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Intelligence Agencies in Indian Democracy
Ajai Sahni*

The frontiers of criminality in India have been expanding exponentially since Independence, with terrorism and the changing internal security scenario adding a dramatic new dimension to the character and scale of the challenge faced by the intelligence and enforcement apparatus of the state. Apart from insurgent and terrorist violence, there has also been a noticeable upsurge of organized and transnational crime in recent decades, including disturbing tendencies to collusive operations covering complex economic offences, as well as linkages with powerful politicians and the bureaucracy, on the one hand, and with international criminal and terrorist groupings, on the other.

A combination of demographic, technological and geopolitical factors suggests that these problems have the potential for significant augmentation in the foreseeable future. Already, many movements of extreme violence are led by men who are obsessed by apocalyptic visions of genocide and omnicide, and who, increasingly, are approaching the possibilities of securing the means to achieve these ends. Indeed, intelligence and security agencies across the world now concede not only the possibility, but, in fact, the imminence of a future catastrophic attack, potentially involving WMD technologies; among these, the most devastating and accessible could well be biological terrorist attacks that could leave millions dead.1

Terrorism is undergoing radical, generational shifts, and when this transition manifests itself in a new wave of catastrophic attacks, the resultant shocks could destroy almost all capacities of response within the target systems. With rare exception, however, India’s strategic and policy establishment continues to prepare to counter nothing more than the last terrorist attack, substantially oblivious of the continuous process of reinvention that terrorists are engaged in. There is, in India today, little comprehension of the magnitude and the evolving nature of the future threat of terrorism, consigning much of the discourse on the subject to the realm of make-believe.

Terrorism, however, does not exhaust the threat the country faces. India’s democracy is, today, under sustained attack from within and without. In 65 years of independence, the institutions of governance have never appeared as fragmented and fragile as they seem today. Even as the capacities for governance appear to be insufficient to fulfil the most rudimentary mandate of modern administration,2 the institutions of governance are confronted with a tsunami of rising aspirations, and by a divisive, criminalized and polarized politics that exacerbates centrifugal tendencies across the country.

It is within the complex dynamic of these rising disorders that India’s intelligence apparatus has to respond, and is to be evaluated. Despite its considerable achievements, there is evidently a crisis in the intelligence establishment in the country today, and it is obvious that the system is unprepared to deal with the projected threats of the future. Indeed, it has seen significant failures even in its efforts to confront the problems of the present.

There has been much talk of intelligence failure and intelligence reform over the past years, particularly since the Kargil debacle of 1999. Nevertheless, the contours of the crisis of intelligence in the country may not be those that exhaust much of the public discourse. The current debate on intelligence has overwhelmingly focused on ‘coordination failures’, centralization or integration of command and control, including the controversial proposals for the National Counter-terrorism Centre,3 ‘accountability’, and, in a critique arising from a different direction, the interface with human rights and fundamental democratic freedoms.

While many of these concerns are legitimate, they can only be considered secondary, within a framework of priorities, to far more urgent issues that plague India’s intelligence establishment in an environment of rising security threat. Indeed, unless the more pressing imperatives of focus and efficiency, legitimacy, capacity and capability – including manpower profiles and technological resources – are addressed, the broader ‘architectural’ discourse will remain unproductive, even meaningless.

More crucially, all these concerns, both the ‘higher order’ discourse on meta-institutional reforms and the more pragmatic considerations of capacity, collapse into the more fundamental enquiry: what are the legitimate concerns and limits to an intelligence apparatus within the framework of democracy – and more specifically, India’s democracy? And its corollary: how are these to be realized? If a clear, coherent and detailed answer could be found to these questions, most of the remaining conundrums would easily melt away.

Within the theory of democracy, there is a powerful stream of justification that argues that democracy is, itself, to be maximised as an ‘ultimate value’, as opposed to the contrasting options of ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘tyranny’. Such a framing of the question is obviously emotionally loaded – for how could authoritarianism or tyranny be preferred to democracy, freedom and the rights of man? Advocates of this thesis tend to emphasise the value of certain processes, such as elections, deliberation, and the separation of powers, and various relational and ethical criteria, such as freedom, equality, justice, rights and participation, which are regarded as good and desirable in themselves, without reference to the objective circumstances of their operation or the results they produce.

Such an orientation has resulted, in India’s imperfect democracy, in an excessive emphasis on form, and an enduring neglect of substance, with a new institution or new legislation being proposed to ‘resolve’ every new – or newly perceived – problem. The abundance and impotence of existing institutions and laws to secure their purported objectives has done nothing to discourage this orientation, which appears to have deep roots in the highest institutions of the state, as well as in what passes for the intellectual elite in this country. Within such a framework, clearly, the inherent secrecy of operations of intelligence agencies would find little legitimate space, unless it was superimposed with layers of oversight which, in present circumstances, would effectively paralyse the agencies from performing any but the most innocuous and ineffective of functions.

Such a perspective, however, militates against far more vibrant and realistic traditions of democracy, which have never shied away from the fundamental truth that democracy is, in essence, a system of government. Few, in India, understand and appreciate the tremendously hard-headed realism that underpinned democratic theory in its early contours, and these origins have been buried deep under the increasingly deceptive and diversionary populism of contemporary electoral democracies, not only here, but, increasingly, across the world. The truth is, the idea of democracy as an end in itself, rooted in the intangibles of ‘popular sovereignty’ and the ‘will of the people’, cannot provide any satisfactory justification without reference to outcomes. Democracy must find its justification in the world of hard facts. Politics, in our world, is ultimately concerned with the relationship between the governing and the governed, and it takes little wisdom to conclude that it is about power, and about the outcomes of the distribution and exercise of power. No system of government can be an ultimate ideal without reference to what it can do, or does, for the governed. As Giovanni Sartori notes, “a democracy cannot pass the test, in the long run, unless it succeeds as a system of government. For if a democracy does not succeed in being a system of government it does not succeed – and that is that.4

If democracy is to succeed in practical – and not merely notional – terms, it must, first and above all, be secured. It must recognize the various threats to which it is exposed, and acquire the capacities and capabilities to confront and neutralize these.

Democracies are, today, everywhere under unprecedented attack. Fundamentalist creeds and ideologies of hatred and enveloping violence have created movements that seek millennial transformations that would destroy, not just democracy, but civilization itself and all the freedoms that have come to comprise it.  Such movements have, of course, secured only very limited success against the broader democratic edifice and endeavour, but even where this is the case, the damage they have done is colossal. The extraordinary costs they have inflicted, not only in the visible terms of lives and resources lost, but of the long term opportunities of development, the loss of freedom for large populations, and the instability, disorders and suffering they generate even through occasional acts of disruption, can hardly be quantified.

These threats are infinitely compounded by a regime of collusion and criminalization of the state apparatus that has weakened governance everywhere. The Vohra Committee had written about the urgency of breaking down the politician-bureaucrat-criminal nexus after the 1993 Mumbai bombings. Nearly two decades later, if anything, this nexus appears immensely stronger. It needs to be constantly reiterated that the activities of the corrosive cabal of the corrupt that is eating away at the democratic and constitutional edifice from within, is not only a law and order, but an urgent internal security concern for the country. An elite whose urge for domination is easily translated into a cynical machtpolitik based on force, fraud, and the ruthless use of power, is as much a danger and possibly even more detrimental to the national interest, than any terrorist movement.

It is necessary to recognize, moreover, that major crimes occur within an enabling environment that comprises a multitude of lesser transgressions; that the distressing theatre of a catastrophic terrorist attack is the culmination of a protracted series of concealed – and preventable – offences that relies on a network that services both petty and major crime. The same hawala networks, for instance, service corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen, as well as terrorists. Smuggling channels that bring grey market goods into the country also bring in arms, ammunition and explosives. And the same compromised enforcement agencies and personnel ‘look the other way’ when such crimes occur.

It is significant that those who have spoken the loudest – particularly in the wake of major terrorist attacks – about reforming and restructuring India’s intelligence ‘architecture’, have tended to maintain a deafening silence on an overwhelming proportion of these concerns, preferring to exploit the hysteria provoked by occasional acts of terrorism to augment the powers of select institutions, or to surreptitiously alter the constitutional distribution of powers between the Centre and the States.5

Nevertheless, within the broader context of the multiplicity of threats to national security and their impact on the rights and welfare of the average civilian, it is evident that the presumption of an inherent contradiction between intelligence and human rights or democratic freedoms is fundamentally false. Indeed, intelligence operations are often crucial in the protection of human rights, particularly where these are threatened by organised criminal or terrorist violence, by deviant elements within the state apparatus, and by the distortions that corruption and abuse of power introduce into the framework of constitutional governance. Absent effective intelligence, no possible preventive or corrective to these ills can be found. All these issues necessarily fall within the legitimate and pressing concerns of a principled intelligence agency within a democratic framework. There is, here, no necessary conflict between democratic values and individual freedoms, on the one hand, and intelligence operations, on the other. Principled intelligence operations are, in fact, necessary to the fuller exercise of freedom by the average citizen. It cannot be the case, within any just system of democracy, that the rights of criminals and those who violently transgress the law should have precedence over the rights of their victims – both potential and actual; this, however, is what the system for the protection of rights has come to mean in India. A just society cannot owe its criminals a protection greater than it affords those who abide by its laws.

It is useful to notice, here, that much of the assault on democracy is ideological, subversive and covert, and is executed through agencies that tread the margins of the law. Virtually all insurgent, terrorist and organised criminal groups, today, set up front organisations, or penetrate and exploit groups of ‘useful idiots’, to manipulate the interstices and peculiar vulnerabilities of democracy, for propaganda, for campaigns of disruptive protests and demonstrations, to create legal obstacles for the functioning of security agencies, to propagate their virulent creeds, and to clandestinely recruit to their ‘armies’. These are constituencies that adopt the language and idiom of democracy, even as they set about to destroy democracy. An overwhelming proportion of these activities cannot be countered within the framework of a normal ‘enforcement’ apparatus – which is ordinarily galvanized only after the commission of a specific offence. More significantly, democracies in general and Indian democracy in particular, have failed to mount an effective counter-campaign at the ideological level. At least part of such a counter-campaign would necessarily include the sharing by intelligence agencies, of authoritative assessments and information that does not have operational implications. Where these reach the sphere of public discourse, they would generate both greater awareness and cooperation, on the one hand, and better feedback for the agencies themselves, on the other. The wholesale marking of all intelligence information as ‘secret’ is both counter-factual and counter-productive. There is a vast quantity of intelligence flows that can and should be widely published, and such publication would generate greater strength and credibility for the agencies and help promote India’s security objectives. An essential function of the agencies is to create the operational, political and diplomatic environment where India’s security interests are better projected and protected. Public advocacy and creating international perceptions on a range of issues are essential to this function, and must be facilitated by moderated information flows from the agencies. It is useful to recall that a ‘media cell’ was established within the Intelligence Bureau in 2004, and operated for a couple of years, but was abruptly and inexplicably dismantled thereafter, with information flows reduced to the fitful, opportunistic and unreliable system of ‘leaks’ once again. A permanent interface with the media and public would serve both public and agency interests, and is an integral element of the modern intelligence apparatus in the more advanced countries of the West.

These, then, are some of the legitimate and necessary functions of intelligence agencies within a democratic framework. However, just as democracy cannot be justified without reference to outcomes, intelligence agencies will have to root their own justification in the results they produce. To the extent that such results promote the ends of democracy, the greater security of the people, and the substance – as against the rituals associated with the protection – of rights, their structures and operations will be legitimized. To the extent that their operations incline to exceptionalism, partisan interventions and manipulation, and the further accentuation of the distortions of the system, they become progressively delegitimized – and eventually will find their power openly challenged and destroyed.

The crucial question, consequently, is: What masters does intelligence serve? If it is harnessed to partisan interests, to distort democracy and suppress legitimate freedoms, it is the enemy of the people and of constitutional governance. This, unfortunately, is manifestly the case, for instance, in Pakistan, where an entire nation has been devastated by the machinations of a corrupt elite operating through a lawless intelligence apparatus. And while we may celebrate the fact that India is not Pakistan, our satisfaction must be at least somewhat tainted by the periodic subordination of the Indian intelligence apparatus to partisan political ends. Indeed, while authoritative assessments on this are naturally unavailable, one former Intelligence Bureau officer has claimed, without elaboration, that at least half of the Agency’s human resources are “utilized in a questionable manner”.6

The legitimacy and the effectiveness of intelligence agencies are best served where agencies make a clear distinction between the state and regime – though the state is, of course, represented by the transient regime. Legitimate intelligence operations serve the interests of the constitutional state, and are required to resist subordination to the partisan interests of particular regimes from time to time. National security and constitutional values are the touchstone against which legitimacy is to be defined. Intelligence agencies discredit themselves by misdirection; by providing false, misleading and ‘convenient’ intelligence – intelligence that conforms, not to the realities of the ground, but to the expectations of the political executive and other ‘consumers’; or by their willingness to lend themselves to partisan political abuse of powers, or to political and electoral manipulation.

Within a democratic framework, consequently, the integrity, effectiveness and legitimacy of intelligence agencies and their operations will depend substantially on the restraints within which they function. ‘Accountability’ has become the new byword of intelligence reform, and many have quickly lifted current western models of parliamentary oversight as the new panacea for the ills that follow from the misuse and abuse of the intelligence apparatus. Like many of our hasty and borrowed ‘solutions’, however, this reflects a misunderstanding both of the original ‘models’ and of the ground situation within India. Efforts to impose Parliamentary and Congressional oversight in the West have proved, at best, cosmetic in impact, and Western agencies have remained susceptible to misuse under an aggressive political executive – the case of the distortion, indeed, fabrication, of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD capabilities by both US and British intelligence is an obvious, though not isolated, example. The business of intelligence will remain, by its very character and mandate, secret. It is unlikely that the relatively immature institutions of Indian democracy would be any more successful than their Western counterparts, in creating an effective system of parliamentary oversight though, given the profile of elected representatives in India and the polarized nature of the country’s politics, any such system can be expected to be far more disruptive of the agencies’ operational effectiveness.

The most effective system of restraints would be one that is based on professionalism, efficiency and integrity of the agencies and their operations. Once again, invasive intelligence gathering and operations are legitimized by their outcomes. Where intelligence operations result in arrests, if there are clear convictions, within acceptable timeframes, through transparent judicial processes, such actions would find broad public validation. Where intelligence-based operations result in protracted detentions with negative or inconclusive judicial outcomes, public opposition to such actions increases, even as purported ‘victim communities’ become more resentful and potentially radicalized. Again, where particular intelligence initiatives are seen to serve transparent national interests, they will be publicly validated; where they are seen to serve partisan and perverse political interests, they will bring the broader powers of the agencies under increasing and intense scrutiny.

This raises the question of one of the most glaring lacunae in India’s present system of intelligence gathering: the very limited quantum of evidentiary intelligence – intelligence that can stand up to the scrutiny of the Courts. Such evidentiary intelligence, and the meticulous documentation of processes that lies at its foundation, has now become an urgent imperative for all intelligence operations, both to secure the visible outcomes that are a necessary component of legitimacy, and to exclude the misdirection and abuse of intelligence resources. The future legitimacy of agencies will depend on the integrity of process and the broader integrity and credibility of the agencies and their operations.

It is abundantly clear that, given the very wide mandate of intelligence agencies within the framework of Indian democracy, and the rising imperatives of a greater efficiency and integrity of processes, current capacities across the board – human, technological and material – are all drastically insufficient. Given their present profiles, it is simply impossible for existing agencies to fulfil their necessary functions, and to develop processes and records that would meet the demands of integrity and professionalism. This deficit of capacities lies at the very heart of the failure to meet the requirements of democracy – both in terms of the tasks that are to be concluded and of the nature of processes that must be maintained. This problem also lies at the heart of many of the abuses that are criticized, particularly by the human rights lobby. The short cut and the cheat become a necessity when the capacity, capability and endurance to run the full course are lacking. It has been noted, in another context,

The established judicial and human rights narrative in India has attributed the denial of freedom and suppression of rights to an excess and consequent abuse of power vested in state institutions, and has thus sought to progressively constrain and emasculate these. A counter-narrative demands greater and greater impunity for state agencies to counter rising threats to security. Both these positions are a complete misreading of both reality and the imperatives of constitutional governance. The cumulative brutalisation of the Indian state is a consequence, not of any excess of power, but of a progressive erosion of capacities and capabilities. It is not power but infirmity that brutalizes the Indian State and its agencies. Endemic deficits of capacity in every State institution have made it impossible to secure the necessary and legitimate ends of governance through due process, and the result is a progressive resort to short cuts and quick fixes. As the state weakens, power becomes progressively randomized, uncertain, malignant.7

Intelligence agencies and their activities have been demonized within the democratic framework, largely as a result of their abuse or misdirection by an unscrupulous executive – and such abuse and misdirection is a reality, not only in India, but in varying measure, all over the world. The occasional perversion of the essential functions of intelligence agencies cannot, however, take away from the inherent necessity of intelligence work within any complex and large system of management, including democratic governance. It remains, nevertheless, crucial to recognize that democracy is built on an extraordinary tension, a very fine balance, between freedom and restraint; the slightest unevenness, and freedom hurtles into licence, or restraint into tyranny. The greatest endeavour of civilization is to find ways of being strong without being oppressive.

This is a time for pragmatic and effective, not idealized or Utopian, solutions. At a time of extreme uncertainty and risk in India’s internal and external security environment, the demands for greater flows of enormously detailed and reliable intelligence can only grow. At this time, moreover, the enemies of India’s democracy will use the very instrumentalities and freedoms of the country’s legal and constitutional processes to attack the structure and operation of the Agencies. In these circumstances, the most certain measure to preserve the legitimacy and effectiveness of these Agencies will be to establish and maintain the highest standards of probity and professionalism, of demonstrable efficiency and effectiveness, and of comprehensive capacities and capabilities to serve and protect the state and her citizens. In failing to do this, the Agencies would not only fail themselves; they would fail India’s democracy.

  • Ajai Sahni is Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management and South Asia Terrorism Portal; Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review; and Executive Editor, Faultlines.

  1. See, Ajai Sahni, "Global Terrorism in an Age of Uncertainty", Presentation at the Seminar on War Against Global Terror, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, April 15, 2009,

  2. See, Ajai Sahni, "Weakness Compounding Weakness The Centre and the States in India's Internal Security", Presentation at the Nehru Centre, Mumbai, June 8, 2012.

  3. See, Ajai Sahni, "NCTC: National Confusion on Terror by Centre", South Asia Intelligence Review, Volume 10, No. 34, February 27, 2012,; Ajai Sahni, "Counter-terrorism: The Architecture of Failure", Paper Distributed at the National Seminar on Counter-terrorism Organised by Force 1, Mumbai Police; BPR&D; and the Strategic Foresight Group at Mumbai, November 24, 2011,

  4. SARTORI, Giovanni, Democratic Theory, Greenwood Press Publishers, 1962, pp. 109-10.

  5. Ajai Sahni, "NCTC: National Confusion on Terror by Centre", op. cit.

  6. Maloy Krishna Dhar, Open Secrets: India's Intelligence Unveiled, New Delhi: Manas Publications, 2005, p. 518.

  7. Ajai Sahni, "Freedom in Security", July 2011,

(Published in The Indian Police Journal, Vol. LIX No. 4, October-December 2012)





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