Brother’s Keeper: India’s “Secret Wars” and the Lure of Localism

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


India came late to covert action. After 1947, the nascent Indian state experienced a post-imperial intelligence hangover. Before exiting South Asia, the British colonial regime asset stripped what one American observer lauded as, ‘the finest political intelligence organization in the world.’ India’s intelligence service, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), was denuded of manpower, resources and records. The IB, one of its officers lamented, languished in a ‘tragi-comic state of helplessness’. Absent support from Indian politicians scarred by repressive colonial security organs; preoccupied by internal threats from communalism and communism; and hamstrung by over-reliance on the Indian Police Service; for the first two decades of its existence, at least, Indian intelligence was inward-looking and avoided covert action. Sino-Indian tensions that, in 1962, culminated in open warfare between New Delhi and Beijing, encouraged India to revisit the utility of covert action. Working initially with more experienced American and British partners, India repurposed its intelligence services. Focused primarily on China, but evolving to include the adjacent states of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar, India engaged in a range of covert actions, from clandestine diplomacy and disinformation, to paramilitary operations and, it has been alleged, the assassination of foreign nationals. Under the auspices of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), which was inaugurated in 1968 to enhance external intelligence capabilities, India claimed some notable covert action successes. Not least, in 1971, R&AW was instrumental in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent sovereign state. More recently, the subcontinent has witnessed political and popular unease at ‘blowback’ generated by R&AW, and the agencies capacity for compromising bi-lateral relations with India’s neighbours. A senior Indian intelligence officer has asserted that R&AW’s proclivity for covert action saw the organisation ordered by its political masters to, ‘Keep your hands in your pockets.’ Contemporary intelligence debates in India have focused attention on official secrecy, a lack of public accountability, inadequate oversight mechanisms, and the retention of historic intelligence records. Having first eschewed covert action, then effusively embraced its potentialities, Indian policymakers are now embroiled in a delicate, yet very public, national reconsideration of the efficacy of covert action as an instrument of state policy. This paper will critically interrogate the history of Indian covert action and ask what role it is likely to play in future Indian statecraft.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNational Approaches to Covert Action
EditorsRory Cormac, Magda Long, Genevieve Lester, Mark Stout, Damien Van Puyvelde
Place of PublicationWashington D.C.
PublisherGeorgetown University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2024


  • India
  • Covert Action
  • Intelligence
  • Diplomacy


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