Random Thoughts

Spies and Scribes

Things happen in tandem, often by chance, sometimes meaningfully. When it is a coincidence, we employ a hackneyed metaphor, a crow flying on to a ripe branch which falls instantly. If we discern a special meaning, an esoteric rhythm in it, we characterize it, as Carl Jung calls it, synchronicity.

Meaningfully or otherwise, events in recent days reveal a linkage between espionage and journalism. To mention just a couple of them, a freelance scribe has been booked for leaking information prejudicial to public interest. Mukundan Menon, while reacting to a social media post, has brought up an old case of espionage, a sweeping charge of it by an American journalist against Morarji Desai.

How does a freelance journalist come in possession of sensitive information? When Charan Singh, Home Minister, took some of us to Tihar jail, a visibly harried prisoner with a sophisticated mien, sought to get a message across to the visiting dignitary. Charan Singh avoided him. The prisoner was an Information Service officer, held for espionage. How does a press relations man possess information professionally inaccessible to him?

Seymour Hersh’s charge against Morarji Desai was tendentious. Conceding for argument that some American intelligence officer had met him when he was an important minister under Nehru or his daughter, it would be irresponsible journalism to draw an instant inference that Morarji was a CIA agent. Poor former Prime Minister, he was hamstrung by the American legal system which helped Hersh get away with his allegation.

A CIA agent is a dreaded, or despised, entity. Time was when politicians of all hues took it as an abomination loosely and effortlessly hurled at their foes. Anything that went awry, almost anything, was believed to have been so rendered by a ubiquitous CIA hand. So ridiculous a practice it became that Piloo Modi, a portly politician indeed, turned up in Parliament one day with a badge on his enormous chest, “I’m a CIA agent.”

An enraged editor, S Mulgaokar, once started his occasional column, thanking heavens and heaving a sigh of relief that yet another week had passed without someone sighting a CIA hand somewhere.

The perceived CIA operation or its memoir landed me in a mess, including the Supreme Court. I was working on a book-length story of T N Seshan, former Chief Election Commissioner, who suspected a CIA hand in the violent anti-HIndi agitation in Tamil Nadu in the late sixties. Voluble and unrestrained, Seshan said he should have known, as Madurai district collector, better than anyone else that there could be a CIA agent in the top echelons of Tamil leadership. Anger erupted in Tamil terrain. Yielding to business acumen, we put out the book with what could be offensive to Tamil taste summarily deleted.

The communists have a strong fixation with espionage. They believe they are perennially encircled, class enemies torpedoing or delaying the Indian revolution. It was not for nothing that political clearance was made mandatory for appointment in any government job. I remember E M S telling us once that a class enemy had penetrated in the party as an apparatchik when Lenin was in command. True to his flair for looking at things strategically, Lenin said that a smart guy had to do many benevolent things for the revolutionary system to make himself look trustworthy to the leadership.

T S Sanjeevi was a Tamil officer of the Indian Police vintage who set up India's Intelligence Bureau. Far from flamboyant like his successor B N Mullick, Sanjeevi went round Indian missions abroad to study and evolve a model for a new India's spy system. There was one high-minded Indian diplomat, V K Krishna Menon, who detested Sanjeevi’s plans as they were. Irascible as ever, Menon wrote to his buddy and boss, Prime Minister Nehru complaining that Home Minister Patel had sent his super cop to spy upon him.

Menon was always known for his abhorrence of capitalist America and his harebrained Leftism. That his motives and methods were viewed with suspicion by many people is no secret. So much so an impression went round that he was a communist in Congress clothing--until he was ousted from the tri-color party. One unsavory point made in Christopher Andrew’s centenary volume on British MI5 was that election expenses of some Indian leaders, including Krishna Menon, were defrayed by the Soviet spy apparatus, KGB.

Reverting to the shadowy, if not outrightly shady, spy-scribe linkage, two autobiographical stories may be recalled for illustration. Wherever a news conference is held, a special branch fellow may be seen lurking in the precincts to have a gist of its content whispered into his ears by an obliging scribe. Their peers would, jealously or derisively, dub them as “police agents.” Our quintessential humorist, V K N, was wont to say that those intelligence sleuths could be spotted in any milling crowd.

Anyway, table-top journalists like me would not be in the picture. For us, there were spymasters who would diligently leak information that they thought people should know or scribes could tom-tom as their scoop. Little was it suspected that it was what was generically known as “plant.” Everyone in the trade knows that a spy-scribe relationship is a contrary alliance. Spies like to keep their information under their imaginary cap; scribes are impatient to let out any speck of balderdash with which they are fed. I would not suspect that a middle-level spy was planting anything on me when he rang me up a late evening to say two Kuwaiti nationals who had been declared “undesirable” had not only penetrated through the immigration system but gone round the state as special guests of the government. My source took a day to realize what political fire it had set off.  He confided in me as a matter of friendship, probably in anticipation of some good tip-offs in the course of time.

I would not pat myself on my back for a scoop or two I had scored on the rumblings in sub-Himalayan states dominated by Buddhist politics. Out and out, it was a “plant”, as I knew and the “planter” knew though pretended the other way, much like the proverbial cat drinking the milk. The “planter,” on his part, believed I could be trusted to use the information cleverly. I, on my part, satisfied myself that it was the truth, though, perhaps, not the whole truth.

I must wind up this sequence with a reference to the Shakespearean spy, Polonius. He was spying on everything and everyone as required by his benefactors. Even his son was under the medieval scanner. In one spy mission, he was hiding behind the curtain in the royal bedroom. Mistaking the shadowy figure for someone else, our to-be-or-not-to-be thrust his sword into the curtain killing the clumsy spy instantly. Espionage is not without its risks.


More by :  K Govindan Kutty

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