Having started his career in the Indian Imperial Service as Assistant Superintendent of Police (Kanpur) during the days of Raj, Rameshwar Nath Kao was moved to the newly constituted Intelligence Bureau (IB) on the eve of Indian Independence.
Post August 15th, 1947, R N Kao scripted an interesting life story full of sky high achievements that would seldom be narrated to future generations. He was and continues to be an unsung hero for most significant part of his life which was dedicated to spying and secret operations.
1. His first assignment was to protect the VIPs in independent India.
2. At one point in time, he was personal security chief to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
3. This was the guy handpicked by Indira Gandhi to start R&AW (Research & Analysis Wing) in 1968.
Kao was the head of IB’s external intelligence division. Post 1965 war, India couldn’t afford to rely on IB (Intelligence Bureau) alone. So, R&AW was created by bifurcating IB to bridge the numerous gaps in intelligence collection and execution of covert operations overseas.
250 agents were hand-picked; the new agency was allocated a budget of just Rs. 2 crore to start its operations.
4. The smartest of covert operatives working directly under R N Kao in the spy agency came to be known as Kaoboys.
Over the next few decades, these Kaoboys would execute countless covert operations and assume numerous roles in the Indian spy agency, counter-terrorism divisions, intelligence bureau, and as national security advisors.
Someone correctly remarked on the internet, “In the Indian intelligence world of yesteryears, Mr Kao was first; the rest were his disciples.”
5. Just three years after R&AW was created, Kaoboys played a crucial role in dissecting Pakistan and created Bangladesh.
The intelligence gathering back then was so accurate that Indian Air Force could accurately bomb the cabin where an East Pakistan cabinet session was on. The Indian Navy on the other hand was provided with the precise locations of every single Pakistan ship docked in the Chittagong Harbour. Kaoboys had done a wonderful job. The rest was done by the armed forces with the help of rebels.
6. In 1982, Alexandre de Marenches, erstwhile head of the French external intelligence agency, or SDECE, counted Kao among the top five intelligence chiefs in the world of the 70s.
“What a fascinating mix of physical and mental elegance! What accomplishments! What friendships! And, yet so shy of talking about himself, his accomplishments and his friends.”
In a nutshell, that’s the man Kao was.
7. Kao was liked and admired by the high and mighty in not just India but across the world!
He was the kind of leader you see in the movies, who take the blame on themselves when things go wrong but pass on the credit to team members and subordinates when something has been done really well.
8. It was Kao and his team that worked behind the scenes to make sure Sikkim became part of India.
The Chinese were closing in but the Kaoboys had other plans. What the Chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee, K N Daruwala said sums up the man R N Kao was:
“His contacts the world over, particularly in Asia—Afghanistan, Iran, China, you name it—were something else. He could move things with just one phone call. He was a team leader who rode out notorious inter-departmental and inter-service rivalries, which is commonplace in India.”
9. Late Prime Minister Morarji Desai had little to no liking for Kao or Kaoboys or R&AW.
He suspected that R&AW was just like a police force that merely fulfilled the wishes of Indira Gandhi.
He was partially right not to completely trust the agency as Indira Gandhi did use some R&AW officials to spy on her political opponents but conveniently ignoring successful strategic maneuvers of R&AW, including the creation of Bangladesh and annexation of Sikkim in the same decade, was Desai’s unbecoming of the head of a state.
10. Kaoboys had a great deal of information on Pakistan’s ongoing nuclear program but Desai inadvertently told his Pakistani counterpart that India was aware of Pakistan’s nuclear program.
It took Kao and his men years to put the right assets in the right place and Morarji Desai foiled it all foolishly over a phone call with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. All secret agents of R&AW and deep assets were eliminated. Pakistan was soon to become a nuclear power. Kao was to leave R&AW, never to return.
11. Interestingly, Kao too was born to a family of Kashmiri Pandits like Pandit Nehru.
He was born in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh). His family had migrated from Srinagar. An alumnus of the Lucknow University, Kao had his early schooling in Baroda.
12. When Indira Gandhi came back to power, Kao assumed the role of her security advisor.
A few years later, he also served in the same capacity to Rajiv Gandhi during the latter’s tenure as PM.
13. It was Kao who created the elite NSG (National Security Guards).
This elite special force was created in the 1980s; militancy hit Punjab was on boil at that time. Today, NSG commandos are counted among the very best in the world.
14. After he retired, Kao was so keen to lead a private life that he could only be photographed twice!
He knew too much to be seen publicly or to write a book.
15. Post 1989, Kao dedicated most part of his remaining life until 2002 to the cause of Kashmiri Pandits.
He would frequently meet political leaders and diplomats to help resolve the issue.
16. Other than a few close friends, and some members of the Indian Intelligence community, hardly any political leader or government official attended his funeral
Shocking for a man whose life story and achievements for the country should have been written in gold.
Most secrets of such a man would never be known to commoners like us, perhaps not even to his successors or future rulers of the country. From information that we have in the public domain, and what some journalists, researchers and other bloggers claim to be true in their books, blogs and papers, we presented a compilation of facts that we could find.
A billion salutes to this patriot!
For further details, read The Kaoboys of R&AW by B Raman (former Chief of Counter Terrorism Division of R&AW).