R. N. Kao

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The Independent Online

Rameshwar Nath Kao, police and intelligence officer: born Benares, India 10 May 1918; Director, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), Directorate of Intelligence Bureau 1968-77; married (one daughter); died New Delhi 20 January 2002.

R. N. Kao belonged to the now extinct breed of philosopher- spymaster. In 1968 he was the founder of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India's overseas information-gathering and counter-intelligence agency.

The razor-sharp, decisive and often ruthless Kao was one of the main architects behind East Pakistan's breaking away to become Bangladesh in 1971. Under Kao, the RAW armed and trained Bengali insurgents, the Mukti Bahini, who were fighting against political and ethnic domination by the Punjabi and Pathan military junta of West Pakistan.

This cynical "death by a thousand cuts" rebellion foisted by the RAW on the Pakistani military government, and generously supplemented by Indian military commandoes in mufti, precipitated the third war between the neighbours, which lasted for 17 days in 1971. India emerged victorious and Bangladesh was born. In Kao's assessment, the disappearance of East Pakistan eliminated a grave security threat to India from its eastern flank along which China then menacingly loomed.

Pakistan has never forgiven India for hiving off its eastern half and, ironically, has effectively employed the RAW's East Pakistan formula in its disputed northern state, Kashmir, by similarly fuelling the Islamic insurgency raging there since 1989, in which over 35,000 people have died.

In the early 1980s, the RAW, on Kao's advice, also tried duplicating the Bangladesh operation by "sponsoring" Tamil Tiger rebels fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. But this patronage went horribly wrong and India dispatched an expeditionary force with the aim of disarming the RAW-armed and -trained Tiger rebels. The force was unsuccessful in its objective and was withdrawn in the late 1980s under humiliating circumstances. Thereafter, the Tigers became India's implacable foes and assassinated the former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at an election rally in 1991.

Born in Benares, north India, in 1918, into a prosperous Kashmiri Brahmin household, Rameshwar Nath Kao studied for an MA in English literature at the nearby Allahabad University and joined the Indian Police in 1939. Shortly before Indian independence in 1947, Kao joined the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau that was loosely founded in the late 19th century by Colonel James Sleeman, a British civil servant with the East India Company.

The Directorate was formalised by the colonial administration in 1920 during the early years of India's freedom movement and ever since has run broadly along the lines of the British Security Service MI5. With the political turmoil that led to the Second World War, the Bureau's responsibilities were increased to include the collection of intelligence along India's borders. Kao was one of the first Hindus at the Bureau, working alongside the majority British officers and a smattering of Muslims.

During the Queen's first visit to independent India in the early 1950s, Kao was assigned to head her security detail. At a reception in Bombay Kao dived and caught a bouquet he saw being flung at the Queen from the corner of his eye, fearing it might be a bomb. In good humour, the Queen drolly remarked, "Good cricket."

In 1960 Kao, along with Shankran Nair, a close colleague and friend, were dispatched by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to help newly independent Ghana establish its intelligence network, despite the lack of resources and trained manpower. Kao accomplished his mission, but his success was overshadowed by the 1962 border war with China in which India was mauled militarily, principally because it lacked intelligence on heightened Chinese activities along its northern frontier.

Though the Intelligence Bureau had a foreign information-gathering wing, it was inadequate and, after the 1965 war with Pakistan, the need for a separate foreign intelligence agency became essential. In 1968 Kao, then a deputy director in the Intelligence Bureau, was appointed by the prime minister Indira Gandhi the first head of the RAW. The RAW was raised broadly along a blueprint Kao had given the government, with 250 hand-picked operatives and analysts. For years shadowy RAW operatives were known as "Kaoboys".

The RAW's biggest victory came in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh. Three years later Kao warned Gandhi of a possible coup in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim bordering north-eastern India and sandwiched between Tibet and Nepal; it was then ruled by the profligate and inefficient Chogyal dynasty. The Cold War was at its height and the global and regional situation complex and fraught with intrigue, the sort of situation that produced the best from Kao.

India was a firm Moscow ally – having steadfastly refused to support the US war effort in Vietnam – and Washington a close partner to Pakistan. The US President Richard Nixon was wooing Islamabad to gain access to its ally China and Kao feared that the imminent overthrow of the Sikkimese ruler would turn the north-eastern kingdom into a Chinese or, worse, a US playground. On Kao's timely intelligence India annexed Sikkim, banished the Chogyal and forcibly made the kingdom the 22nd Indian state, inviting international opprobrium.

In mid-1975, convinced that a military coup was imminent in Bangladesh, Kao arrived in Dacca masquerading as a betel-nut exporter. In his hour-long meeting with President Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Kao failed to convince Rehman that he was in danger, despite providing him with the names of the suspected military plotters. A few weeks later, in August, these same officers launched their coup, slaughtering Rehman and 40 of his family in a bloodbath lasting less than three minutes.

In November a counter-coup led by yet another military faction was followed by yet another that eventually established General Zia-ur-Rehman in power, who, too, was assassinated in 1981. At a meeting with Gandhi in Delhi at which Kao was present, General Zia reportedly told her, "This man [Kao] knows more about my country than me."

Kao retired in 1977, disillusioned, after a new government contemptuous of the RAW assumed office and reduced its funding and personnel strength. But, when Indira Gandhi returned as prime minister in 1980, he was appointed her security adviser, a post he retained till her assassination in 1984. Thereafter he functioned as the éminence grise of the security establishment, advising the new prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on intelligence matters and liaising with secret-service chiefs around the world.

A shy and private person, Kao shunned publicity and refused to write his memoirs. He was an accomplished sculptor, who produced some magnificent horses in keeping with his passion for wildlife.

Kuldip Singh