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India’s seasoned spymaster, trenchant US critic, dies at 77


Sep 9, 2009
WASHINGTON: His last tweet on May 30, as he battled the final stages of terminal cancer, read, ''Hanumanji willing, shd be back home coming Saturday.'' But as his life ebbed away over the last fortnight, Bahukutumbi Raman might have noted, in his usual dry and dispassionate manner, that (1) Hanumanji was not around (2) Hanumanji must have had other pressing matters and (3) One should prepare for scenarios without Hanumanji.

That's the standard government memo template he used for many years to convey matters of great strategic pith and moment to his fans, friends, and followers. He was not given to hyperbole or emotion or drama. Through the months of his cancer treatment, he tweeted about it in a matter-of-factly tone, once chastising someone who was persuading him to eat -- ''Affection for terminal cancer patients shd be simple and normal, not instructive.'' Through pain, medication, and therapy, some of which he disdained, he kept up a steady feed of advice, counsel, guidance, and inquiry to his constituents in the strategic sphere. It included telling the Government of India on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Tokyo that ''Ind-Japan shd make China's seeming strengths into strategic vulnerabilities.''

On Sunday evening, the 77-year old Raman - Raman mama to some of his acolytes - one of the founders of India's spy outfit Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the public face of its underrated and understated analysts community, passed away in Chennai. In the arcane world of espionage, where practitioners generally keep a low profile (particularly in India), Raman became a prolific contributor to public discourse on intelligence matters, often challenging conventional wisdom, and going upstream of establishment flow, especially on Pakistan and the United States. In a political establishment that is increasingly in thrall of Washington, he repeatedly counseled caution and vigilance, a result of what he saw as repeated American betrayal of Indian interests.

In fact, the United States was the only country that riled him up in conversations - not even Pakistan, which he dismissed as a basket case beneath contempt. He said he ''always loved the US...and always liked the American people'' but he despised Washington's policies. ''There is one American species, which I could never bring myself to like during the 27 years I spent in the intelligence community -- the officers of the US State Department,'' he writes in his memoirs, The Kao-boys of R&AW: Down Memory Lane, the title being an admiring tribute to the RNKao, RAW's principal founder and first chief.

Two incidents, both relating to Pakistan -- and to one individual in particular -- deeply colored his perspective of Washington and its mandarins. The first came after the 1993 Mumbai blasts engineered by Pakistan through Dawood Ibrahim. Raman headed the counter-terrorism division of RAW at that time and rushed to Mumbai soon after the serial explosions that killed 259 people, just two weeks before the first World Trade Center attack by Ramzi Yousef. Among the evidence gathered by the police were detonators and timers that were of American origin. On the advice of then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, Raman said he shared this evidence with US experts, and at their request, allowed them to take the material back to America. Bad mistake, he later regretted.

A few days later, Raman said, the Americans gave an unsigned report saying the detonators and timers were of American origin and were part of stock given to Pakistan during the Afghan war in the 1980s. The report gratuitously added this did not necessarily mean the terrorists got them from the ISI. It pointed out that in Pakistan there was a lot of leakage of government arms and ammunition to smugglers and expressed the view that the terrorists might have procured them from the smugglers.

''When I asked them to return the detonator and the timer as promised by them they replied that their forensic experts had by mistake destroyed them. They did not apparently want to leave any clinching evidence against Pakistan in our hands,'' Raman wrote later. ''This was a bitter lesson to us that in matters concerning Pakistan one should not totally trust the US. They would do anything to ensure that no harm came to Pakistan.''

By that time, ties between Washington and New Delhi had already sunk to an alarming low, thanks largely (in Raman's view, which was broadly accepted in Delhi) to Robin Raphel, a low-level diplomat US President Bill Clinton had appointed as an Assistant Secretary to the newly created South Asia bureau in the State Department. Raman saw Raphel, who served both in New Delhi and Islamabad as a Pakistan partisan (where her husband Arnie Raphel had been the ambassador and died in the plane crash that killed Zia-ul Haq in August 1988).

In fact, soon after the 1993 Mumbai attack, Raman had had a run-in with the Americans, who had quickly issued a travel advisory asking its citizens not to travel to India and its diplomats posted in India to call off all their tours. That effectively grounded Thomas Pickering, who was the US ambassador in New Delhi but had been transferred to Moscow. When a US official to seek his counsel on the security situation and whether Pickering could leave for Moscow, an irate Raman snapped "Who am I to give advice to your ambassador? Your State Department never consulted us before issuing the advisory, which is totally unwarranted. You tell your ambassador to seek the advice of his department."

''Those were the days when we were not afraid of ticking off the Americans and we had full confidence that the political leadership would totally back us. Not like today, when we bend backwards to curry favor with the Americans,'' Raman wrote in a column many years later, maintaining in private conversations that Americans selectively backed terrorists or turned a blind eye to terrorism when it suited them.

By the time he retired in August 1994, his ties with -- and view of -- Washington had reached a nadir, propelled by his indirect showdown with Raphel. In his memoir, he recalls an "ack thoo" moment in his final days in office that carried his dislike for the State Department to an extreme. ''I felt like vomiting and spitting at the State Department officials. I might have done so had they been there,'' he writes.

The provocation for an intelligence analyst (who typically can see various shades of gray) to express such black-and-white anger was purportedly a secret letter written to then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao by the then Indian ambassador in Washington, Siddharth Shankar Ray, in which Ray conveyed the State Department's view that RAW was trying to destabilize Pakistan. ''The State Department officer, who had previously served in the US Embassy in New Delhi, asked the Ambassador to tell New Delhi that if the R&AW did not stop what the State Department described as its covert actions in Pakistan, the US might be constrained to act against Pakistan AND India for indulging in acts of terrorism against each other,'' Raman writes. According to the message, the State Department officer said: ''You have been asking us for many years to declare Pakistan as a State-sponsor of terrorism. Yes, we will do so. But we will simultaneously act against India too if it did not stop meddling in Pakistan.''

The episode caused Raman to go apeshit, particularly after the missing detonators incident that had weakened India's case against Pakistan in nailing it for the 1993 blasts. To him, this was Raphel, who had already angered New Delhi by raising questions about Jammu and Kashmir's accession to India, batting for Pakistan, to save it from being named a state-sponsor of terrorism in 1993 during Nawaz Sharif's first term (Sharif saved Pakistan from the stigma by sidelining the then ISI chief, the minimum demanded by Washington)

Raman recalls his meeting with Narasimha Rao on this issue:

''What kind of covert actions you have in Pakistan?'' Narasimha Rao asked.
''We have been actively interacting with different sections of Pakistani society, which are well disposed towards India and extending to them discreet political and moral support,'' I replied.
''Since when?'' he asked.
''Since 1988, when Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in Punjab increased in its brutality and evidence came in from one of the Western intelligence agencies that they had received confirmation that Talwinder Singh Parmar, one of the terrorists of the Babbar Khalsa, Canada, who had participated in the blowing up of the Kanishka, the Air India aircraft, in June,1985, off the Irish coast, had been given sanctuary in Pakistan by its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate. Rajiv Gandhi asked us not to confine any longer our contacts to only the ruling circles of Pakistan, but to diversify them and start interacting with others too — particularly those who think and wish well of India,'' I said, and added: ''We had also kept you informed of this when you took over as the Prime Minister in 1991 and subsequently.''

''Yes. I know. But, why is the State Department talking of acts of terrorism? Can any of your actions be misinterpreted as acts of terrorism?''

''Definitely not, Sir.''

Narasimha Rao thought for a while and said: ''Let me have a draft reply to the Ambassador, directing him to strongly deny the allegations of the State Department. Don't discontinue your interactions. We have every right to maintain contacts with all sections of Pakistani society. We need not be worried if the Americans dislike this.''

Years later, with the gradual improvement in ties that followed the Kargil War, the nuclear deal, and the 26/11, Raman became more temperate in his views, although residual mistrust remained. He began to engage US interlocutors more after his retirement, and many of them in turn overcame their hostility or reservation towards him after recognizing that much of his analysis of Pakistan as the epicenter of world terrorism was spot-on. In a tribute written soon after his death, Teresita and Howard Schaffer, former state department officials and seasoned South Asia hands, recalled meeting him last in Chennai early in 2012, ''over a cup of tea and his usual acerbic conversation, in Chennai. He was characteristically harsh in his judgments of both the US and Indian governments over the Maldives, the topic of the hour.''

''We often disagreed, but he was always worth reading,'' they said, indicating that Raman's ''spitting image'' was a thing of the past. But, they conceded, "he was deeply mistrustful of traditional US links to Pakistan, which he believed blinded Americans to Pakistan's involvement with terrorism."

They also spoke about his "very dark view" of Pakistan, recalling that a few days after the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, he published a blog arguing that India should exact from Pakistan the maximum pain short of war: ''A divided Pakistan, a bleeding Pakistan, a Pakistan ever on the verge of collapse without actually collapsing -- that should be our objective till it stops using terrorism against India." Much of his insights on Pakistan, which began to be recognized in Washington in recent years, were based on first-hand sources from within Pakistan, who he met in secret trips to Bangkok.

But towards the end, he was sanguine that Pakistan was embarked on a self-destructive course and there was little that India could do or needed to do, as Pakistan went down the tubes. His attention had turned to China.

He had a few close friends with whom he engaged in pow-wows on strategic matters over some modest drinking (for himself, two small pegs on weekdays and two large on weekends) and ''murukku'' from Grand Sweets of Adyar, in Chennai. He loved the crunchy, oily snacks, and one friend recalls him joking, "I drink so that I can enjoy the murukkus.'' At a more profound level, his inner circle saw that he was obsessed about educating people of India about security threats and thought the Indian media treated security issues too casually.

He rarely spoke about his personal life. He was single for many years and the scuttlebutt in spook circles was his Twitter handle, @sorbonne75, pointed to a French connection in his past life. He described himself as a ''analyst, seminarist, columnist, likes scotch and travels, tomorrow's mind.'' Always the method man, he rounded it up with an epitaph from Rene Descartes' Discourse on the Method: Je pense, donc je suis -- I think, so I am. Amen, Bahukutumbi Raman.

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