Did Rabinder Singh, the notorious intelligence operative suspected of links with the CIA really outwit the country's top intelligence agency? What does it take to be a spy? How do operatives put their necks on the line for little recognition afterward? If there's one thing to learn from Amar Bhushan, former R&AW operative, it's that in the world of spycraft, things are never, ever as they seem. He speaks to Darshana Ramdev about a 30-year career that took from the radical regime in Bangladesh to the home of the Madhesis in Nepal.
May 5, 2004. Rabinder Singh, an Indian intelligence agent working for the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), failed to show up to work. Singh, who had been placed under surveillance for several months, had failed to do anything out of the ordinary and the investigating had no choice but to stop the proceedings.
When he failed to show up to work on that fateful day, a visit to his house showed that Rabinder Singh, the famously "mediocre officer," had vanished without a trace, family in tow, aided perhaps by dummy passports. Had Rabinder Singh been a double agent working for the CIA? No evidence supported this, save the surveillance footage, which was not admissible in court.
The disappearance of the wily double agent caused a sensation in the press. It was regarded as a failure of intelligence, with allegations flying thick and fast over whether or not Singh's escape had had aid from within the organisation itself.
Cut to June 2017, to a quiet suburb in Domlur, Bengaluru. The gentleman who opens the door is tall and strapping, bearing the definite traces of military or police service. This is Amar Bhushan, the R&AW operative turned fiction writer, whose newest book, The Zero-Cost Mission and The Wily Agent, was recently put out in stores. In his first book, Escape to Nowhere, Bhushan presents a thinly-veiled fictional account of the operation mounted against Rabinder Singh and his much-publicised escape. The complaisant gentleman who sits before us was also the Chief Investigating Officer in the Rabinder Singh case.
A conversation with an operative like Bhushan reveals one thing very quickly: Nothing is ever as it seems. The socio-political fabric is guided and manipulated by more forces than even the operatives in charge of top-secret missions can hope to accurately imagine. "Everything is given to us on a need-to-know basis," Bhushan agrees. It's one reason why, he says, RAW operatives have the tendency to make up stories, or as he puts it, "provide false information." "You have worked in an organisation like this for so many years and people want to know what it does. Can you say you don't know? We're always trying to assert ourselves, our identities."
In the world of subterfuge and spycraft, the identity is a changeable thing: Bhushan provides us with many names: Sujal, Kabir, Rehman - none of which are real, of course. "30 years of training," he smiles. "I have never faltered, even once."
Back to the story of Rabinder Singh, however. The mission might have been perceived as a colossal failure, according to the mainstream media, at least. Bhushan's response, however, is surprising. "It was a great success! We got exactly what we wanted!" The affable, humble, generous-to-a-fault Singh had been known for his propensity to ask questions. "He would walk up to various officials and say things like, 'Do you know if Rajapakshe will win the election? Have you gathered intelligence? Have you briefed the U.S. Embassy'?" Bhushan recalls.
Startlingly, none of this gave rise to suspicion, for Singh's lavish parties, which drew top intelligence and IPS officers, brought him much popularity within the organisation. It was an agent from Karnataka who, his suspicions aroused, began asking questions about Rabinder Singh. "The trouble with this is that nobody believes you. We bring in so much information everyday but how do you prove it? We had no proof against Rabinder Singh, atleast not the kind that could be used in court. Besides, what if we brought him in and filed a case only to have him acquitted by the court? He would have remained in Delhi and continued being a mole, no doubt."
The options before Singh were clear: Run away and disappear or confess and "let the organisation finish you off." Singh, needless to say, chose the former. He died last year, Bhushan informs us, in total ignominy, having been abandoned by the CIA and left without a passport or even refugee status.
In Wily Agent, Bhushan describes what is perhaps the most integral part of being an operative: cultivating sources. Finding people to trust, setting up discreet modes of communication and ensuring that the source's cover isn't blown is a full-time occupation. What do they look for in a source? Bhushan's reply is prompt: "We don't want someone too intelligent. We don't need someone who questions us at every turn, but he should be curious enough to search for information."
Mediocrity, he maintains, is an important requirement within intelligence agencies, which he describes in his prologue as, "an agency that thrived on cronyism, mediocrity and arrogance." Bhushan's 30-year career in RAW started out after he was handpicked from within the state police force. "I was deployed to organise BSF intelligence in Kashmir, after which I served a stint in the Intelligence Bureau and finally arrived at RAW. I enjoyed every moment of it, really."
If you're hoping for a thrilling read, full of carnage and betrayal you may be disappointed. Spycraft is the art of subtlety, he stresses and their daily maneuvers appear, at first glance, almost mundane. Needless to say, it’s far from the truth. He refers, in code, to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party as ‘the Nationalists’, the Avami League simply as ‘The League,’ describing his experience in Bangladesh during a particularly war-ravaged pocket of history. He arrived in Nepal during the trade embargo imposed by the Rajiv Gandhi government, as a response to the Nepal monarch's refusal to sign the Indo-Nepalese friendship treaty.
"I've lived on my own terms and had my share of problems with the organisation but that has never deterred me from doing what I set out to achieve," he remarks. Next on the cards is the film adaptation of Escape to Nowhere, for which director Vishal Bharadwaj recently acquired the movie rights. "He sent me back a script which I was appaled to see. They bring in songs and love interests - it's not my story anymore." That's not what keeps him ticking, though. After his first book, he heard from an old source, Sujal (name changed, of course), who wept in vindication. "I even received calls from other officers who said, 'Sir, you have told your story, now tell ours'.
It’s a tough life, he agrees, as the interview comes to an end. “You can’t share your life with the people closest to you, we hide everything, even our emotions. There’s no recognition at the end of this, really. The size of your achievement doesn’t matter, nobody will ever know. That’s why I find my recourse here, in fiction.”...