India’s external intelligence service has earned a formidable reputation in its immediate region, with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal accusing it of meddling in politics and supporting outlawed groups involved in acts of violence.
However, recent allegations by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have cast India’s secretive Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) into the global spotlight.
Trudeau claimed that Indian government agents played a role in the June killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb.
In response, India vehemently denied the allegations and demanded that Canada provide evidence. Ottawa asserted that it had shared proof with its allies but refused to release it publicly.
Reuters conducted interviews with four retired and two serving Indian security and intelligence officials well-acquainted with RAW.
They revealed that the agency became more internationally assertive following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a tragic event that claimed 166 lives. All these officials spoke anonymously due to the sensitive nature of their discussions.
Several officials disclosed that RAW gradually expanded its presence in Western nations after 2008. A current official highlighted India’s failure to extradite a US citizen convicted in connection with the Mumbai attack as a driving factor behind RAW’s efforts to gain influence in the West.
While RAW possesses advanced signal and technical intelligence capabilities in its immediate vicinity, its operations in the West are predominantly reliant on human intelligence, as stated by one serving and one former official.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for strengthening India’s defence capabilities since his 2014 election, has emboldened RAW, according to five officials. However, Modi’s office declined to comment on the matter.
RAW Chief Ravi Sinha, the only serving official publicly linked to the agency, did not respond to messages seeking comment. Sinha reports to Modi’s office through National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who also remained silent on the issue.
All six officials categorically denied any involvement of RAW in targeted killings, emphasising that the agency lacks a mandate for such operations.
The fallout from the Vancouver incident has sparked concerns about increased global scrutiny of RAW, as suggested by Indian intelligence officials and analysts.
Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, an expert on Indian intelligence at Hull University in the UK, believes that greater Western attention to RAW’s activities may lead to a better understanding of Delhi’s security concerns.
The West has expanded its military and intelligence cooperation with India amid growing tensions with China, including Washington’s agreement in 2020 to share sensitive mapping and satellite data.
In the short term, Canada’s allegations may affect Western countries’ trust in RAW, as noted by one official.
Ottawa and Delhi have been engaged in a diplomatic standoff since Trudeau’s public accusations, resulting in India suspending the issuance of new visas to Canadian citizens and demanding a reduction in Ottawa’s diplomatic presence.
Canada unsuccessfully lobbied the US and other allies to issue a joint statement condemning India.
RAW has long been considered a rival by Pakistani security leaders, with Islamabad recently accusing RAW of involvement in a suicide bombing near a mosque that claimed over 50 lives. The Indian government, on the other hand, publicly blamed Islamabad for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, an event viewed by Delhi as RAW’s most significant recent failure. Islamabad denied any involvement.
RAW expanded its intelligence operations in the West, including North America, due to the role played by US citizen David Headley, currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in Chicago for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks, according to one official. American law enforcement had received warnings about Headley’s terrorism ties before the attack, but India’s failure to secure his extradition led to frustration within RAW.
The United States, which granted India access to Headley, has denied any allegations of him being a double agent. RAW has maintained a limited Western presence since its establishment in the 1960s, inheriting the London station of the Intelligence Bureau, which now focuses on domestic security.
While the large Indian diaspora in countries like the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia is considered an asset, the risk of Indian agents being surveilled in host nations has led to their primary use in political influence campaigns rather than security operations.
As RAW’s footprint expands in previously less significant parts of the world, a growing global curiosity about the agency’s activities emerges. Despite its historical association with actions such as targeted killings and disappearances in its immediate vicinity, RAW’s operations in the West have been characterised by extreme caution.
RAW’s operational details, including its budget and size, remain undisclosed. The agency was established in 1968, breaking away from the Intelligence Bureau, with an initial focus on monitoring China following India’s setback in the brief 1962 war. RAW has maintained close connections with Israel’s Mossad and the CIA since its inception.
Under Prime Minister Modi, India’s national security community has taken a more proactive approach to diplomacy, deal-making, and both analogue and digital forms of direct action. However, the legal framework governing Indian intelligence agencies has not kept pace with their expanded capabilities, with RAW operating under a government order without formal parliamentary or constitutional backing and exempt from legislative oversight.
This centralised command and control under the prime minister’s office leaves the agency with fewer legal constraints and less oversight, according to Adrian Levy, a co-author of a book on South Asian spy agencies.