Working as a spy always keeps one undercover and they don’t really get to reveal their identity. But some of us are often curious about the people behind our country’s intelligence system. If you are one of them, you are in the right place. We will be discussing the first Indian spymaster, RN Kao (Rameshwar Nath Kao) in this article.

R.N. Kao is the hawk-eyed man who laid the foundation of R&AW (Research and Analysis Wing) and was known as the first Indian spymaster. He is an enigmatic man and a master of intelligence who managed a network of spies across the world.

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Who was R.N. Kao?

Rameshwar Nath Kao was born in Benares (Varanasi) on 10 May 1918, in a Kashmiri Pandit family migrated from the Srinagar district. Pandit Trilokinath Kao, his uncle brought him up. He did his schooling at the Bombay Presidency. The gentleman spymaster completed his matriculation in 1932 and intermediate in 1934.

He did his Bachelor of Arts degree from Lucknow University. Kao then pursued a master’s degree in English Literature at Allahabad University. In 1939 joined the Indian Police Services.

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In the 19th century, the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau (IB) was founded by a British civil servant. Kao joined the Bureau just before India’s independence.

When Ghana gained freedom from British rule by 1957. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was requested by Ghana’s president to aid build his country’s intelligence agency. R.N.Kao was sent to Ghana by PM Nehru. He worked there for a year and formed the Foreign Service Research Bureau (FSRB).

A need for a separate intelligence agency in India occurred during the war in 1965 with China & Pakistan

Before that, India’s intelligence totally depended on the Intelligence Bureau. The then PM Indira Gandhi made a decision to bifurcate the Intelligence Bureau in 1968. She appointed R. N. Kao as its head.

Kao came up with a blueprint for India’s new external intelligence agency after carrying out extensive research on the intelligence system of various countries.

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Kao picked the name of the agency as Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to make it look like an academic organization

Kao handpicked 250 sharp minds from the IB, and R&AW was launched on 21st September 1968. Within a year R&AW expanded internationally.

New posts were created from all around the world from countries such as the UK, the US, Europe, and South-East Asia. In different cities located on India’s borders, new check posts and offices were opened. A new school for language experts was also established. The bright minds trained by Kao called themselves the ‘Kaoboys’.

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R.N.Kao’s contribution in Bangladesh’s liberation

In 1971, when the West Pakistani Army began mass murdering people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), millions of people took refuge in India. Meanwhile, Kao acquired information that military action was being planned by Pakistan in Bangladesh.

PM Indira Gandhi asked Kao to come up with a strategy to support Bangladesh. Kao planned secret operations in areas bordering Bangladesh and India. To infiltrate West Pakistani Army camps, covert operations were carried out. To tap messages between East and West Pakistan Army and civil establishments, technical staff were deployed.

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R.K. Yadav, a former R&AW official, stated that it was Kao’s idea to ban flights from West Pakistan to Bangladesh with soldiers on board.

Reports suggest that Kao got one of the R&AW agents to hijack an Indian Airlines plane that was flying from Srinagar to Lahore. The hijackers were portrayed as Kashmiri separatists. The hijackers blew the plane at Lahore airport after sending all the passengers safely back to India,

This made India ban the overflight of Pakistani aircraft over the country, which also led to Pakistan being unable to send its troops to Bangladesh by air.

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In March 1971, with an influx of people from Bangladesh crossing the boundary, India had begun to face a refugee crisis

To prepare troops for a guerrilla war, Kao began training the refugees from East Pakistan with paramilitary forces. The army of 1,00,000 civilians, fighting for the freedom of Bangladesh was named Mukti Bahini. These guerrillas fought with the Pakistani Army For eight months to beat their confidence.

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When Indian Army entered East Pakistan, in December 1971, they forced West Pakistan to surrender its 93,000 soldiers and Bangladesh was declared an independent nation.

By 1975, a military coup was being planned against Bangladesh PM Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Kao got this hunch. Kao arrived in Dacca (now Dhaka) disguised as a betel-nut exporter to meet Rahman and warn him of the attack. During their hour-long meeting, When Kao tried hard to convince him that his life was in danger but Rahman refused to believe him.

Just a few weeks later, Rahman was killed along with his family and personal staff by the same military officials that Kao had warned Rahman against.

Rameshwar Nath Kao
RN Kao with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. nitinagokhale

Merging Sikkim into India

Kao was credited for merging Sikkim into India in 1975. It is said that it was Kao who predicted and identified that the merger was important. As reported by some analysts, in the late seventies and eighties, Kao also had a significant role in arming Tamil guerrillas and played a key role in Sri Lankan affairs.

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When Morarji Desai government came to power in 1977, Kao resigned from his position as he has worked closely with Indira Gandhi

In 1980 when Indira Gandhi won the elections again, she appointed R.N.Kao as her security advisor.

Kao always refused to pen his memoirs as he lived a guarded life, maybe because he knew way too much. He also avoided making public appearances or giving interviews due to shyness. India’s original super spy, Kao finally met his death in 2002 at the age of 84.

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Kao’s professionalism was liked by the international intelligence community

Prime Ministers Nehru and Indira Gandhi found him Handsome, suave, incorruptible, and intellectual. Rameshwar was a timid and modest person.

The former head of the French external intelligence agency, SDECE (Service For External Documentation And Counter-Intelligence) Count Alexandre de Marenches named Kao as one of the

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‘five great intelligence chiefs of the 1970s’

The Count admired Kao and remarked,

“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”

Alexandre was impressed by Kao’s R&AW as he turned it into a professional intelligence organization. R&AWs formation brought about significant change in the strategic face of the Indian Subcontinent within a span of three years.

RN Kao cultivated confidential relationships with the Israeli Intelligence agency, Mossad. It was at a time when mentioning “Israel” was taboo for the Indian political class.

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R.N. Kao was also the creator of the National Security Guards (NSG)

NSG is India’s elite security force unit. Kao formed it during the Punjab militancy in the 1980s, to counteract terrorism within the country and to address the needs of the Government of India.

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He also founded the Joint Intelligence Committee and Aviation Research Centre (ARC). K.N. Daruwala, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, once said this about R.N. Kao:

“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.”

The National Security Guard proved valuable in dealing with hijackings and terrorist actions. Kao’s visit to China in 1984 is another secret. He visited to lay the groundwork for the following ‘historic visit’ of Rajiv Gandhi to China in 1988.

NSG Kao
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RN Kao book “R.N.Kao Gentleman Spymaster”

His biography written by Nitin A. Gokhale was published by Bloomsbury India in November 2019. Karan Johar plans to make a movie on this book adaptation. RN Kao web series featuring Nana Patekar as Kao is also under discussion.

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