Can a gentleman be a spy?

Can a gentleman be a spy?

The book promises to reveal unknown facets of the legendary secret agent but fails to deliver, says D P Satish

Spying is not a gentleman’s job. But, there are 'gentlemen' spies. There are also some 'gentlemen' spymasters. Rameshwar Nath Kao, popularly known as R N Kao, the founder of India’s external spying agency Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) was one among them.

A generation of spies groomed by him consider him to be the father of India’s external espionage agency. His protégés are still called 'Kao Boys'. They speak highly of him even almost 20 years after his death.

Owing to its very nature, not much is known about spies in India. Unlike in the West, secret documents of spying agencies are not made public or declassified periodically in India. In the name of official secrets and national security, our successive governments have kept them under wraps. Hence, there have not been many books on Kao, who was the unquestioned king of R&AW. Senior defence and strategic affairs journalist Nitin A Gokhale has come out with one now to shed some light on various aspects of his life.

Nitin Gokhale has written this book based on his interactions with some of Kao’s friends, colleagues, family members and some declassified documents, which he was able to access. The book’s cover promises a lot, but fails to deliver and will thoroughly disappoint readers who buy it, hoping to discover unknown facets of a legendary spymaster or the functioning of R&AW. Perhaps the author knew his limitations before attempting this book. He admits that he had to rely on first-person accounts and a few available documents to recreate the character and achievements of Kao.

The book talks largely about four things -- Kao’s childhood and early life, the Kashmir Princes investigation, the Ghana Assignment and the creation of Bangladesh. Kao, a fatherless child, had to go through a lot of sufferings, before he joined the coveted British Indian Police (now IPS) in 1939. Gokhale writes movingly about that period in Kao’s life. Then the author goes on to delineate his career. Early in his career as a spy, Kao was sent to Hong Kong to investigate the bombing of an Air India flight “Kashmir Princess” chartered by the Chinese government in the mid-1950s. It was his first major overseas spying assignment. Gokhale devotes dozens of pages to explain what Kao did in Hong Kong, but miserably fails to shed light on anything sensational or important Kao did or discovered there. It reads like an ordinary story of an ordinary clerk who had the good fortune of sharing a meal with the Chinese Premier Chou En Lai.

Similarly, the author just informs us that Kao was loaned to Ghana to set up a spying agency in 1960s. There are no further details about his espionage trainer duties there. Kao played a pivotal role in the Bangladesh war of 1971 as head of R&AW. Instead of shedding light on Kao’s unknown activities there, the author writes about the Bangla war in detail. The book is haphazardly written and insertion of unimportant things makes it rather boring.

Readers who have read some of the best books on Mossad, CIA, KGB and MI5, MI6, etc.,will certainly find Nitin Gokhale's account of Kao unimpressive. His writing is not engaging and it is hard to convince yourself that you are reading a book on a legendary spymaster. 

Spying is a high risk business. They win some and lose some. But, while Western countries treat both their successes and failures equally, In India, obsessed with success, we celebrate victories and never talk about  failures. Same applies to this book. Some of the sentences in the book sound exaggerated. The author almost reveres the spymaster without even bothering to find out anything about the other side of Kao.

Surely, like all other spymasters, Kao was cunning and managed to hide or bury information. Either willfully or unable to discover such facets, Nitin Gokhale ends up writing a bad, long obituary of RN Kao.

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