Sunday, October 6, 2019

The RN Kao book: A peep into early years of R&AW

Friends, resuming posts here after a long time primarily because I have been involved in other critical and time-bound projects. One of them was the biography of RN Kao, (RN Kao: Gentleman Spymaster) who founded the ARC and the R&AW. The book is in print now. For the moment, read my introduction to what I consider my toughest book so far. Subsequently--and very soon--will publish relevant excerpts here and elsewhere.


Where does one begin to chronicle the life and times of a colossus like Rameshwar Nath Kao? Does one begin with his greatest moment of glory in contributing to the liberation of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971? Or the fact that he was the founder of one of the world’s best spy agencies, the R&AW? Does one talk about his fiercely private personality? Or his wide-ranging contacts in the secretive world of espionage? For an author like me, it had to be a combination of the personal and the professional to try and capture the essence of Kao, the man, the legend. Somewhere deep in the archives of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in the heart of New Delhi, lies a set of papers that researchers and historians interested in recording the history of Indian intelligence would love to get their hands on. Alas, only part of those papers—transcripts of tape-recorded dictations left behind by Kao—are currently available. Three crucial files on Bangladesh, the merger of Sikkim and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination, will not be open until 2025, according to instructions left behind by him, months before he passed away in January 2002. 

Since those tapes and papers are not public, this biography of Rameshwar Nath Kao—RNK or ‘Ramji’ to his friends, colleagues and family—had to depend on the personal
memories of a vast array of individuals who knew him in different capacities and their interpretations of his personality and contribution, apart from his correspondence with varied intelligence professionals. The task was made doubly difficult by the fact that Kao was by nature a very private person. He was rarely photographed. Except for a tape-recoded interview to Pupul Jayakar, one of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s closest friends, RNK is not known to have given any public statements or formal interviews with any journalist. So, when I was requested to undertake this task, it seemed impossible. But thanks to help proffered by the RN Kao family, the three personal files of Kao that are now open for researchers and scholars at the NMML, the PN Haksar papers and R&AW’s former officers—some of them retired as chiefs of the organisation—I was able to put together this first full account of the personal and professional journey of Ramji Kao, the sensitive, compassionate man behind the fa├žade of a distant, stern spymaster. 

Not everyone who made this book possible can be named but some who  can be are: Shakti Sinha, Director of NMML, for his generous and quick cooperation in locating and making available the Kao files; Vikram Sood, former R&AW Chief, himself an author, for his timely and critical interventions in reading the early draft of the manuscript; my colleagues in and, the two digital platforms I own and run; Soumitra ‘Bobby’ Banerjee, my former boss in early days of my journalism career (for reasons which will become apparent when you read the book in detail); the most supportive team of Paul Kumar, Jyoti Mehrotra, Rajbilochan Prasad and Satyabrat Mishra of Bloomsbury and last but not least the Kao family. 

The book however has become possible only because my wife Neha and our sons, Harsh and Utkarsh, put up with my crazy schedule of writing 10–12 hours a day at a stretch for two months. During this period, I cancelled a pre-scheduled foreign trip with my wife, movie going was put on hold and family dinners became a hurried affair in the race to meet the deadline.  It is their support that  allows me to function stress-free when I am doing projects with the tightest deadlines imaginable. 

Finally, I can’t thank National Security Adviser Ajit Doval enough for penning the foreword. It is a rare honour to write the untold story of the iconic RN Kao; to have Mr Doval, another legend in the world of intelligence, introduce the book, is a double privilege. 

One last word. This is neither history nor a detective thriller. It is by no means a comprehensive chronicle of the   R&AW either. Just read it for what it is: a short glimpse into how organisations tasked to protect India’s national interests took shape. Many have contributed in the making of this book but the shortcomings are entirely because of me. 

Nitin A. Gokhale
New Delhi
Sept 2019

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Eelam War IV: How it all ended

             MAY 19, 2009

A grim Vinayagyanmoorthi Muralitharan looked down at the body, inspected the belt, the ID card and the pistol that belonged to his former boss.

Moments later, he confirmed to the world that Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the elusive head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was dead.

It was a poignant moment for Muralitharan, better known as ‘Col’ Karuna.

Prabhakaran’s trusted bodyguard at one time, ‘Col’ Karuna had risen through the LTTE’s ranks to become one of his most effective and trusted military commanders before deciding to break away from the outfit in 2004.

Now a minister in the Sri Lankan government, Muralitharan was flown in into the battle zone on a small, deserted patch of land in the north-east of Sri Lanka that day to bolster the government’s claim that the LTTE chief, considered the most dangerous terrorist leader in the world had indeed been killed by the Sri Lankan Army troops.

It was a rather tame end to a firebrand leader who had created from scratch a guerilla force that boasted of a large army, a potent naval arm and a rudimentary air wing. For more than a decade, he had controlled one-third of the island nation’s territory and tormented the Sri Lankan state for over a quarter century.

It was not an easy victory for the Sri Lankan Army though. It had taken the Army 33 months of a sustained, bloody and bitter military offensive to corner and finally kill Prabhakaran in a mangrove.

The man who led that campaign, Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka told me in an interview two days after the LTTE leader was killed that Prabhakaran and his close associates did try a last-minute deception-cum-offensive strategy.

During the interview in his office, Fonseka described Prabhakaran’s final hours: “On 18th (May) night and 19th morning, top LTTE leadership divided itself into three different groups. They attacked our forward defence line along the Nanthikadal lagoon and did manage to break through. But they had reckoned without our second and third tier defences. These three groups were led by Jeyam, Pottu Amman and Soosai. Prabhakaran and his closest bodyguards thought they had managed to escape but in reality all these LTTE fighters, around 250 of them had got trapped between our first and the second defence lines. After fierce fighting that night and the next morning, almost all the top leadership got killed in the area. We discovered Prabhakaran’s body on 19th morning.”

Gen. Fonseka’s measured and pithy narrative, meant primarily for a television audience (I was reporting for NDTV, India’s leading 24- hour news network), does not fully describe what happened on May 18 and 19.

I later pieced together the monumental events of those two days through a combination of sources.

As Fonseka said, the final battle took place in a narrow stretch of land opening to the Indian Ocean from the East and to the Nanthikadal lagoon from the West. There was an open beachhead on the East, a dusty scrubby land in the middle and a waterlogged stretch full of mangroves on the West.

The area actually has one main road access, the Highway A-35 [Paranthan-Mullaittivu] that runs along the northwest- southeast axis, slanting itself towards the lagoon bank.

There were plenty of manmade and natural barriers to overcome before one could get to the lagoon though.

Troops had to cross two causeways, march on an open beach and overcome several earth bunds and bunkers constructed by the LTTE to defend the last patch of territory in its possession.

Gen. Fonseka had deployed three Army Divisions and one Task Force in the final siege of the LTTE leadership.
Major General Kamal Gunrathne was commanding the 53 division and was also in-charge of the Task Force 8 commanded by Colonel G.V. Ravipriya.

Brig Shavindra Silva’s 58 Division which had played the main offensive role through the 33 months of Eelam War IV, continued to be the spearhead.

And then there was the 59 Division, headed by Major General Prasanna Silva, which was holding the main defensive line south of Vadduvakal causeway even as the other two divisions launched the offensive from the north. With such a massive deployment, the LTTE leadership, including Prabhakaran was truly boxed in.

There was only one possible escape route for Prabhakaran and that was through the lagoon. The Sri Lankan Army was aware of this possibility and had deployed its troops accordingly.

The countdown to the final battle actually began on May 17. According to officers involved in the operations, the LTTE made its first attempt to escape that morning. Over 150 cadres, under the leadership of a senior leader Jeyam launched a surface attack across the lagoon using small boats around 3 a.m. and managed to land on the western bank just short of the army’s defence line at Keppularu.

Troops of the 5 Vijayaba Infantry Regiment and 19 Sri Lanka Light Infantry were waiting in anticipation. After a fierce, three-hour long battle on the western bank of the lagoon, 148 LTTE cadres died. The Army too suffered several casualties.

But the Tamil Tigers had failed to breach the defence line and open an escape route for Prabhakaran and other top leaders. It was clear through this attack that the Tigers were trying to establish a foothold on the banks of the lagoon and then open up an escape route for Prabhakaran into the Muthiyankaddu jungle.

Gen. Fonseka told me: “We knew that the LTTE would try this option first. If they had managed to establish a foothold there, the leaders would have escaped across the lagoon and disappeared into the huge Muthiyankaddu jungle, making our task of finding them thatmuch more difficult. But we had anticipated their move since their tactics had not changed over the years.”

Even as this skirmish ended, the last group of civilians, held hostage by the LTTE walked into the government controlled area. Now the army was free to deal with well-trained and well-armed hardcore LTTE cadres.

In Colombo, Gen. Fonseka was personally monitoring the situation.

On ground, his formation commanders had drawn up an elaborate plan to trap Prabhakaran.

The world’s media was meanwhile descending on Colombo in droves, in anticipation of the LTTE’s military defeat and the possible capture or elimination of Prabhakaran.

I too flew into Colombo on May 16, the day when India was glued to its television sets, catching the latest results of the general elections.

For the next 24 hours, all of us were on the edge, tapping all possible sources for news from the frontline. But the official stand remained constant: Top LTTE leaders are cornered in a small patch of land, but beyond that there was no other information.

As night fell on May 17, the Sri Lankan army braced for further attacks by the remaining LTTE fighters.

And sure enough, the first desperate charge by the Tamil Tigers came after midnight on May 17.

The defence ministry website, quotes Lieutenant Colonel Keerthi Kottachchi, Commanding Officer of the 17 Gemunu Watch regiment as saying that this attack came in the form of a deception.

According to him, a group of terrorists disguised as civilians asked the troops manning the defences along the lagoon bank to let them in around 2.30 a.m. on May 18.
“It was my troops that manned the civilian rescue point at Karayamullivaikkal. The terrorists had come along the lagoon bank and were hiding in a small islet in front of our defences. Only a small group came to our line and pleaded with the officer there to let them in saying several injured people were among the group,” Colonel Kottachchi was quoted as saying.

However, Colonel Kottachchi was well briefed by his Task Force Commander, Colonel G.V. Ravipriya and Brigade Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage on the possibility that LTTE cadres might launch an attack disguising themselves as civilians.

“Since all civilians were already rescued, I had given strict instruction to not to take anyone in until dawn. Around 3 a.m., the officer at the rescue point reported that the group which described itself as civilians was becoming violent and trying to breach the defence line. So, I ordered him to fire two shots into the air to control the situation,” he said.

“Suddenly nearly 200 terrorists opened up fire and charged into our positions,” the Colonel said.

The end battle had been truly joined. Describing the operation, Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage, the 681 Brigade Commander said: “The terrorists managed to neutralize two of our bunkers, opening about a 100 metre gap in the defences. But after the first charge, most of the initial intruders stepped into firing range of our machine guns and died on the lagoon bank itself. The commandos and infantrymen killed about 100 LTTE cadres including some of the most senior leaders even before they stepped out of the water,” he added.

Meanwhile, another group comprising over 100 LTTE cadres tried to breach 58 Division defence, north of Vadduvakkal, at first light. This group also met the same fate at the hands of Special Forces soldiers and infantrymen.

A large majority of the other LTTE cadres who managed to swim across the lagoon to step on the ground were killed by the 58 Division troops manning the defence line on the coastal side of the A-35 road. Over 100 other LTTE cadres who remained hiding in the mangroves were killed by the commandos, Special Forces and infantry troops conducting mopping up operations.

The first group to meet its end at the hands of army’s counter penetration troops was in fact led by Prabhakaran’s elder son, Charles Anthony. The group was gunned down before they could walk the 250m distance from the point of infiltration.

Charles Anthony’s battered body was discovered and identified almost immediately.

It was May 18. As we flashed the news and analyzed the implications from far away Colombo, rumors, half-truths and lies were swirling endlessly.

Several conflicting reports about Prabhakaran’s whereabouts led to confused reporting all across the media that day.

One report said he had managed to escape into the Muthiyankaddu jungle; another quoted senior military officials as saying Prabhakaran, Sea Tigers Chief Soosai and LTTE’s intelligence Chief Pottu Amman were gunned down while trying to escape in a hijacked ambulance, their bodies burnt beyond recognition after the vehicle caught fire.

As it turned out, none of these reports was true. A senior military official clarified later: “It was an ambulance that belonged to the Advanced Dressing Station of the Air mobile brigade. It was destroyed by the terrorists may be in a failed attempt to hijack the vehicle. We initially received reports from the soldiers that there was a burnt body lying close to the destroyed vehicle. The body had a structure resembling Prabhakaran. But that information was proven wrong,” he added.

The clarification came much later. For most of May 18, we in the media kept reporting and repeating the story even when the defence ministry and the army refrained from officially confirming the reports of Prabhakaran’s death.

On the battlefield itself, troops had beaten back every desperate attempt by the LTTE leadership to escape the dragnet. Through the day, mopping up operations continued across the battle zone. Over 350 bodies of LTTE cadres were recovered. But it was a major task to identify each of those slain cadres. Intelligence officials got down to work, comparing photographs available with them with each of the dead.It was a painstaking job. But by late evening that day, the Army had been able to positively identify more than 30 top- and middle- level Tamil Tigers.

There was however no sign yet of Prabhakaran, Soosai or Pottu Amman.
So there was no let up in the watch. Field Commanders, acutely conscious of the possibility that Prabhakaran and his top associates may still be hiding in the area, did not allow the troops to relax. The next 12 hours were going to be crucial.
And May 19, 2009 indeed turned out to be a big day for Sri Lanka. At 9.30 a.m. President Mahinda Rajapaksa began his address to the Parliament. He surprised everyone by beginning his speech in Tamil. But Rajapaksa too was silent on Prabhakaran’s whereabouts, raising doubts whether the Army had actually finished the war.
But unknown to many of us, the quarter-century old civil war in Sri Lanka had already reached it climax early that morning after a dramatic fight in a deserted mangrove.
Throughout the night of May 18 and the early hours of May 19, Major General Kamal Gunarathne, Colonel G.V. Ravipriya and Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage were planning the final assault on the last remaining patch of mangroves that lies south of the causeway at Karayamullavaikkal.
The commandos had already cleared a large part of the mangroves on the previous day. At 8.30 a.m. the second clearing operation was launched in the remaining part of the mangroves by both commandos and 4 VIR troops.

Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage, and Lieutenant Colonel Rohitha Aluwihare, Commanding Officer of the 4 VIR were personally leading the assault.

Two 8-man teams and one 4-man team of 4 VIR Bravo company were scouring the mangroves.
As soon as the first team lead by Sergeant SP Wijesinghe entered the mangroves, they came under heavy small arms fire. The soldiers had to take cover behind thorny bushes in chest deep water. After an hour of intense exchange of fire, Wijesinghe’s team advanced some 50 metres and found five bodies. All the slain LTTE cadres were carrying pistols and revolvers.

Wijesinghe and team instantly knew they were onto the big fish since only bodyguards of top leaders in the LTTE were allowed to carry pistols.

The veteran Sergeant immediately alerted his Brigade Commander and the Commanding Officer.

Moments later, one of the bodies was identified as that of Vinodan, one of the most senior bodyguards of the inner protection team of the LTTE leader. “Within seconds we knew the importance of the finding,” Lieutenant Colonel Lalantha Gamage later said.

The troops were now too close to their ultimate target to take any chances. Major General Kamal Gunaratne, who was closely following every move of the assault team, ordered Sgt. Wijesinghe and his team to form a defensive line and plug any possible escape route. Another eight man infantry team and a four man commando force was sent as reinforcement from the flank to support Sgt. Wijesinghe’s advance party.The second team was lead by Sergeant TM Muthubanda.

As soon as these teams advanced, they were fired upon. Another intense gun battle ensued. After an hour of heavy exchange of fire, the mangroves suddenly went silent. The two team leaders cautiously advanced into the bushes to find 18 bodies scattered around.

Among them was Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the man who had tormented the Sri Lankan state for over 30 years.

It was 8.30 a.m. on May 19, 2009. The Army commander was immediately informed. But Gen. Fonseka wanted to be doubly sure before announcing the news to the world.

After consultations with Defence Secratary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it was decided to request Vinagyanmoorty Muralitharan alias ‘Col’ Karuna to positively identify the slain LTTE leader’s body.

Daya Master, who had surrendered to the authorities less than a month ago after being an important link between the LTTE and the media, was also flown in into the battlefield.

Both immediately confirmed that the body lying on the banks of the Nanthikadal Lagoon was indeed that of Prabhakaran—the man who created and led the world’s most dreaded terrorist outfit.

The military defeat of the LTTE was complete. The President, who had just finished his address to the Parliament, was informed.

An hour later, images of Prabhakaran’s body, dressed in military fatigues, were flashed on television screens across the globe.

There was total disbelief. And several unanswered questions. How could a man who introduced so many innovative terrorist methods die such an inglorious death? Did he not have an escape plan? Why didn’t he consume cyanide as many of his cadres did when cornered? Why didn’t the man, who always had a surprise move up his sleeve, no matter how adverse the circumstances, manage to turn the tables this time?

Only his closest aides or family would have been able to provide correct answers but all of them are now dead.

Several days after Prabhakaran’s death was announced, there were many whispers about how the Army had captured Prabhakaran and his family alive, kept them in custody, tortured them and then executed them all in cold blood.

Another version said Prabhakaran himself shot the entire family— wife Madhivadhani Erambu, daughter Duvaraga (23) and younger son Balachandran (11)—before killing himself, after they were surrounded by the army.

But none of the rumors are verifiable, although it must be said that the government is silent on Madhivadhani, Duvaraga and Balachandran’s fate, leaving a lot of scope for speculation.

In the week after his death many pro-LTTE websites, Tamil magazines and newspapers had gone to the extent of claiming that Prabhakaran was still alive and the body that was displayed by the Sri Lankan army as the LTTE chief’s was in fact that of a look alike! But the Sri Lankan government had no doubt that its army had finally eliminated Prabhakaran. Nearly a month later, a DNA test also confirmed that the body recovered from the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon was of the LTTE supremo.

So what led to Prabhakaran’s ultimate downfall? Several factors contributed to the LTTE’s military defeat. But ‘Col’ Karuna’s remark to me, a day after he identified Prabhakaran’s body, perhaps encapsulates in one sentence, the reason for Prabhakaran’s self-destruction.

Karuna, who admitted feeling a bit sad to see his former boss meeting such a violent end, said: “Prabhakaran was not a man of peace. He only knew how to destroy, not build.”

There cannot be a more accurate assessment of the man who gave the world the cult of suicide bombers. Prabhakaran was the man who ordered assassination of Presidents and Prime Ministers. He was the man who inspired and motivated thousands of young men and women to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Tamil Eelam.

He however did not know when to quit. Over the years, a succession of victories had made the LTTE chief complacent and overconfident of his own abilities which prevented him from accepting changed realities. Prabhakaran lived and died as a terrorist without graduating into a political leader.

‘Col’ Karuna says Prabhakaran himself sowed the seeds of his own destruction in the post-2002 era when he accepted a Norway-brokered ceasefire but failed to carry forward the process.
(Excerpted from my 2009 book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace)

Monday, March 18, 2019

Manohar Parrikar I was lucky to know

 Our first conversation began with a misunderstanding. In January 2015, I was in Baroda when an ‘unknown’ number flashed on my mobile. Thinking it was a friend from abroad whose number normally doesn’t show up, I greeted him exuberantly expecting a similar response. Instead, the voice on the other end said, ‘This is Manohar.’ Puzzled, I rather curtly replied: ‘Who Manohar?’ ‘Parrikar,’ the caller added. The penny dropped.

It was India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. He had personally called. From his own mobile. No PA, no exchange, nobody holding the line. He had simply dialed directly. ‘I want to meet you,’ he said in a matter of fact tone after I had apologised for being slightly rude in my initial reaction. ‘Don’t say sorry. We have never spoken before and my number doesn’t flash. How would you know who is calling,’ Parrikar pointed out and immediately put me at ease. I told him I was away and would return to Delhi in the next couple of days. ‘Done. Let’s have lunch on Sunday. I am staying in Kota House. Please come there around 1230,’ Parrikar told me. My next question was, ‘who should I be in touch with?’ ‘No one. You call me. Please note my number.’ And just like that, my short but memorable association with Manohar Parrikar begun. 

I was puzzled and to be honest, also flattered that India’s defence minister wanted to meet me. I was intrigued because at that point in time, I was at a loose end having left NDTV in December 2014. I was not an important Editor or an influential journalist, yet he wanted to meet me. ‘What could he possibly want from me,’ I kept thinking over the next two days since Parrikar had not mentioned any agenda or subject for our meeting. 

Hours before going to Kota House (the Naval facility where he was staying since a Lutyen zone bungalow was yet to be allotted to Parrikar), I banged out a one-page suggestion sheet in bullet points, highlighting what I thought were key issues in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). 

At Kota House, I was ushered in straight into his suite. A smiling Parrikar, dressed as usual in his trademark open bush shirt and trousers, instantly put me at ease. I had heard many good things about his simplicity, his open approach. In fact, my friend Tejas Mehta, who was then the Mumbai bureau chief of NDTV had specifically asked me to meet Parrikar in November 2014 when he took over as Defence Minister, mentioning that he was very approachable. However, I had no real reason to meet the new defence minster since I was quitting full-time journalism around the same time. All this came back to my mind in a flash as we sat down.

After a moment of awkward silence on my part, I tentatively offered him the one-page sheet I had typed out. After spending two-three minutes reading it, Parrikar said, ‘good suggestions. And I am already working on some of them. But tell me, why does the MoD function on a principle of mistrust?’ Taken aback at the rather direct remark, I asked asked him to elaborate. ‘In these two-three months that I have been here, the most striking aspect I noticed is the all-pervasive atmosphere of suspicion. Everyone is looking over his or her own shoulders. There is very little coordination; the overwhelming tendency is to first say no to everything,’ a visibly agitated Parrikar explained. 

I was astonished at how quickly a newcomer like him (no previous experience at the Centre) had gauged the work culture in South Block. ‘It has been like this for decades,’ I concurred. What can be done to improve the system,’ was Parrikar’s next question. ‘Well, there are no ready made solutions,’ I added. 

‘There has to be a solution! I think the key is in getting everyone to sit down and evolve a fresh approach. I will call you again to discuss something that I have in mind,’ he said ‘but let’s not keep the fish waiting, gesturing towards the dining table. That’s where I first got a glimpse of his legendary love for fish. As we finished lunch, another point I noted was the ease with which he interacted with his personal staff. Upendra Joshi and Mayuresh Khanvate were among the two most trusted of his personal staff. They also ate with us, sitting on the same dining table. Later I knew why. When he trusted a person, he trusted him or her fully. No half measures.

As weeks went by, we met more frequently—always at his initiative—since I had insisted that I will meet him only when he wanted. Gradually, his calls started coming daily. He was hungry for new information, fresh insights. I provided whatever I could with my limited knowledge.

One day, Parrikar said he wanted to revise the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Give me some names of experts who can revise, rewrite and simplify the procedures, he told me. So I suggested half a dozen names. He chose four of them for the committee that eventually wrote the DPP 2016. It had many revolutionary ideas and Parrikar’s stamp was very clearly visible. He overcame stiff opposition from within to introduce a new category for procurement in the MoD called IDDM--Indigenously designed, developed and manufactured--products giving them top priority in acquisition. 
I dare say that the improved transparency in the MoD and the willingness of top officials to meet and explore collaborations is the lasting legacy Parrikar has left behind in the South Block.

As months went by, he started calling me home at 10 Akbar Road. Sometime early morning at 7, many a times after 10 pm, after he had finished with his official work. At night, he would inevitably share a beer (Bira had become his favourite) and ruminate, bounce off ideas and sometimes express his frustration about the obstacles he faced in the system. So much so that even when I went off to Honolulu for the 40-day Advanced Security Cooperation Course at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in September-October 2015, he would occasionally call from his staff’s Whatsapp number just to chat.

By middle of 2015, he had understood what could work in the murky world of defence, and what could not. However, he was never comfortable in Delhi’s culture of sycophancy. His bungalow was open to everyone but fixers and influencers.  So I had to be doubly careful since word had spread about my unrestricted access to India’s defence minister. I must have blocked at least 14-15 numbers in the period that Parrikar was in Delhi because people of dubious credentials wanted to use my closeness to him. I would inevitably tell him about who I had blocked. He would smile and say, ‘good!’

In November 2015, I launched I wanted to begin with a detailed interview with India’s defence minister. But somehow, he couldn’t find time to sit for an hour or more. When I started breathing down his neck as the deadline neared, he said come to Goa. ‘We will fly back together. That way we will get two uninterrupted hours.’ So one fine day, we boarded his official Embraer from Dabolim airport. For the next two hours, I recorded a freewheeling chat with him. The result: his most detailed interview ever ( In fact, it was so detailed that most of what he said translated into policy one by one as months went by. The most astonishing aspect of that two-hour plane journey from Goa to Delhi was the fact that he never referred to a single piece of paper. Everything was on his fingertips. His phenomenal memory and eye for detail was clearly evident during that interaction.

Parrikar was also a voracious reader. One day—I think after he returned from his maiden trip to the US—he handed to me a book and said, ‘read this if you haven’t.’ It was titled Victory on the Potomac by a Pentagon insider detailing the battles that were won and lost in the American political arena before the Goldwater-Nicholos Act was promulgated. ‘Give me your opinion on what could we borrow from here for India,’ he told me, signalling the intent for creating jointness and integration of the three services. On another day, he fished out Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War and revealed, ‘it is useful for me to follow some of the tips in this book for my own journey in politics. You should also read it.’ Both those books are still with me. In fact, the day he vacated his bungalow, he carted all his books to Goa Sadan and three weeks later asked me to pick and choose what I wanted to take home. I brought home about 60-65 books. Now they will remind me of him, each time I pick up any one of them to read or refer to.

I was always curious about his journey from IIT Bombay to politics. He narrated a very revealing anecdote about how it all began but suffice it to say once he decided to take the plunge, he was a natural. Parrikar knew how to extract the best out of a diverse set of people. He was loved, respected and followed blindly but Goans for over two decades. He had his faults of course. For one, he hated to decentralise or delegate. Calling him control freak would be an exaggeration but because he was a perfectionist, Parrikar preferred to do most of the work himself. He also therefore, did not or could not groom second rung political leadership in Goa. He could also be very acerbic when he wanted. Parrikar carried the zeal that had made him such an adored leader in his own state to Delhi but the workload in the MoD was enormous. So he would invariably wake up at 4 am and not sleep until 11 pm. The punishing routine and the fact that he worked all seven days a week (five days in Delhi and two days in Goa), took its toll. He was practically running the MoD and the state of Goa simultaneously.

When in Delhi, he would miss the informal Goan way of life. He had to behave formally as defence minister most of the time. But when Parrikar felt he had to unwind, he would suddenly call and ask if I was in Delhi and free. If I said yes, he would ask me to request my wife to cook simple, home- made fish curry and rice and tell me to keep a couple of bottles of beer in the refrigerator before he arrived. For the next 90 minutes or so, India’s defence minister used to regale us with anecdotes from his personal life in his typical witty style, forgetting all the burden that he carried on his shoulders. We in the family too developed such a close bond with him that none of us felt he was an outsider. For us, it became an accepted fact that Parrikar would drop in at home without much notice. Now, looking back, we have suddenly realised that we don’t even have a single photo with him in our house although I have many snaps with him in public functions.

As I write this, my eyes well up and thousands of memories come flooding back. I am an emotional jumble at the moment but even when I look back after some months, I am sure I will feel the same way about Parrikar—Bhai to everyone in Goa, but like an elder brother to me in the two years that I got to know him so closely in Delhi. To say we will miss him is to state the obvious but for me the bigger loss is for India as a nation. You went too soon Manohar Parrikar. Travel well my friend. You will remain an inspiration for life. The biggest lesson I draw from your life is to remain humble, no matter what heights you reach. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Remembering Gen KV Krishna Rao

Had he lived, Kotikalapudi Venkata Krishna Rao, or Gen KV Krishna Rao would have turned 95 today. He passed away two years ago in Secunderabad, leaving behind a rich legacy as India's Army Chief, Governor of several states including J&K during a very turbulent phase in the 1990s and a strategic thinker who ushered in long-term changes in the India Army's organisational structure and its doctrinal thinking.

By the time I met him for the first time in 2006, Gen Krishna Rao had comfortably settled down in his retirement house after having done his bit for the nation as an army officer and as a Governor. But even before joining NDTV, he played a small role in my decision to shift to Delhi and take up the NDTV assignment.

I had come to Delhi from Guwahati in January 2006 to discuss the possibility of becoming NDTV's Defence Editor. After discussions with the editorial leadership, I was meeting the CEO, Narayan Rao (Gen Krishna Rao's son, who too has passed away--God bless his soul) to finalise my terms before joining the organisation. Till then, I of course had no idea that Narayan was Gen Krishna Rao's son. 

We got chatting about Army life, after he learnt about my background. "I too am an army kid he said without revealing who his father was. I was yet to decide whether to shift to Delhi and join NDTV. Then suddenly Narayan remarked, "Wait, aren't you the guy who did the Kargil reports for Outlook? Also the stories on Brig Surinder Singh?" I nodded in the affirmative. 

Without saying a word he picked up his mobile and dialled someone. Then, without warning, he passed the phone to me and said, "speak to my father." Dumbfounded, I asked, who's your father. He said Gen KV Krishna Rao! It was all very unnerving. I nevertheless blurted out a greeting to the General and said Sir, I'am Nitin Gokhale. It's a great honour to speak with you." Gen Krishna Rao's reply was: "Of course I know your name. I wanted to thank you for saving my Paltan's izzat." I was flabbergasted. For life of me I couldn't fathom why he was saying that. His next sentence removed the confusion. He said: "Thanks for giving the right perspective on what happened in Kargil and to one of our own boys, Brig Surinder Singh." Brig Surinder, former commander of the 121 Brigade in Kargil was a controversial figure in the context of the 1999 conflict and he belonged to the Mahar Regiment, the General's own regiment. 

The penny dropped. I thanked him for his words and was about the give the phone back to Narayan when the General said from the other end: "I am told by Narayan that you are still in two minds about joining NDTV. Don't hesitate. Take up the offer. You will like it." He left me with no choice really! His nudge was one of the reasons why I decided to come to Delhi in 2006. 

Then, later in 2006 I met him in Secunderabad and spent a very educative two hours listening to his experiences, his thoughts on the army, the security situation and the strategic challenges that India faced. He shared his experience in bringing in organisational changes in the army and also why Mrs Indira Gandhi decided to appoint Gen AS Vaidya as Army Chief to succeed him instead of Lt Gen SK Sinha! We also chatted about the north-east (where I had already spent 23 years) and the 8 Mountain Division, commanded by Gen Krishna Rao in the 1971 war. That Division used to be based in the north-east before being shifted to Kargil-Dras area in 1999.

Gradually as I started taking more focused interest in the military and some of the strategic issues, I read about Gen Rao's contribution to a major shift in Indian Army's doctrinal thinking between 1975 and mid-1980s. The mechanisation of the Indian Army, the raising of the Mechanised Infantry were his seminal contributions to the nation. Gen Rao's vision was later translated into reality by Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji.  

As Col Vivek Chadha writes in an IDSA article: "The government appointed an expert panel in 1975 to undertake, probably for the first time, a long-term perspective plan for the army. The committee was headed by Lieutenant General (later General) K.V. Krishna Rao, with Major Generals M.L. Chibber and K. Sunderji as members and Brigadier A.J.M. Homji as secretary. It was mandated to present a perspective till 2000. It was required to evaluate national security threats, propose a strategy against it, visualise the future battlefield, determine the size of the army and suggest an incremental build-up of forces. Wide-ranging discussions were carried out by the committee with a number of agencies, including the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Planning Commission. This ensured that it was able to collate a wide cross-section of views prior to making its recommendations. These changes aimed at improving the teeth to tail ratio of the army, making its organisationally lean even as it pursued modernisation. This report followed up on the limited mechanisation of the army that had begun in 1969 with the induction of TOPAZ and SKOT armoured personnel carriers. As a result of the recommendations of the report, this received an impetus with the raising of the Mechanised Infantry Regiment on 2 April 1979, equipped with BMPs. The real impact of these recommendations was felt when Sundarji took over as the Chief of Army Staff in 1986. By the end of his tenure, 23 mechanised battalions had been raised, most equipped with BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles (ICVs), thereby utilising the best technology available."

Even by 1975, General Rao had done enough to be remembered well in the Indian Army. He was commissioned in August 1942 in the Mahar Regiment and served in Burma, North West Frontier and Baluchistan during the Second World War. He was part of Lord Mountbatten’s Punjab Boundary Force during Partition, which saved lives in both East and West Punjab during extensive rioting. He saw action as a Company Commander with 3 Mahar, the infantry battalion he later commanded, in the Jammu and Kashmir operations of 1948.

But the moment he cherished most from his life was the one he began his memoirs, In the Service of the Nation — Reminiscences, with: being witness to Pakistan’s surrender at Dhaka in December 1971. He was the GOC of 8 Mountain Division in Sylhet sector, where his division liberated North-East Bangladesh. 

After his retirement, Gen Rao served as the governor of Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura from 1983 to 1989.
He was appointed governor of J&K in July 1989. General Rao had a major role to play in subduing militancy in his second stint as governor of J&K from 1993 to 1998. He governed the state under Governor’s Rule and ensured successful parliamentary and assembly elections in the state in 1996.
He provided military helicopters and security to election commission officials and saw that the polls were conducted smoothly. He had earlier survived an IED blast during the Republic Day celebrations in Jammu in 1995.

As I kept going to Secunderabad--to the College of Air Warfare and to the College of Defence Management--to deliver talks, I would either bump into him at the inaugural sessions or would go and call on him, whenever possible. Truly a towering personality and not just because he was more than 6 feet tall. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

How a law firm helped a teen caught between foster family and her mother

Last week, our older son's boss sent me an email. I was intrigued. Our son Harsh is a lawyer, and has nothing in common with my profession. 

Opening the mail, I found a detailed note attached by Harsh's senior and a mail trail. He was all praise for Harsh and said this will make you proud as his parents. Reading the attachment, we knew why he said this.

Below are the details (as mentioned in an internal note) about a humanitarian case that Harsh and a couple of his colleagues in the well-known law firm DSK Legal--headquartered in Mumbai--handled and prevented a minor girl from being taken away from her foster parents. This story has made into the papers this week but irrespective of the traction it has gained, it was nice to know what young people--brought up in the right atmosphere--can accomplish even when working in a commercial law firm, provided the bosses are equally humane. It of course makes us feel happy but this case also shows that not all lawyers and legal firms are mercenaries.

A minor girl child, aged 14 years was born to a Hindu mother in Mumbai. She came into the care and protection of a Muslim family residing in Tardeo upon the request of her biological mother. At this time, she was only 2 months old.

Ever since, the foster family has brought up the child retaining her identity of name and religion. The family cared for and educated the child for fourteen years. They extended to her, natural love and affection as they did for their other children residing within the same house.

Fourteen years later and earlier this year, the biological mother returned to take forceful custody of the child and take her to Kanpur. Despite repeated attempts, the child and foster family refused to handover custody of the child to the biological mother and her accomplice from Kanpur. The child resisted all such attempts pleading that she wishes to continue staying with the foster family. These forceful attempts continued at the girl’s school as well. Taking cognizance of this nuisance, the teachers of her school were compelled to call the Child Line Services to seek their intervention.

The call resulted in the child being shifted to the Dongri Childrens Home and later to an anonymous NGO’s hostel. Neither the foster parents nor the biological mother were permitted to meet the girl for over 2 months.

The Child Welfare Committee, established under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2006 conducted various hearings as they are by law mandated to ascertain the best interest of the child and further expected to take decisions regarding the child’s welfare including handing over custody of the child to the foster family or the biological mother.

It was at this time that an old client of ours recommend the foster family approach us for assistance. Our team gladly took on the matter.

At the first hearing before the Child Welfare Committee, we appeared as friends of the foster family due to lawyers being disallowed from appearing. We filed an interim application seeking that the child be repatriated to the foster family in light of the fact that the child has been brought up in this family for over 14 years. We further argued that the state of children’s homes in Mumbai is unfortunate and that the child ought not to continue staying there.

However, the Committee acted with extreme cautiousness in this matter. This was possibly due to the biological mother and her advocate from Kanpur’s pressure on the Committee. We understand that they filed several petitions, complaints and applications in various fora to seek custody of the child and repatriate her to Kanpur.

During the course of these hearing, the girl child was insistent that she does not want to reside with anyone but the foster family. However and perhaps employing abundant caution, the child was subject to several rounds of counselling to reaffirm the same. The child remained in the NGO’s hostel for over 60 days during the course of these hearings.

Meanwhile, we also filed a Guardianship Petition before the Hon’ble Bombay High Court praying that the foster family be appointed as legal guardians of the child to the exclusion of her natural guardians.

The Child Welfare Committee finally rendered its decision on June 26, 2018 granting custody of the child back to the foster family. She is now reunited with her family after the lapse of 2 months. A picture of the family as reunited is attached.

The team working on this matter was that of Harsh Gokhale, Nausher Kohli and Samit Shukla. 

Harsh could be of help because he a MSW from TISS and has had some experience in handling such cases before becoming a lawyer.

Later the story got some play in the media.