Military Intelligence: Working in the Shadows
In India, the work and achievements of the Indian Armed Forces is not something that features in our tea-time conversations. While some of us actively follow and read about the Military, most of us get our Defence information from the minute segment on Defence that news channels periodically air. While it is heartening to see this attitude change and note that the Forces’ work has more visibility today, it is also important to ask what we’re looking at and what we’re missing out on. When anyone mentions the Indian Armed Forces, our immediate thought is that of an olive-green uniform clad officer making his way through the marshy pits of the Valley or that of a crisp-blue uniformed Flight Lieutenant swerving her way through the skies in her aircraft. For some of us, it’s the image of a white uniform clad naval officer navigating the rough seas. While tactical and combat operations of the Forces are undeniably the core of the Military, there’s a non-operational, covert segment that adds invaluable strength to India's Defence structure - Military Intelligence.
It is common to confuse the Indian Army’s Military Intelligence Directorate (MI) with more popular, better known agencies like the Intelligence Bureau (IB) or the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). While the IB deals exclusively with internal intelligence, R&AW was founded in 1968 to primarily counter China and Pakistan. R&AW has a greater external presence and keeps a close eye on the activities of neighbouring countries including China, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The Army’s MI is quite different from these two and the 18 other intelligence agencies in India. The agency was set up in 1941 as a part of the erstwhile British Indian Army and was primarily tasked with generating Field Intelligence in World War 2. Post independence, its work has mainly revolved around providing timely and accurate intelligence support to the tactical, operational and strategic-level needs of the Army.
Areas of operation of the Military Intelligence since 1947
The first time the MI came to light was in 1957 when they conducted a reconnaissance operation in the disputed Aksai Chin region. A newly Independent India, under Nehru, was carefully navigating through the complex web of international relations. China was a major area of concern in this area because of its expansionist policies and its utter disregard for treaties and norms. In early 1957, 2 Military Intelligence officers undertook a nearly life-threatening secret mission into China disguised as yak grazers. The officers - Lt Col R S Basera and Havildar Diwan Singh - found first-hand evidence of a road being illegally constructed by the Chinese in the disputed Aksai-Chin area. Unfortunately, their valiant efforts went to vain because PM Nehru and then Defence Minister Krishna Menon remained uncertain and cynical about the road’s exact location and adopted a passive stance on this matter. It was only two whole years later that they actually admitted the existence of the road publicly, in spite of having intel that claimed the contrary.
PM Nehru with Defence Minister Menon
In the 1990s, the Army’s MI found itself in Tajikistan, and later Afghanistan, in support of the Northern Alliance that overthrew the Taliban. From 1996 to 2000, New Delhi (via the MI wing) provided secret Military assistance to Ahmad Shah Massoud, popularly known as the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud and his forces fought to overthrow the Taliban which was not-so-secretly backed by Pakistan’s Inter-State Intelligence (ISI). Massoud approached India for help to overthrow the Taliban and India agreed to help because Massoud was, indirectly, fighting India’s arch-enemy Pakistan too. Here, the Military Intelligence wing swung into action to undertake the logistics of procurement and delivery of Massoud’s requirements. Ambassador Bharath Raj Muthu Kumar, who was at the helm of this secret alliance, remembers that the MI wing transported, “uniforms, ordnance, mortars, small armaments, refurbished Kalashnikovs seized in Kashmir, combat and winter clothes, packaged food, medicines, and funds.” Though this part of Military history is less spoken of and does not have a detailed narration yet, it was an unquestionable display of the MI wing’s secrecy, stealth and diplomacy.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, popularly known as the Lion of Panjshir
The Military Intelligence’s presence has been felt in the backyard of two more of our neighbours - Bangladesh and Myanmar. In both countries, the MI’s on-ground and off-ground intel detected the presence of rising insurgents’ groups that could pose a threat to the state. In 1998, MI operatives along with the tri-services of India conducted a sting operation codenamed ‘Leech’ that resulted in the capture of 34 Myanmar nationals in Andaman’s Landfall Island. However, this Operation was later mired in controversy as public trails threw up information that there were fishermen and members of national Union parties of Myanmar amongst the captured rebels. The situation in Bangladesh was different. In late 2011, the MI wing forayed into Indo-Bangladesh relations by uncovering intel about a potential coup in the Bangladesh Army. A letter was sent from New Delhi to Dhaka that warned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Islamist radicals in the Bangladesh Army planning to launch a Military coup. Along with this, the Indian Government and Military also put in place a contingency plan to evacuate the Prime Minister and key figures of her party as well as keep helicopters, jets and landing zones in the air corridor ready and accessible. This information and the subsequent action taken by India has been lauded in the circles of international politics.
Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
However, the MI wing has had its taste of setbacks too. In 1978, the MI unveiled the Samba spy case where 3 Indian Army officers were allegedly falsely implicated as Pakistani spies. The case continues to take its legal recourse but brought significant backlash to the Army’s MI. Another major, and bigger, setback was reported in 1999 owing to what Military experts called ‘intelligence failure’ before and during the Kargil War. Several questions have been posed to the MI wing - How did they entirely miss the presence of Pakistani movements in the heights of Dras, Batalik and Kargil. How did the top brass of the Military fail to act on the findings of the Intelligence committee till they ascertained themselves about the Pakistani presence well after shelling and firing began from the heights? Were there lapses in the Military Intelligence which, if corrected, could have avoided the Kargil War? Amidst the backlash that the MI wing was receiving, a new agency - Defence Intelligence Agency- was created and became operational in 2002. Its job was to coordinate with the intelligence wings of the Army, Air Force and Navy and its directorship was to be rotated among the three services. Additionally, the DIA coordinates with the IB and the R&AW to have a more holistic intelligence framework in place.
Military Intelligence is by no means an easy task. To anticipate an attack, gauge its threat perception, use your intel carefully, ensure that there is no collateral damage and ensure that this is done without compromising on your nation’s security is as daunting as it gets. It is often also said that Intelligence is a thankless job because of the confidentiality and the low profile associated with it. While there have been shortcomings in the operational aspects of Military Intelligence, it is imperative for the tri-services, other intelligence agencies and the Government to undertake a joint approach to address and overcome this. A good intelligence framework is invaluable to a country like ours, which is, unfortunately, pronged by external and internal threats. India’s Intelligence warriors operate from the shadows tirelessly only to ensure that the shadow of terror, war, gloom and uncertainty does not set upon her. In our attempt to understand and respect our Military, let’s remember to thank our Intelligence warriors as well.
Arpi, C. (2021). The Aksai Chin Blunder. Retrieved 26 April 2021, from http://www.indiandefencereview.com/the-aksai-chin-blunder/
Bhakto, A. (2021). The tools of surveillance. Retrieved 26 April 2021, from https://frontline.thehindu.com/cover-story/article25878531.ece
Deshpande, R. (2021). Jawaharlal Nehru ignored intelligence report of Chinese road in Indian territory in 1957: Book | India News - Times of India. Retrieved 26 April 2021, from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/jawaharlal-nehru-ignored-intelligence-report-of-chinese-road-in-indian-territory-in-1957-book/articleshow/78096926.cms