions/outfits. Covert capabilities to install, if required, the ‘fear of God’ in rogue states/terror outfits must be ensured. Our DAs abroad, who are supposed to be military diplomats, can be suitably tasked – but unofficially only. External military intelligence acquisition should be handed over to the DIA.

(e) Intelligence agencies must ensure seamless, sincere and honest sharing of intelligence with each other in larger national interest avoiding all forms of ‘one-upmanship’ and turf battles. For ensuring synergy amongst all intelligence agencies, the National Geo Intelligence Framework which affords provisioning of a common platform to all intelligence agencies to share and update data should be implemented.

(f) The government must speedily implement police reforms in all the states, as suggested by many committees constituted for this purpose earlier. Policing and its effectiveness at the grassroots level is sine-qua-non in gathering intelligence at the ground level, especially in terror and insurgency infested regions and currently its effectiveness   leaves much to be desired.

(g) Indian intelligence’s linguistic skills, both in different vital languages and dialects and in the required numbers, is sadly lacking and needs to be substantially augmented. Languages which need emphasis are the ones spoken in our neighbourhood as also India’s own regional languages. Schools, colleges, our military institutions and governmental institutes for foreign languages must be suitably encouraged to produce a large number of linguists for employment by the government and intelligence agencies.

(h) With China, in particular, having acquired breath-taking capability to hack/disrupt the cyber networks of even advanced western nations, India needs to take immediate action, both in the offensive cum defensive aspects of cyber warfare. China now possesses absolutely phenomenal skills in ensuring “electronic paralysis” in its target countries and India needs stern counter measures to meet the Chinese cyber challenge. In addition, the Armed Forces must go full speed ahead to raise the recently sanctioned Inter-Services Cyber  Division to meet the complex challenges in  cyberspace. The Services will have to be adept in all nuances of Information Warfare in the coming years. Embedded technological threats in many electronic systems being imported will have to be monitored.

(i)  The government must ensure cross-posting, at various ranks, among personnel of different intelligence agencies. This step will ensure better flow of information and camaraderie between these agencies as also better integration.

(j)  In today’s seamless and highly interactive world, a fair amount of intelligence is available in the media, the internet, social media, governmental records, travelers, academia etc. By conservative estimates, nearly 80 percent of the information sought is available as open sources intelligence (OSINT). Selective outsourcing can be resorted to while intelligence veterans should be encouraged to maintain their old contacts in their areas of specialisation/interest.

(k) It is natural that intelligence heads exhibit loyalty to the government of the day. However, intelligence professionals must understand that the ultimate loyalty of all intelligence agencies remains to the nation and no political pressures get them to sway from their supreme duty to the nation and all intelligence inputs, available to them, are utilised exclusively in national interest. Thus, they must cultivate, retain and be proud of an apolitical orientation.

(l)  As regards defence intelligence is concerned, the DIA raised in 2002 is now doing a commendable job but it has to be provided with additional resources by the Services for it to truly live up to expectations. All the three Service Intelligence  Directorates (SIDs) must be put under its command. The Army Intelligence School at Pune must be upgraded to a Defence Intelligence College for training personnel from the three SIDs in the craft of intelligence.

(m)  The DIA must improve its HUMINT acquisition capabilities and its expertise in covert operations.

(n) The NTRO and the DIA must coordinate their respective TECHINT acquisition responsibilities for better cost-effectiveness, redundancy and a clearer intelligence mosaic.

(o) It is imperative that the nation builds a national intellectual capacity also in the intelligence domain by introduction of specialised courses in the fields of cyber, cryptology, artificial intelligence, big data analytics et al in our education system.

(p) Constant efforts to improve our capabilities in the domains of SIGINT, ELINT, cyber intelligence, political intelligence, economic intelligence, IMINT, MASINT (Measurement and Signature Intelligence) and OSINT must be earnestly strived.


It is unmistakably evident that threats to Indian security and our economic growth are only likely to intensify in the immediate future. Thus Intelligence, which is not only a reckonable force multiplier but the first line of defence, needs constant upgradation in its skills, competence and reach. To meet current security challenges and those of the foreseeable future, the government must strengthen the edifice and sinews of Indian intelligence as required. For a nation which seeks its rightful place on the global high table, a formidable, well rounded intelligence capability remains a primary pre-requisite.

Thus, India’s decision makers need to rid themselves of their endemic and bureaucratic sluggishness and endow this vital instrument of the state its necessary primacy and the wherewithal for it to adequately support laid down national objectives.

(Lt Gen Kamal Davar, a veteran of the 1965 and 1971 operations, was the first chief of
Defence Intelligence Agency, India and the Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of July-August 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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