Sunday, April 19, 2020


GII. 9 April 2020


As India seeks greater influence in global policy-making at a different level after Narendra Modi has taken over as the Prime Minister of India, Indian Foreign Service is being reshaped. But the experts in the areas of international diplomacy feel that six years of Modi regime could deliver very little in strengthening the Indian diplomatic corps. Though a number of new missions have been opened in various countries during this period, especially in Africa, but the system seems inadequately equipped to meet the new challenges emerged with the new global equations India has with different power blocks.

Till about the early eighties, the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) was perceived to be the more desirable service than the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). Then the trend changed and IAS outshone IFS. Foreign Service has traditionally been a relationship-management field force, with limited lobbying or Brand India-building mandate. In the last few years, the focus on the IFS has been higher, with international branding of India as well as consumerisation of services.

          India currently has approximately 3,000 ‘diplomats’ working outside and within the country. They include around 950 A-Grade IFS officers, nearly 300 Grade-1 IFS (B) officers, 40 of the Interpreters Cadre, 30 of the Legal and Treaties Cadre, 635 attaches, 550 diplomatic officers from sectorial staff, and a little more than 300 diplomatic officers for other ministries.

          Managing this ‘specially powered’ contingent of diplomats that is so diversely posted across the world has its own challenges. Finding trustworthy officers for sensitive stations has always been a demanding exercise. Keeping an eye on the stealthy characters in the Foreign Service is not an easy business. The need to check the repeat of the stories of Madhuri Gupta, Sukhjinder Singh, Manmohan Sharma, Ravi Nair, Rabinder Singh, Ashok Sathe, K V Unnikrishnan and many more top Indian officials has also expanded with the changing times.

Diplomat Madhuri Gupta, arrested on charges of spying for Pakistan. Navy officer Commodore Sukhjinder Singh was probed for his alleged liaison with a Russian woman when he was posted in Russia as the head of Indian team overseeing the refit of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov. A board of inquiry, set up against Singh after his objectionable photographs with the unidentified woman surfaced.

In May 2008, a senior Indian Embassy official in Beijing was called back to New Delhi for falling to the charms of a Chinese honey trap. Manmohan Sharma, a senior Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer, was alleged to be in a romantic affair with his Chinese language teacher. Indian authorities suspected the woman could be an informant of the Chinese government and gathered information about India's moves and counter-moves on the border talks.

In October 2007, a 1975 batch Research and Analysis Service (RAS) officer Ravi Nair was called back from Hong Kong for his 'friendship' with a girl believed to be working for a Chinese spy agency. However, within a brief time Nair was again given a foreign posting in Colombo where the woman also came and allegedly started staying with him, raising suspicion. The officials of other departments, posted at the Indian High Commission, sent reports about Nair to their respective departments paving way for his recall.

Like any other snooping agency, India's external Intelligence agency RAW has also a history of officials switching their loyalties to foreign agencies. The most infamous case which shook RAW out of reverie was that of Rabinder Singh who became a mole of American intelligence agency CIA and flew to the US despite being under RAW surveillance. Singh initially worked with the Indian Army and held a very senior position with RAW handling Southeast Asia. By the time the agency sensed his affiliations, Singh escaped to the US through Nepal in 2004. There are reports that he died in a road accident in USA sometime in 2016.

The second blow came in 2006 with the discovery of another alleged CIA mole in India's National Security Council Secretariat, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office. In the early 90s, an Indian Naval attaché posted in Islamabad reportedly fell in love with a Pakistani woman working in the Military Nursing Service in Karachi. The attaché was interrogated and then forced to resign. Reports said the official, who had initially claimed having recruited the woman as a spy, was being blackmailed by the ISI, which wanted his services after his return to the Naval Headquarters in Delhi.

Then a personal assistant to a very senior RAW official disappeared in London in the early 90s. Ashok Sathe, another official was also believed to have defected to the US after his mysterious disappearance. Sathe was said to be behind burning down of RAW office in Khurramshahr in Iran. In the early 1980s, a senior field officer disappeared in London. As attaché in Kathmandu, he was alleged to be liaising with foreign intelligence agencies.

In another case, a senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) official, who was due to take over as the chief of counter-intelligence, had an unauthorised relationship with a female US consular officer. His meetings with her were recorded on camera by the IB, and he was forced to retire following interrogation.

However, in the history of Indian intelligence, the most written about case was that of K V Unnikrishnan, a RAW officer dealing with the LTTE. He had developed a relationship with an air hostess believed to be an intelligence scion. He was arrested just ahead of a peace accord signed between India and Sri Lanka.

The oldest case of 'honey trapping', when an Indian diplomat in 1950s was trapped by a Russian girl in Moscow. When the Russian spy agency KGB presented him with the pictures of his activities with the girl, the diplomat informed his ambassador about his relationship and the KGB's attempts to blackmail him. The ambassador raised the issue with the topmost level. The young diplomat was warned to be more careful in future.

The mysterious world of intelligence and counter-intelligence has a different architecture in the times of advanced technology, artificial intelligence and other very sophisticated methods. On a multi-polar globe, India attracts a special intentness from the secret services of various influential countries. The presence of very emphatic non-state actors in the field of espionage is the real challenge with which India will have to deal to keep its Foreign Service protected.


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