(Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman): In the third year of UPA-2, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh called a meeting of top officials of the Special Protection Group (SPG), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to seek advice on whether the representation of Muslims in the intelligence agencies could be increased, whether they should be allowed to join RAW and whether to end the ban on the entry of Sikhs and Muslims into SPG. The officers reportedly pointed out that any such move would be risky. They asked who would take the blame if something went wrong after the established system was tinkered with. Nothing came out of that meeting and the issue was never raised again.
Men in black Sikhs are banned from the NSG, the elite anti-terror force functioning under the MHA. Photo: Tehelka Archives
Intelligence agencies in India have long followed an unwritten ‘no entry’ policy for Muslims (though there have been a few Muslim officers in the IB), while Sikhs are banned from SPG, formed in 1984 to provide security to the prime minister, and the National Security Guard (NSG), the elite anti-terror force functioning under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. “This is not a new policy. There have been no Muslim officers in RAW since its formation in 1969,” says a former RAW officer. “It has its own reasons for following this policy.”
According to a senior IPS officer, the unwritten rule barring Muslims from sensitive wings of the intelligence agencies was extended to the Sikhs as well following the 1984 assassination of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.
“It is true that Muslims and Sikhs are not deployed for VVIP security.
Not just RAW and SPG, but the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), which deals with technical surveillance, and Military Intelligence (MI) too have barred the entry of Muslims. “Nothing can be done about it now since it has become the norm and no one finds it odd,” says an MI officer.
Talking to TEHELKA, former special secretary (RAW) Amar Bhushan opined that “there is a conscious effort to keep Muslims out of sensitive and strategic areas”. According to Bhushan, this reflects a bias against the community.
A report published in The Telegraph a few years ago gives credence to this statement. The report claimed that former Union education minister Humayun Kabir’s grandson was denied entry into RAW because he was a Muslim. Kabir was one of those Muslims who chose to stay in India at the time of Partition. “The communal bias in intelligence agencies has persisted since Partition. Many intelligence officials doubt the patriotism of Muslims and that’s why they are not given charge of sensitive desks,” says retired IPS officer SR Darapuri.
Sources close to RAW reveal that there has been a debate over the agency’s recruitment policy since a long time now. But a group of officers have always been strongly averse to the idea of any change. An initiative in this regard was undertaken when PK Hormis Tharakan headed RAW (2005-07). He formed a committee to find ways to ensure that religious bias does not affect recruitment. However, the committee never submitted any report nor did the policy change.
The issue had also been raised during the previous NDA regime. “In the wake of the Kargil war, a committee was formed to prepare a report on the entire intelligence system and suggest what improvements could be made,” recalls a former official. “Brajesh Mishra was the National Security Adviser (NSA) at that time. One of the issues raised in the committee was about how a particular religious community dominated the security agencies, while another was denied access.”
One of the officers who served on that committee reveals that he took up the matter with Mishra. “I told him that we need to bring Muslim officers into our intelligence system,” says the officer. “He laughed at the idea and said, ‘So, tell me, who do you want to recruit? Don’t worry. We can work on it. But give me some better advice. Not one that will cost us our jobs.”
The issue was raised again when JN Dixit was appointed NSA by the UPA. “There were discussions about reforming the recruitment policy. But a faction within RAW rigidly opposed it. They strictly told the government to stop thinking in that direction,” reveals a senior official who was earlier posted with the Union home ministry.
A former RAW official points out the reason why any change in the recruitment policy is a tough call. “See, there is no need to get into it. That would disturb the existing system. Whoever makes the change will have to bear the brunt if something goes wrong in the future, says the official. “I am not against the inclusion of Muslims in the agency. But the time is not right. When so many Indians are found to be involved in Islamic terrorism, it will be treason to even think of it.”
Some people believe it was because of the deep-rooted distrust of Muslims among intelligence officials that the IB conducted a national survey in 1998 to find out if the Muslim community posed any threat to the nation’s internal security. This is revealed by some of the 28 questions in the survey questionnaire. For instance, respondents were asked: In a state of war with Pakistan, will the Muslims stand by India?
The survey was being done at a time when both India and Pakistan had conducted nuclear tests. It included questions that sought to glean the opinion of Muslims on the nuclear race between the two countries: Do they oppose nuclear tests by Pakistan? What do they think of Nawaz Sharif’s call for unity in the Muslim Ummah (a notional community of Muslims across the world)?
“One has to be extra-vigilant in matters concerning national security,” says former RAW chief Anand Kumar Verma. “We need to think not only about the danger close at hand, but also about any possible threat in the future. That is why extra care is taken during recruitment.”
So, is it just a case of being “extra-vigilant” that does not reflect any communal bias against Muslims? Former IPS officer Darapuri does not think so. “There are still people in the system who believe that Muslims could be loyal towards Pakistan. That’s why they are not appointed at sensitive desks of the IB or RAW,” he says.
According to former IPS officer Keki N Daruwalla, who was also on the Joint Intelligence Committee functioning under the Cabinet secretariat, there could be bias in the mind of a recruiting officer, even though it is not part of government policy. He had once asked a colleague from the IB to give him a community-wise break-up of Indian spies in Pakistan. He was told that most of them were from the majority community. “What can the government do if the recruiting officer is biased?” he asks.
Verma believes that the patriotism of the Muslim community cannot be questioned. “People may have been apprehensive earlier, but, as you know, we have also had non-Hindus holding the extremely sensitive posts of home minister and home secretary,” he says. Yet, he goes on to say that “if Muslims in India were asked what they are more loyal to — their religion or the nation — I am sure many of them will say religion”.
“That is where the problem arises,” he explains. “It is one of their religious principles to put the Ummah before the country. For them, the Ummah comes first and the country where they are born and where they live comes later. In their mosques and religious meetings, they emphasise allegiance to religion. If you delve deeper, you will find that this religion allows several things that would be unacceptable to others. It allows the killing of a person who turns against the religion.”
“It’s not right to view it from a religious perspective,” says another IB official. “In intelligence services, no one is blindly trusted. It applies to everyone including Hindus.” Quoting an example he says, “We have the entire past and present records of all officers. And the rules are very stringent. Once, an officer did not inform the agency that his grandfather had two wives, one of whom migrated to Pakistan along with her two sons after Partition. When asked about it, he said, it didn’t matter as it was long time ago. He was not asked any further questions and was sent back to the state where he was posted earlier.”
While intelligence officials justify their attitude towards recruiting Muslims on the basis of such examples, there are some Muslim police officers who call it a conspiracy. “If they don’t want to recruit us, they should be clear about it. They dig up a link with some Muslim country and then veto our recruitment, labelling it a sensitive matter,” says a senior IPS officer on the condition of anonymity. “Just think about it, can there be a Muslim in India who does not have an acquaintance in Pakistan or Bangladesh? Go a generation back and you find a connection across the border. But this comes in handy to blacklist officers from the community.”
On their part, the intelligence agencies claim that an officer may be trustworthy, but making sure of that is not easy in the case of Muslims. “Suppose you have to verify the background of a Hindu officer. You will have to check 50 people related to him. But in the case of a Muslim candidate, you have to collect all the information about 100-150 people. Generally, all the relatives of Hindu candidates live in India. But to find out about the extended family of Muslims, trips to Pakistan or Bangladesh are a must,” says a former RAW official.
According to former DGP of the Uttar Pradesh Police and the Border Security Force, Prakash Singh, the patriotism of Muslims is always in doubt as they show “more readiness to die for their religion rather than for their country”. “Even the educated Muslims prefer not to serve the government, especially the police force or the army, because that calls for unwavering patriotism and a readiness to die for the country. They would say, we are brave enough to die but we will die for our religion. No one says it openly, but this attitude is ingrained in them,” says Singh.
Not surprisingly, Singh blames the Muslims for the lack of representation of the community in the intelligence and security agencies. “They choose not to join the police or the army and then they complain that they lack representation. There are discussions on how to increase their representation. But all they want to study is the Quran. What can we do?” he asks. “I can say from my experience that Muslims do not send their boys to join the police. We made several efforts to increase the presence of Muslims in the UP Police and the Provincial Armed Constabulary. But it did not work. We were ready to recruit them if they approached us. Similarly, they do not want to join the army and fight the separatists in Kashmir. How can they then blame the government?”
Singh does not believe that Muslims are discriminated against in the intelligence and security agencies or in the army. “How can you say that when a special director and an additional director of the CBI are Muslims? A Muslim heads the IB. In fact, they get more opportunities than they deserve,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with that, but loyalty towards the nation is a must. Take the case of Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain. He was posted as the commanding officer of 15 Corps in Srinagar. It is a sensitive post, so why did the army choose him? Because there was no doubt about his patriotism. There is no dearth of opportunities for those who are competent and patriotic. It’s even better for those patriots who happen to be Muslims or Sikhs. Only the Hindus are denied opportunities, no matter how talented they might be.”
But not all intelligence officers share such an opinion of the Muslim community. They concede there is a bias against Muslims and believe that the unwritten code is not in the IB’s best interest. The late B Raman, who served both in the IB and RAW, had emphasised the need for recruiting Muslims in the IB and RAW in his book The Kaoboys of R&AW (2009).
Raman is not alone in taking this stand. Former RAW chief AS Dulat had told Outlook magazine in 2006 that appointing Muslims is not only necessary but also critical as only a Muslim is capable of understanding the psyche of the community. “The Muslim psyche can be baffling to non-Muslims,” he had said. “However much a person claims to be in tune with what the community feels, he can never really know all the nuances. A Muslim, on the other hand, would have the feel for the language, the metaphor and the culture. If you have to know what is happening in Aligarh Muslim University or SIMI, a Muslim will be much better informed. And you cannot wish away the feeling of neglect, the hurt and the discrimination that the community feels. That too is something a Muslim would be able to understand better.”
This acquires greater importance in the context of spying in Islamic countries. “A non-Muslim spy needs a total makeover before he is sent to a Muslim country. He needs to be taught all the intricacies of the language and the culture. This involves a huge expenditure and a shadow of doubt always looms over the mission,” says an officer who has been involved in selecting spies to be deployed in Pakistan. He illustrates the point by sharing a hilarious example.
“Once we prepared a non-Muslim agent for spying in a Muslim country,” recalls the officer. “He had a habit of saying, ‘Ma Durga ki kripa se (with Ma Durga’s blessings)’. We tried hard to rid him of the habit during his training and thought we were successful. But when I called him to wish him luck the day before he was to leave for the mission, the first thing he said was, ‘Yes sir, Ma Durga ki kripa se, everything will be just fine’. And all the training went down the drain.”
During the peak of militancy in Kashmir, Muslim IB officers played a very significant role in combating the threat. “At that time, Muslim officers were sent there as part of our strategy and it did pay dividends. The officers mixed with the locals easily and understood them better. Slowly, the locals began trusting them too. It helped us counter Pakistani propaganda,” says a senior IB official.
According to another IB officer, “Muslim officers can be of great help in dealing with Islamic terrorism. But we are still stuck in stereotypes. We should stop disguising Hindus and Sikhs as Muslims. If we could recruit more Muslims, we would not have to resort to this.”
As far as recruitment of Muslims in the IB is concerned, the first signs of a modification in the unwritten code were witnessed when PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. A few Muslims joined the agency during that time. An IB officer who had closely watched the process concedes that it was not an easy task. “There were voices of dissent within the IB against the government’s decision to allow Muslims into the organisation,” he recalls. “It was natural as the practice of denying them entry had been going on for decades. But the government ignored the opposition and made it clear that Muslims must be recruited to increase the community’s representation in the IB.”
Soon, some young Muslim officers were taken aboard. Today, the IB is headed by Syed Asif Ibrahim, the first Muslim to be appointed the director of the organisation. However, there are many who raise questions over his appointment in 2013. “Ibrahim is not eligible for the post. He superseded three more eligible people and was made the director only because he is a Muslim,” says former UP Police top cop Prakash Singh.
According to experts, the bias in the intelligence agencies reflects a more pervasive bias against Muslims in the entire bureaucracy, which is evident even in the training of officials. According to author and social activist Subhash Gatade, “If you observe closely, you’ll find that the entire bureaucracy has been communalised. This mindset has been around for a long time.”
Darapuri, too, believes that the bureaucracy has been communalised. “You saw how so many former bureaucrats came out in support of the right-wing BJP in the run-up to the 2014 General Election,” he says. “You can imagine what they must have been doing while in service.”
Former IB joint director MK Dhar writes in his book Open Secrets (2005) that his anti-Muslim beliefs got strengthened while he was being trained for the IB. “I was surprised to find that the RSS and the IB shared an anti-Muslim attitude,” he writes. “During training, Muslims were projected as a threat to the system. This attitude was instilled in the officers’ minds.”
However, other intelligence officers deny it. “This does not happen in India,” says Verma. “But if the officers are prejudiced, what can be done about it? If you ask any Hindu, whether they would willingly marry their daughter to a Muslim, they would say no. There is a historical and civilisational background to this attitude. If some officers have certain perceptions because of such a background, you cannot change it. We only need to ensure that it does not adversely impact the organisation’s functioning.”
But do Muslim officers raise their voice against the discrimination? Many of them do not think they face any bias. For instance, Rizwan Ahmed, former DGP of Uttar Pradesh, believes that Muslim officers are greatly valued and are also posted in sensitive areas. “But I don’t know about the intelligence agencies as I have not worked with them,” he says.
But senior Gujarat-based IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt, known for filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court concerning Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the 2002 riots, has a different take on the issue. “Muslim officers posted anywhere think that they are different from the community and they proudly declare it too. You’ll find that a Muslim officer is more loyal to the government and most of those opposing the government are Hindus. Muslim officers are continuously making an effort to look more devoted. They would be more submissive and full of flattery. The same holds true for intelligence officials.”