An engrossing spy history
Historians working on India face formidable challenges. Many of our archives are not up to the mark. There is almost an Orwellian consensus in government not to declassify information about key events.
This is not the case for historians working in more advanced democracies. Christopher Andrew, a leading British historian of intelligence, is known in India for his book The Mitrokhin Archives, which blew the lid off the KGB's penetration in Indian politics and government during the Cold War. His new book The Defence of The Realm, a magisterial authorised history of Britain's fabled security service MI5, also has fascinating insights into the service's relationship with Indian intelligence and how the bond weakened as India moved closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Professor Andrew had virtually unrestricted access to 400,000 security service files and there is much in his new book to excite Indian readers: an intelligence entente of sorts between India and Britain, a mutual distrust of a maverick left-leaning diplomat and friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, and much later, the unearthing of a plot to kill former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during a visit to London.
What I found most interesting is the cosy relationship which India established with British intelligence after independence.
"India set an important pattern after the second war for MI5's relation with newly independent states," Professor Andrew told me. "It is very little known that Nehru agreed that an MI5 officer should remain in India after independence. His relations with MI5 were frequently closer than with the Nehru government."
The relationship was forged very early in the day - according to declassified documents quoted in the book. MI5 got a security liaison officer to be based in Delhi after the end of British rule. The secret agreement was agreed with the Nehru-led government in March 1947, a good five months before independence.
Soon enough, there appeared to be a convergence of interests between the newly-independent nation and its former rulers when it came to intelligence assessments. MI5 Deputy Director General Guy Liddell and TG Sanjevi, the first head of India's intelligence agency, which was curiously called Delhi Intelligence Bureau (DIB), were "united in their deep distrust of the first Indian high commissioner in London, VK Krishna Menon, the Congress party's leading left-leaning firebrand," writes Professor Andrew.
Menon, an old friend of Nehru's, was a flawed man of protean talents: he studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), was the first editor at Pelican Books, Penguin's famous non-fiction imprint, and somebody with whom Nehru could discuss, according to a diplomat who knew both the men well, "Marx and Mill, Dickens and Dostoevsky." He is also remembered for a record-busting eight-hour-long speech on Kashmir at the United Nations, and as a federal defence minister who presided over the Indian rout in the hands of China during the 1962 war.
"We are doing what we could to get rid of Krishna Menon," Liddle wrote in his diary, about a man who, in Professor Andrew's words, had a "passionate loathing for the British Raj which independence did little to abate". How it wanted to "get rid" of the Communist-loving high commissioner is not clear. "The attempt failed," writes Prof Andrew.
The love affair between the DIB and the security service continued unabated: the two shared intelligence on "Communist subversion" freely, and the Indians, according to Professor Andrew, even asked for an experienced counter-espionage officer to visit the DIB headquarters and for help in training transcribers.
Most of the service's special liaison people appointed to Delhi were "gregarious people, fond of India and good at getting on with both the DIB and their high commission colleagues," writes Professor Andrew. Even a chill in Indo-British diplomatic relations after the Anglo-French invasion of Suez which Nehru roundly condemned "had little impact on collaboration between the DIB and MI5."
But one special liaison officer, John Allen, was prescient when he feared that "with so many unfavourable winds blowing between India and Britain, if Nehru realised how close collaboration between the DIB and MI5 was, he would probably forbid much of it."
But that was not to be.
"Nehru, however, either never discovered how close the relationship was or - less probably - did discover and took no action," writes Professor Andrew.
As the 1960s arrived, the relationship evidently grew feebler. There was mounting frustration inside MI5 over how it was losing out to the Soviets as India became a key ally of the Soviet Union. "In the view of the security service," writes Professor Andrew, "the DIB was increasingly unequal to coping with the Soviet intelligence presence in India, greater than in any other country in the developing world."
In February 1964, a senior MI5 officer reported that the Russians were "having almost a free run for their money both in the espionage and subversive fields" in New Delhi.
Two decades later, the service was taking note of the "increasing danger" of Sikh extremism in the UK. It had, Professor Andrew writes, become a major threat during the summer and autumn of 1984. The invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar by Indian troops to put down a separatist rebellion and the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 triggered off by the killing of premier Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards had produced an upsurge of support within the Sikh community for the creation of an independent Sikh state of Khalistan in India.
Prof Andrew reveals "plots" to kill prime minister Rajiv Gandhi during a state visit to Britain in October 1985 were unearthed by MI5. "Good intelligence, combined with the arrest of Sikh and Kashmiri extremists, was believed to have frustrated plots to attack Rajiv Gandhi during the state visit," Professor Andrew writes.
It is for all this and more that we owe Professor Andrew some gratitude. He will be possibly surprised to know that India's prime minister's office alone sits atop some 28,000 files which it resolutely refuses to declassify. Two years ago, it declassified 37 files dating back to 1947, up from a single file in 2005. It is a wonder that history gets written at all in India.