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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 22, May 16, 2009

The Hidden State

Monday 18 May 2009, by D. Bandyopadhyay

[(Book Review)]

Rogue Agent: How India’s Military Intelligence Betrayed The Burmese Resistance by Nandita Haksar; Penguin Books Ltd, New Delhi; 2009; pages 242; price: Rs 299.

The benign and serene face of an Atal Behari Vajpayee or a Manmohan Singh does not reflect the ugliness of the innards of the Indian state. Perhaps every state has this hideous feature neatly packaged to keep it out of sight of its own citizens. From the Devil’s Island of France, the penal settlement in Australia of the United Kingdom to the Guantanamo Bay of George Bush’s US (mercifully abolished by Barack Obama) represent the sinister character of every regime. India is no exception. Notwithstanding the high-sounding principle that the care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of a good government, every state possesses its M15/M16 or KGB or CIA or Mossad or IB/RAW—non-accountable, non-transparent, non-responsive instruments of oppression and torture for the safety of the state. In course of time, some of them gather so much of power and unaccountable authority that they sometimes pose a threat to the democratic features of the state.

Nandita Haksar is both a well-known human rights lawyer and a strident activist and advocate of the essential principles which form the basis of any civilised society. Her book is a bone-chilling account of how our intelligence agencies operate often beyond the limits of law apparently for the safety of the state established by law. In narrating her experience with 36 Burmese freedom fighters languishing in an Indian jail, she travelled far beyond her lawyer’s brief. She exposed audaciously how simple and innocent men get caught in the vortex of geo-politics and how they are discarded like squeezed lemon when they are no longer required. The heartless, cruel and brutal facet of the hidden state has come out clearly in all its ugliness. Ordinary citizens of this country have no idea about the frightfulness of a ruthless state. Nandita Haksar has done a signal service to the civil society of the country by making them aware of the beastly leviathan they are up against in fighting for human rights and state oppression.

One of the innovative aspects of the book is that there is no rigid sequential chapterisation. The ebb and flow of events have been brought in the natural sequence of the ebb and flow of a river. Excluding the forward by Colonel Lakshmi Sehgal and acknowledgements, there are 12 “episodes”. This touch of furriness adds a tangy taste to the book. It kindles excitement not expected in a book seemingly meant for the narration of a legal case.

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The real merit of the book lies in gathering primary source materials from sworn affidavits of the prisoners. This is its unique feature. Oral narrations often suffer from errors arising out of loss of memory or deliberate suppression of inconvenient issues or wilful inclusion of blatant falsehood. Because of the penalty of perjury a sworn affidavit is a more reliable source material.

There are intrigues and trickery at every twist and turn of the story. The creek of this rather long narration could be found in the affidavit of Soe Naing s/o Maung Nyo. He avers: “The Indian military intelligence wanted us to provide them with information on the movement of Chinese fishing boats in Burmese waters, because these fishermen were being used as spies by the Chinese Government to spy on Indian military and naval positions. They also wanted information on the Chinese radar stations in Coco Islands which is very near the Andaman Islands. My leader told me that in return for this information the Indian Government was going to allow us to operate from Landfall Island which is the northernmost point on the Andaman Islands.”

From the tales of unknown, simple, seafaring Arakanese sailors and Karen fighters the author spins her narrative to involve the Indian military intelligence, RAW, the Chief of Naval Staff and the Defence Minister. Kings and cabbages have been superbly woven in this fascinatingly true novel.

The murky tale of corruption, betrayal and double-crossing by the MI agent Colonel Grewal sends chill down the spine. These are supposed to be the protectors of our democratic republic which promises “justice, social economic and political” to all. Stories of extortion of money and other costly gifts by the military intelligence officer from the Burmese freedom fighters make one sick. Strangely, a man of integrity like Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat stood by him solidly, presumably for “reasons of the State”. As a lawyer, the author may consider filing a PIL to bring the culprit to book.

The book is written to a higher, subtler and more convincing standard than the readers of the modern Le Carré model thrillers are used to. The proverb “truth is stranger than fiction” comes out with such a devastating force that readers would feel overwhelmed.

I got deeply involved personally while going through the book because it discussed the role of two of my friends in it. Vishnu Bhagwat, the former Chief of Naval Staff, was shown to be totally against these Burmese prisoners. To him, they were gun-runners and smugglers who deserved no sympathy. The author strongly contests Admiral’s point of view, though she praises him sky-high for his integrity and patriotism. There could be honest differences of opinion among conscientious and honourable persons. The same issue could be looked at from different angles. Such differences would not detract an iota from the authenticity of the participants of the debate. If such events resulted in the breaking down of human relationship, that would be unfortunate.

The other person mentioned is my old friend late Bibhuti Bhushan Nandy who was the Additional Director of RAW. Only after going through the book I could understand the strong resentment he had against the continuing imprisonment of the Burmese freedom fighters in the Presidency Correctional Home at Kolkata. In fact at his instance I attended a protest meeting at the Indian Association Hall, Kolkata. Not having read the book then, I could not fathom the intensity of repulsive feeling that Bibhuti Nandy had against the Indian establishment. I regret, I did not involve myself deeply in his crusade to free these freedom fighters.

Nandita Haksar’s passionate plea for the release of the Karen and Arakanese freedom fighters from their continued incarceration in the Indian jail led her to set a new high standard for the real-life thrillers where ordinary people have shown extraordinary courage, fortitude and determination in over-throwing a corrupt and tyrannical military junta for the sake of democracy and human liberty.

The book belongs to the genre of best-sellers.

The reviewer is a former Secretary, Revenue, Government of India (now retired).

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