BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 4(5) March-April 2002

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Rameshwar Nath Kao (1918-2002)

Sunil Sainis 

Rarely in the intelligence world, individuals arise around whom entire institutions are built and whose personality leaves indelible marks on the community as whole. Espionage carries grave personal risks and enormous responsibility. Matters are complicated further by the pervasive cloak of secrecy that covers all accounts of activity and the professional's view of affairs seldom meets the public eye. The result is a `larger-than-life' aura that collects around the top echelons. Due to this aura, they are attributed superhuman qualities and their failures projected in biblical terms. It becomes very hard to break through this aura. One is reduced to carefully collecting snippets from various media sources to get even the smallest picture of the human being behind the image. Such is the case of Shri Rameshwar Nath Kao. 

Kao was born in the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh on May 10 1918. Being from a reasonably well-settled Kashmiri Brahmin family in the region he was most likely encouraged to pursue education and in 1938 he finished his BA at Lucknow University. He chose to pursue a Masters in English Literature at Allahabad University. It appears He stayed at the Amar Nath Jha hostel. It is unclear who his companions were in these days, but given Amar Nath Jha hostel's stellar list of alumni, it is possible that Kao at least met some of the most important bureaucrats of modern India during his stay there. He completed his MA sometime in 1940. 

 Little is known about the next few years of his life, but accounts indicate by 1940-1941 he had joined the Imperial Police, and was commissioned in the Uttar Pradesh Cadre. By 1941 he was at the Police Training College in Moradabad where he found it difficult to get along with his fellow British officers. On June 3, 1947 he was deputed to Central Intelligence Bureau. At the time the Central Intelligence Bureau had a considerably large number of Muslim and British officers. The British officers left after Independence, and the tragic events of the Partition resulted in a split along religious lines as well. Consequently there were a lot of empty desks in the Bureau at this time. Kao was chosen by Shri Jawaharlal Nehru to be in charge of VIP security. He proved himself to be more than equal to the task, and when HE Queen Elizabeth visited Independent India for the first time in 1951 Kao was tasked with her security as well. During this time Kao was in close personal contact with Nehru and accompanied him on several foreign trips. This experience of foreign travel and interaction with the intelligence agencies of other nations must have been very valuable to Kao. 

The 50s were the days when the `Afro-Asian Unity’ was a big theme in Indian foreign policy. Other nations like the Peoples Republic of China were constantly jockeying with India to seize leadership of the `third world'. The centerpiece of this `Unity' was the Bandung Conference of April 1955. The Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai was to travel to the conference on a chartered Air India airplane called the `Kashmir Princess'. Under strange circumstances Premier Zhou cancelled his trip and somewhere over Natuna Islands a bomb exploded resulting in a horrific air crash. There were no survivors from the `Kashmir Princess' and the political sensitivity of the matter gave rise to all sorts of conspiracy theories. Kao was deputed by Nehru to investigate the crash. This investigation earned Kao a personal letter of commendation from Premier Zhou En Lai. 

Nehru in 1960 asked Kao and his deputy Shri Sankaran Nair to help the Govt. of the legendary Kwame Nkrumah set up the intelligence service of Ghana. This was a particularly difficult task as resources were even more scarce in Ghana then they were in India, but yet again Kao was successful in his task. His success in Ghana however paled in insignificance in the light of the Chinese invasion of 1962. This terrible failure to predict Chinese intentions in the Northeast and Aksai Chin had shaken confidence of many in the Intelligence establishment. Nehru’s political stock also took a deep dive. To arrest the trend Nehru overcame his distaste for American activities in places like Kalimpong and expanded cooperation with the United States. The newly established Aviation Research Centre under the DG (Security) of the Intelligence Bureau (and situated at Charbatia in Orissa) was at the center of this cooperation. Kao was chosen in 1963 to be it's first director. It is here that Kao solidly laid the foundations of TECHINT collection in modern India.

The period from 1963 to 1968 was a period of intense flux in the Indian intelligence community. Knives aimed at `Pitamaha' B.N. Mullick (Director IB in 1962) had quickly found their mark. The difficulties encountered in predicting the exact shape of the Pakistani Dictator, Field Marshal Ayub’s, aggressive intentions in 1965 had increased the pressure for dramatic change. By 1966-67 R.N Kao (as deputy director) along with K. Sankaran Nair came up with a blueprint for the formation of a new intelligence agency dedicated to the serving the need for external intelligence. This move recieved immense support from PM Smt. Indira Gandhi and on Sept 21, 1968 the `Research and Analysis Wing' was formed (the name was chosen by then Cabinet Secretary Shri D.S.Joshi ). Kao along with 250 of his chosen colleagues from the China and Pakistan desks, and the DG (Security) of the IB were transferred to this new agency. Here Kao as the first Director R&AW began the task of building a competent and aggressive foreign intelligence agency.

By 1968 Pakistani mishandling of political affairs in East Pakistan reached a critical point and secessionist tendencies gained strength. Though he has just barely taken over, Kao initiated operations to exploit these changes. This so called `Phase One' set in motion events that concluded in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. The success in Bangladesh earned Kao a promotion to the rank of full secretary, from this point he was officially known as `Secretary (R)'. By 1973-4 the `(R)' under his leadership was fully involved in preparations for the Buddha Poornima festivities. The R&AW soon reoriented in early 1975 to work out the integration of Sikkim. On April 26 1975, after the Chogyal Dynasty was eased out of power, Sikkim became the 22nd state of Union of India.

By this time the domestic political environment of the country was in a state of intense flux. Smt. Gandhi in a tragically poor political judgment call pushed for the declaration of an `Emergency'. This plan was presented to a meeting of the top bureaucrats, and the Director IB dissented. This resulted in his being removed from service, and Kao was catapulted to the top of the intelligence chain.  

The subcontinent is a restless place and by May-June 1975 `(R)'s agents in Bangladesh found evidence of a coup. Kao flew to Dhaka under deep cover to warn Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman of the threat to his life. Kao provided him with the names of the officers involved, but tragically Sheikh  Mujib ignored his warnings and was killed a few weeks later in August along with 40 members of his family. Some accounts indicate that this stunning murder pushed `(R)' into a battle of proxies against the intelligence service of another large Asian country and soon coups and counter coups followed. However Indian initiatives in this were weakened by internal political instability. The `Emergency' had failed to contain Smt. Gandhi's political troubles and Kao repeatedly asked to be relieved but was instructed to continue.  Political pressures mounted on Smt Gandhi and she was forced to resign.

The Janata Party government was elected to power in her place and it had very different geopolitical views. The new Prime Minister Shri Morarji Desai was very suspicious of the role that `(R)' has played in events. This mistrust made it difficult for Kao to function effectively in his capacity as Secretary(R). So in Jan 1977 Kao retired from service after the Morarji Desai Govt. ordered a high level inquiry of his past.  The inquiry returned impeccable credentials and Shri Charan Singh, then home minister admitted that Kao’s conduct was very professional.  However Kao's departure was not enough to save the R&AW from the wrath of Moraji Desai. In a meeting with Sankaran Nair and late  N. F. Santook, Morarji Desai ordered massive cuts to the agency's budget and operations. Dark days were upon the agency but the foresight and skill of Kao and Nair enabled the agency to function, slowly shifting operations to another complex while `winding down' the old one as per the Prime Minister’s orders.

By late 1979 Smt. Gandhi was able to regain political favor with the people, and was re-elected to power. This marked an upturn in Kao's career, and the period 1980-1984 saw him serving as `Security Advisor to the Cabinet'. During his tenure as the first National Security Advisor, He ensured that the proposal to form the Special Protection Group received the attention it deserved. He worked towards laying the groundwork for Smt. Gandhi's US visit. Under his watchful eye the foundations of the Sri Lanka intervention were laid. His support enabled the R&AW to complete a process of internal reorganization first started in late 1976. This process eventually resulted in the establishment of the Research Analysis Service (RAS).

Also at this time, the R&AW began working on internal security issues to counterbalance Pakistan’s moves to exploit the Punjab Troubles. Some accounts suggest he tried to dissuade Smt Indira Gandhi from sending the army into the Golden Temple Complex, and other accounts speak of efforts by him and G.C. Saxena to secure British assistance to train a special unit using models of the complex at Chakrata. Kao also attempted to push through Indo-Chinese talks with direct discussions with Qaio Shi (Coordinator of Chinese Intelligence) but returned when he heard that Mrs Gandhi had been killed.

The death of Smt Gandhi set in motion the meteoric rise of her eldest son, Shri Rajiv Gandhi to the post of Prime Minister. Kao in 1984-85 helped Rajiv Gandhi with the transition into power. However Rajiv wanted to bring about a visible change in government, and soon all the members of the old guard (political and administrative) were given subtle hints to leave. Like several others of his time Kao quietly bowed out. He spent the rest of life in his home in Vasant Vihar, where he developed his hobbies of iron sculpting, raising horses, and collecting Gandhara paintings. Aging gracefully in the same shy sharp silence that marked his public service, Kao departed into the next world on the early morning of Jan 20, 2002. He is survived by his wife Smt Malini Kao, and daughter Smt. Achla Kaul.

Most of the details of Kao's life will remain secret for the better part of the next century. However it is no secret that Kao made immeasurable contributions to the security of India. His invaluable service in various capacities in the Indian intelligence establishment led to great improvements in its functioning. Notwithstanding all criticisms regarding his political impact, it is through the untiring efforts of Kao that the foundations of modern intelligence handling in India were laid and a generation of intelligence professionals were trained.

To quote the words of the HE President K.R. Narayanan:"Shri Kao will be long remembered for his distinguished service to the nation."

Bharat Rakshak takes this moment to salute one of the greatest strategic minds that India has produced, and also to mark the silent sacrifices of several unnamed others in the intelligence community. Photo courtesy:

Copyright Bharat Rakshak 2002