Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the detective character Sherlock Holmes, wrote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
When Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was arrested by the FBI in New York the reason cited was she was paying her maid Sangeeta Richard below the minimum wage. Considering that around 11.7 million illegal immigrants are routinely underpaid by American farmers and sweat shop owners, Khobragade’s ‘crime’ is almost laughable.
There are only two angles in the case of the disappearing maid in the USA. One, the Khobragade affair is straight out of an Aravind Adiga novel, where elite Indians habitually and callously exploit their poor employees.
Two, Richard was spying for the United States. For, why else would Washington risk its nascent strategic ties with India to “evacuate” Richard, her husband Philip and her family out of India?
Evacuation is no small matter. Nations do that only under exceptional circumstances – when either their citizens are in danger or the cover of their intelligence assets is blown. Plus, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, from where Western countries routinely evacuate their informers, India is not the sort of country you evacuate out of.
Finally, if it was indeed a matter of Khobragade paying Richard below the minimum wage, or that the diplomat was harassing the maid’s family back in India, then it should be a matter for the courts in the United States and India to deal with.
So that leaves one possible alternative – Indian intelligence was on to something about Richard. Because India and Indian intelligence leaks “like a sieve” any tailing of Richard and her family would have alerted the American intelligence agencies such as the CIA or the NSA. Unlike the Indian sleuths, who take their orders from a spineless political leadership, the Americans wouldn’t have wasted time.
And they didn’t. Two days before Khobragade was arrested like a common criminal, the Americans had evacuated Richard and family. India will never see them again.
According to R.S.N. Singh, a former military intelligence officer who later served in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) the desperation to protect Richard and her family by the US authorities is the biggest clue that she was a spy. “Such desperation betrays that possibly Richard had been recruited and converted into what is called in intelligence parlance an ‘asset’,” he writes in Canary Trap.
“The sudden grant of visas and the escape of Richard’s family members to the US imply the authorities in that country were closely monitoring the situation with regards to its ‘asset’ and its family,” he adds. “This abrupt development may have been engendered by the imminent possibility of the Indian judiciary tightening its noose on the family members of Richard.”
Uncanny parallel: Rabinder Singh
Post 9/11, R&AW was asked to liaise more with Western governments in anti-terror efforts. This arrangement, under which at one time Indian agents were studying in 80 American courses, proved disastrous for India’s external intelligence. This was because the increased contacts with the Americans led to the exposure of hundreds of Indian intelligence agents. Some of them may have been recruited as double agents working for the CIA.
One of these traitors was Rabinder Singh. His rise within the organisation started when he procured classified US government documentation through a relative, an American citizen who worked in the United States Agency for International Development (USAID, which has been kicked out of Russia, and like several American aid agencies have dubious roles).
But in reality Rabinder Singh had been compromised on one of his R&AW-sponsored trips to the United States. While the spy was feeding his bosses in India with CIA-supplied intelligence of dubious value, he was passing on to the Americans – through his relative – secret documents he was frantically photocopying at R&AW’s New Delhi office.
By the time Indian counter intelligence discovered Singh’s spying activities, the CIA had spirited him out of India.
What is unique about the Rabinder Singh case in the annals of spying is that the US embassy in New Delhi gave him an American passport so he could escape via Nepal. This was extraordinary because deniability is at the core of intelligence operations. But the Americans clearly did not care that by issuing a document to Rabinder Singh they would not be able to deny their association with him.
At that time India’s National Security Advisor said the issue was not that there was a mole but why he was so important to US intelligence.
The former chief of RAW’s counter-terrorism division late B. Raman wrote in his column in Rediff: “The fact that they did it without worrying about its likely impact on India-US relations indicates that despite all the talk of close Indo-US relations and close co-operation between the agencies of the two countries in counter-terrorism, the US agencies couldn’t care less about Indian sensitivities over their continuing efforts to penetrate the Indian official set-up and Indian NGOs.”
That neatly ties in with Prime Minister Office’s claimmade last year that NGOs funded by the United States are leading the protests against the Russian-built nuclear reactors in Kudankulam in southern India.
The Hindu’s Pravin Swami agrees : “Despite all the global spy bonhomie that is supposed to have broken out after 9/11, the CIA, like any competent espionage organisation, has continued to target India.”
Swami argues India’s establishment is more vulnerable now than at any point in the past. “The large number of politicians, bureaucrats and military officers whose children study or work in the US provide an easy source of influence. Efforts to recruit from this pool are not new. In the early 1980s, the son of then R&AW chief N. Narasimhan left the US after efforts were made to approach the spy chief through him.
“Narasimhan’s son had been denied a visa extension, and was offered its renewal in return for his cooperation with the US’ intelligence services. According to a senior R&AW officer, not all would respond with such probity.”
Documents released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that India is the fifth most targeted country in the world. In fact, the NSA soaks up more information from India than from Russia or China. This could be partly because the later two countries have more secure electronic networks the NSA is unable to penetrate, but still it is a pointer to how important a target India is to the US.