India needs to overhaul its intelligence machinery and approach to address the China challenge as China’s intelligence operations are long protracted narrative wars and go far beyond tactical espionage.

In India’s history over the last 75 years, several incidents such as Pakistan’s invasion of Kashmir in 1947, the rise of Khalistan militancy in Punjab in the 1970s, the spread of Jamaat-i-Islami in Kashmir in the 1980s, the rise of militancy in Kashmir in 1990, the exodus of Kashmiri pundits, Kargil war, IC-814 hijack, 26/11 attacks, Depsang and Doklam incursions and most recently the Pulwama suicide attack and Galwan clashes make us doubt our intelligence capabilities and, question our strategic establishment’s understanding of national security threats and challenges. However, when the Modi government brought Doval, a former spy chief, as NSA and successfully executed Uri surgical strike, Balakot, Article 370 abrogation, and Jamaat and PFI ban, it became clear that the present regime has the will and intent to revolutionize our intelligence world.
Intelligence reforms have become a pressing need of our times, in the wake of an entirely new breed of challenges such as pandemics, China’s cultural and influence operations along with its traditional espionage, cyber threats, growing Islamist radicalization, and lone-wolf terrorism, cultural sabotage campaigns by the foreign state and non-state actors masquerading as activists and religious missionaries, and pervasive and intrusive propaganda wars.
Having been exposed to the intelligence functioning in Kashmir as a field researcher, I can state that our approach is very reactive in the intelligence domain. In Kashmir, until recently i.e. before the post-2016 all-out operations against the homegrown terrorism that strengthened after the encounter death of HM commander Burhan Wani, our approach was mostly reactive, adhoc, devoid of long-term vision, and short-term. While Pakistan always worked with a long-term vision and goals, we not only failed to understand that but also turned a blind eye and just made our best effort in maintaining the status quo. Our understanding of the conflict dynamics and nature of terrorist and Islamist organizations and Pakistan’s real motives was even more flawed. Such flawed understanding resulted in a plethora of historic blunders, for example, in the 1970s, Delhi promoted the radical Jamaat-i-Islami to counter Sheikh Abdullah’s soft Islamist National Conference. The experiment turned into a disaster. Later, in the early 2000s, we repeated the same mistake when New Delhi, allegedly facilitated and supported the creation of the People’s Democratic Party. On the other hand, Pakistan was much more successful, as Islamabad could package Jamaat-e-Islami as PDP and present it in its new political avatar. This happened, despite Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s dubious and alleged role in fomenting the Anantnag riots of 1986 in which several Kashmiri Pundits were killed. Later, during the PDP rule in Kashmir, Jamaat flourished and became the most potent instrument of terror funding, a legal support system for terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism, with a strong penetration in the mainstream social and state institutions such as bureaucracy, media, education, banking, and civil society. Unfortunately, our intelligence masterminds failed in understanding Pakistan’s long-term game plan of strengthening Jamaat to radicalize Kashmiri society and to create a permanent constituency for militancy and hatred for India’s secularism. For a long time, many of them continued to believe that Jamaat could be used as an asset to keep the social unrest under check because of their massive religious influence. On the other hand, Pakistan kept innovating and invested a lot of strategic thought in sustaining terror and Jihadi extremism in Kashmir. It came up with several innovative ways of terror funding such as raising money through medical and engineering seats, haj tours and travels, and LoC trade; however, for us, terror funding became a matter of serious concern only after 2014.
Secondly, we tend to run intelligence organizations just like other routine bureaucratic organizations. In Kashmir, I have seen officers from far-off places like Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Orissa getting posted in remote militancy-infested areas. They have no idea of the local language, religion, and cultural nuances. After two years i.e., by the time they cultivate some decent assets network and develop some understanding, they are transferred. On the Pakistani side, one can see a degree of consistency. Quite surprisingly, Section 26 i.e. ISI’s Kashmir Desk, has so far been under the command of four to five officers only, most of them of the rank of a Brigadier.
Thirdly, we have an array of agencies with different mandates. For example, MI has the mandate of collecting tactical levels of intelligence for military operations. While collecting intelligence or cultivating sources, if an MI officer gets information of strategic value, what should he do? Should he say no to that information? At the best, he can pass on the information or hand over the asset to the sister agency that deals with strategic intelligence. However, the sisters fight a lot! Multiple agencies with different mandates and command centers develop a turf mentality resulting in acrimony, friction, and professional rivalry with other agencies. As a result, the officer in question is reluctant to pass on that info or even hand over his source. Likewise, if IB, generally focussed on internal civilian and strategic intelligence, tries to make inroads in the tactical domain of counter-terror operations, the MI feels very uncomfortable. Such turf wars also exist with the agencies dealing with foreign affairs.
The state intelligence agencies constitute the weakest link in our intelligence apparatus. They are entirely police-dominated, suffering from low morale, and a lack of knowledge, skills, and resources. Generally, intelligence postings in state police departments are considered punishment postings. Before the Kanhaiya murder, Udaipur was undergoing intense Islamist radicalization due to the fast-spreading influence of pan-Islamist actors, preachers, and influencers; however, the state intelligence agencies failed to keep a track of the most ominous signs.
The biggest intelligence challenge has emerged after China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour. So far, we mostly focussed on Pakistan, generating a tactical kind of intelligence, as a result of which China remained neglected. The language barrier, the opaque nature of China’s state, and the lack of cultural commonality present immense challenges. However, India needs to overhaul its intelligence machinery and approach to address the China challenge as China’s intelligence operations are long protracted narrative wars and go far beyond tactical espionage.
Finally, the world of intelligence is changing fast due to the emergence of new technologies like AI, Quantum computing, and commercial satellite imagery. Today, it is no more the domain of secret intelligence agencies. In the ongoing Ukraine war, private citizens, journalists, and retired military and government officials are sharing intelligence assessments based on the OSINT and analysis of satellite imagery available in the open domain. OSINT, an increasingly crucial domain due the pervasive spread of internet and social media, continues to remain neglected, demanding serious investment and attention.
Hence, India needs to move beyond its police-dominated colonial and bureaucratic intelligence set-up and bring sweeping changes in recruitment, hiring fresh talent from scientists, engineers, psychologists, sociologists, finance experts, and tech experts in the field of innovative frontiers like AI and Quantum computing. Also, massive changes are needed in organizational culture, management, coordination with other agencies, and bringing a modicum of oversight.
Abhinav Pandya is a founder and CEO of Usanas Foundation, an India-based geopolitical and security affairs think-tank.