Back in the late sixties and early seventies, the way massive destruction caused by Cyclone Bhola, the trauma of a genocide, and the politically suicidal inactivity of Yahya Khan came together, the creation of Bangladesh should not have surprised anyone. Yes, the outright rejection of his six-point movement for East Pakistani autonomy and the declaration of Mujibur Rehman as a separatist and an anti-national helped strengthen this cause. But more important to us in India is the fact that all this finally led to the creation of R&AW in 1968 which got enough opportunity to reach its stage of evolving into a cohesive unit for espionage through the way action happened during the war for liberation of Bangladesh.

What existed as the Intelligence Bureau before partition, had been shaped by Pakistan into a daunting unit called the MI or the Military Intelligence and then ISI or the Inter Services Intelligence way back in 1948. The ISI had risen in its power to become a formidable force multiplier sometime in the 1980s with the help of CIA and was adept at counterintelligence, internal political issues, and external intelligence. The R&AW, on the other hand, took quite a while to transcend the clutches of babu-culture and the efforts of Rameshwar Nath Kao, the great Indian spymaster, who himself ‘lived in the shadows and operated stealthily from them’ as he knew that ‘in real life, the worst thing that could happen to a spy was the revelation of his true identity’ had a massive amount of work to be done to create a force that would ultimately be able to rise despite the tumultuous seventies with its dose of Emergency as well as the disinterest of Morarji Desai.

The war that made R&AW - Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket - Westland Publications - book review
The war that made R&AW – Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket – Westland Publications – book review

The war that made R&AW’ by Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket explain this rise through the various operations the period preceding and following the 1971 war. What is absolutely pertinent about this book is the doing away of all obfuscating bureaucratic jargon spouting and getting into the heart of activities that led to the necessity of India getting its own intelligence force. Kao knew well enough that ‘espionage is quite a lonely business of selling lies’ and that ‘honing your salesmanship’ is the only way to succeed in it. This is what he did throughout, and we read about the fascinating account of his work done during the Kashmir Princess probe of 1955 where ‘he worked doggedly in collaboration with the Chinese, Hong Kong and British police to unravel the threads of the conspiracy’. Later in 1959, Kao helped Ghana build-up ‘the basic framework and infrastructure of the country’s intelligence apparatus’. Both these experiences became instrumental in the formation of R&AW in 1968.

Most of us remember the 1971 war as one that is primarily about Indira Gandhi’s power stances, our policy of non-alignment, our own military operations, naval skirmishes, and the resilient resistance of the MuktiBahini… and that as an aftermath, it was Pakistan that ‘lost a province of 70 million people which constituted 56 percent of their original population, and over 1,47,670 square kilometers of territory’. This book brings to the fore the daring initiatives of our own fledgling intelligence agency and the various operations they thought of and implemented to make it all possible. For instance, we read about how the US under Nixon and Pakistan under Yahya Khan ‘made it their business to create as many problems as they could for India’ and that it was during this alliance in later years that ‘they encouraged the Sikhs in a separatist movement which demanded an independent state by the name of Khalistan.’ What we also need to know is the way our intelligence leaders convinced Indira Gandhi to ‘evade being called an aggressor’ and they propped India to play their game well. The book dwells on the role of R&AW in training the Niyomito Bahini, the Gano Bahini, and the Bichhu squad to carry-out their assignments of frontal attacks, running the guerrilla support systems, and critical espionage.

The book, for obvious reasons, devotes some degree of focus on the creation of Bangladesh. The writers tell us that it was when Jinnah visited Dhaka on 21 March 1948, to declare Urdu as the sole language of communication that the Bhasha Andolan or fight to preserve their right to language happened. As a result of this mass rebellion, that the Awami Muslim League, first opposition party, was born and Maulana Abdul Khan Hamid Bhashani, an Islamic scholar and a political leader became its first president. We get to understand that bit of history where Mujibur Rehman who rose from being a student leader to the party president in March 1957 could see clearly that the ‘great decade of progress’ under Ayub khan did little to alleviate the ‘abysmal standards of living and widespread poverty’ of East Pakistan. Readers are also given a clear perspective on 1966 – the year when Mujib published his six-point movement for East Pakistani autonomy. The demand for two separate and freely convertible currencies, separate accounts for foreign exchange earnings, and a separate paramilitary force among others were enough to make the powers in the western part jittery and he was declared a separatist and an anti-national. It was at this point that the Awami League contacted IB in India. R&AW did not exist then. And then India waited until 1968.

It was in 1971 that R&AW decided to set-up training camps near the East Pakistan borders where ‘men were trained in weapon-handling, field-craft, raids, and ambushes, commando operations and the use of small radio sets’. It was these behind-the-scenes tactical games that included ‘the importance of a strategic retreat’ and even effective use of the abundant water channels in Bangladesh.

I could go on and on about the various actions that R&AW initiated to make it known to our political powers that a potent intelligence force helps maintain peace and harmony not just within the country but also beyond its borders. The book is so brimming with spy tales that it is almost impossible to leave reading mid-way. Besides these chilling stories, the pages do go heavy into raw trivia as well… you know, things like Kao being the architect of the National Security Guard and the mysterious death of P N Banerjee in 1974.

It is only now that there are people talking so openly about R&AW involvement in the 1971 operations… but, even years later, when Kao was asked by a junior in the agency about how they could not have known of the assassination and the coup, his reply was just as mysterious: ‘All I can say is, we were not surprised by the turn of events.’


Details of the book:

Title: The war that made R&AW
Authors: Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket
Publisher: Westland Publications
ISBN: 9789390679348




Arvind Passey
28 December 2021