India’s Intelligence Apparatus: The Road Ahead

 By Manasvi Hemmige Sathish

Intelligence is a profession that is hardly spoken about and even sparsely written about.  Broadly defined as a ‘collection of clandestine activities, intended to enhance national security forewarn threats and opportunities’, the profession often claims the mantle of being one of the oldest professions across the globe. The mandate of intelligence remains to identify what in security studies is called the ‘known unknown’. A profession that relies on the art of clairvoyance, has been employed by empires for centuries and has remained to be an invisible line of defence, now in the form of organisations and agencies. The article will take the reader through the premise of the existence of intelligence agencies and the need to create an intelligence community with foundational ethos. It will also aim to explore the dynamic of the political leadership and the intelligence community.

The Evolution of India’s Intelligence Apparatus

The organisational and institutional set up of a state is highly influenced by a country’s legacy, particularly for India, the legacy of the colonial era. Our security apparatus, while is a relic of the colonial era, its evolution over the course of time has been in consonance with threat that always faced the country, with a mandate to protect the country. The Intelligence Bureau for example was a continuation of the colonial system of internal intelligence.  At the time of Independence, partition of the country, creating Pakistan on its western and eastern frontiers, led to bloodshed and turmoil. Despite this, the idea of India and the core of its existence was not built on insecurity or a constant sense of threat. . It can be an explanatory factor as to why the government of the day continued with an intelligence agency that looked after both internal and external intelligence until the war with China in 1962.. (The R&AW only came into being after the war of 1962). The other compelling issues that characterised India at its birth such as illiteracy, poverty, infrastructure development etc. took precedence in the order of things. India’s rather modest perception of itself, in the past perhaps is an explanatory factor that pre empted India from turning into a ‘national security’ state. This is not an argument for creating a security state, that obsesses over threats, rather an observation that India’s security apparatus, especially the intelligence community has been impacted by a perception of the country as a docile state. A look at the evolution of such agencies reveals that it is only on attacks from belligerent neighbours, that India has woken up to the needs of establishing a new intelligence agency or reforming what is already present.

Creating an intelligence community with strong foundational ethos

In the past decade, India has consistently pushed to be considered as an emerging power, as it  aspires to take its place among the leading powers of the world, it is imperative that it develops an external intelligence agency, which has the ability to see, hear, smell and feel far and near.[1]India’s intelligence agencies, especially its external intelligence is known to have been remarkably successful in the short period of its existence. India’s intelligence community is also credited for establishing covert diplomatic channels and achieving diplomatic success, a fact that is less known in the public domain.

However, as the nature of threats change and risks no longer emerge from a designated actor, it becomes essential to strengthen what is often called the first line of defence. [2]A plethora of review committees have been set up and a multitude of recommendations have been made, some of which have been readily accepted by decision makers while some are yet to see the light of the day. The National Security Council and the National Security Council Secretariat were established on the recommendations of the KC Pant Task Force. Post the Kargil Review Committee’s report, based on the recommendations of the GC Saxena Task force, the National Technical Research Organisation, the Defence Intelligence Agency for inter-service intelligence coordination and the Multi Agency Centre were established[3] .

 While institutional reforms are crucial, the focus should also turn to individuals in the job, there is a need for the acceptance of intelligence as a profession beyond espionage and not a clandestine affair that needs to be hushed up. As is often noted by most review committees, the operations of both the IB and RAW is carried out without backing by a law or a statutory charter. An institution that functions without statutory backing may be subject to the circumstances of the day.  A law to empower the functioning of our intelligence agencies has been introduced in the parliament. This will set the house for other reforms that may follow as expressed by different committees. A framework with a dedicated recruiting process with varied specialisation, employing professionals in other fields such as psychology and cyber security , will set the stage to create a community and a culture that, quite like the armed forces that physically protect our country, that is invested in protecting the nation. The need today is to not just strengthen agencies but also to create a unified enterprise of innovative intelligence professionals[4] that will identify with the community. It is time to look beyond the institutional aspect of intelligence and focus on creating a committed group of people with strong foundational ethos involved in intelligence collection and assessment.

Another important question that needs to addressed is whether intelligence organisation should borrow from classic bureaucratic theory. In modern times threats emerge from all corners and though non-descript media such as social media among other things.  When threats themselves are fluid, intelligence agencies need to have a separate laid down strategy. They are indeed helpful in the functioning of a well-oiled administration, but a rigid framework that works on pre-determined rules will not serve the purpose of an organisation that must think on its feet and act instantly. One only has to look back at Indian history for lessons on how to organise our intelligence services, the foremost example being Kautilaya’s Artha Shastra, that describes in detail the functions of intelligence. The Artha Shastra in great detail describes a network of spies, referred to as ‘guda’ that report directly to the king and even talks about intricacies such as counter espionage. His agents were categorised into roving agents and stationary agents, the latter collected, collated and transmit information received from other agents and included an intelligence officer was made in charge of an intelligence station[5]. While some may dispute the adaptability of such ancient treatises in modern times, human emotions and behaviour have not changed since the first intelligence operations began and they are the source of achievements of the craft[6]

An aspect that is amiss in our country, which is stark in our intelligence agencies is documenting  institutional memory , chronicling in some detail the history of our modern intelligence agencies will not only serve the purpose of setting a precedent for future operations of the agency and contribute to research and development in the field. Understandably the nature of the profession, does not allow for a detailed description of their operations or personnel. Many former members of the intelligence community, including former chiefs have penned down memoirs to offer the public an understanding and glimpse of the world of Indian intelligence[7]. It will do a great disservice to the contribution of such organisations, if the people they serve and the generations to come, aren’t offered glimpses of their activities.

Intelligence and political leadership

Although there remains a clear demarcation between the political leadership and the security apparatus of our country, democratically elected leaders have the final say on all matters. The R&AW mandated to report to the Prime Minister[8], might often be pliable to the personal and political inclinations of the authority. It is well documented that the agency was set up by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who is known to have empowered the organisation significantly. Her successor’s contribution to its activities is also widely known. It is also noted that some policy makers, due to past experience or with an intention to leave an impression on the strategic policy of our country have been wary of their activities. There is also a noticeable pattern that the level of personal trust between the intelligence chiefs and the political leadership has been crucial to functioning of the agency. On such observations from the past, these political leaders can be grouped under different categories, based on a typology offered by Amit Steinhart. The following categories were offered

  • The Intelligence Professional- Decision-makers who belong in this category possess preliminary professional knowledge derived from a previous career in the intelligence field, either military or civilian.
  • The Educated supporter – Despite having no previous knowledge of intelligence work, the leader demonstrates a respect for intelligence work which is reinforced through due consultation
  • The Educated Auditor – This leader views intelligence organisations as unreliable instruments, failing to treat them with respect and trust.
  • The Free Critic – Such leaders are suspicious of intelligence community’s motives and objectives
  • The Blind disciple – Generally leaves intelligence work to aides and advisors due to a lack of understanding.[9]

The first and the last category are not relevant to the Indian context, but we do find leaders belonging to the second category and leaders that fall under an amalgamation of the third and fourth categories.

An outlook for the future

While our agencies have remained autonomous, national security cannot be held hostage to political uncertainties, it seems appropriate to consider a law that will clearly define their mandate and enable effective delivery. A well-defined National Security Strategy will also be able to offer direction and a focus for intelligence agencies focused on security. A ‘whole of government approach’ which means a cohesive approach that entails all departments and organisations that have an outside stake on intelligence related issues is also imperative.

Lastly, India is a country with the resources and manpower to undertake significant changes, we face no dearth of cyber security professionals or psychologists that can serve our intelligence agencies, it is crucial to recognise this  and consider crucial measures adapted from our own history , in anticipation of an uncertain future.


[1] B. Raman, The Kaoboys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane (New Delhi: Lancer, 2007).

[2] Dhirendra Singh, ed., Intelligence, Security and Asymmetric Warfare: Strategies for Solution (New Delhi: Manas, 2010).

[3] Manoj Shrivastava, Re-Energising Indian Intelligence (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies : Vij Books India, 2013).

[4] Peter Gill, Stephen Marrin, and Mark Phythian, eds., Intelligence Theory: Key Questions and Debates, Studies in Intelligence Series (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[5] L. N. Rangarajan, The Arthashastra, Penguin Classics (New Delhi ; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books India, 1992).

[6] Glenn Hastedt, “Towards the Comparitive Study of Intelligence,” Conflict Quarterly, n.d.

[7] Vikram Sood, The Unending Game : A former RAW’s chief insights into espionage, n.d.

[8] Jayshree Bajoria, “RAW: India’s External Intelligence Agency,” n.d.,

[9] Amit Steinhart and Kiril Avramov, “Is Everything Personal?: Political Leaders and Intelligence Organizations: A Typology,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligce, n.d.