Long Before Cambridge Analytica, There Was KGB
Here is an account of how the KGB had a free run in India during the Nehru-Gandhi rule.
Today, there is a massive outrage against the alleged misappropriation of big data from a social networking site by Cambridge Analytica and political parties seeking the services of such transnational big data crunchers to manipulate the electorate. However, decades before Cambridge Analytica, Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti translated in English as Committee for State Security), had a free run in India.
In fact, intelligence agencies of almost all the countries work in other nations to further their own national interest. But what was unique about the KGB working in India was the extent to which the agency enjoyed the clout in Indian polity so much so that its operations seemed to have been accepted as almost a normal factor in the Nehru-Gandhi dominated political scene.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ceased to exist in 1991. In 1992, Vasili Mitrokhin, the archivist of the KGB, defected to the United Kingdom. He brought with him the KGB archives. Based on the archives, the official historian of British intelligence agency, Christopher Andrew and Mitrokhin collaborated and produced two books: Sword and the Shield (1999) and The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World (2005). The second book contains a separate chapter on India. Two exclusive chapters in the book (17 and 18) titled "The Special Relationship with India" deal with the KGB operations in India.
Nehru Period- (1947-1964)
According to Mitrokhin archives revelations, India was where the KGB "concentrated most of its operational effort during the Cold War”. While Nehru supported the move, the Soviet Union officially saw Gandhi as "a reactionary... who betrayed the people and helped the imperialists against them; aped the ascetics; pretended in a demagogic way to be a supporter of Indian independence ... and widely exploited religious prejudice”. Nehru was not bothered about what they thought about Gandhi. Further, he underestimated the intelligence capabilities of USSR, either intentionally or ignorantly.
According to Mitrokhin, Nehru laughed out loud when warned about the USSR urging the Indian communists to overthrow his government and remarked that “Moscow apparently did not know how smart our intelligence was”.
However, the archives show that KGB already had penetrated deeply into the Indian establishment "using its usual varieties of the honey trap”. What comes out is that in 1950s and 1960s there was a ‘war’ between Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) and KGB right in the Indian political scenario. The KGB was uncovering the IB penetration in the Communist Party of India (CPI). As KGB started fortifying CPI with money and other inputs, IB penetration became increasingly difficult. The KGB created import-export businesses to Soviet bloc countries for the comrades. “The Soviet news agency Novosti provided further subsidies by routinely paying the CPI publishing house at a rate 50 per cent above its normal charges,” informs the book, and we Indians know too well the extent to which this operation was conducted all over the country. Nehru was already fast gravitating towards the USSR, making India almost a Soviet ‘satellite’. For example, Nehru government voted "against a UN resolution calling for free elections in Hungary and the withdrawal of Soviet forces”.
Within the Nehru cabinet itself, comrade V K Krishna Menon was nurtured by the KGB. In 1962, Moscow authorised KGB residency in India to conduct 'active-measures operations designed to strengthen Menon’s position in India”. The same year, Menon was chiefly instrumental in India's decision to buy Russian MiG-218 fighter jets rather than British Lightnings. When Menon came under severe criticism after the Chinese invasion fiasco, Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) passed a resolution directing KGB in Delhi to provide "secret finance for a newspaper which supported Menon”. Here, Mitrokhin does not simply make the allegation. He provides a documentary reference: "CPSU Central Committee resolution of 15 Nov. 1962; vol. 4 ind., ch. 5, p. 28.” One wonders which was that newspaper and what is its modern day avatar?
Indira Gandhi Period-I (1967-77):
According to Mitrokhin, in KGB communications, former prime minister Indira Gandhi was code-named VANO. As early as 1953, during her first visit to the USSR, she had been on the KGB radar. While keeping her under constant surveillance, they surrounded her "with handsome, attentive male admirers”. Indira Gandhi was overwhelmed with all the attention and wrote to Nehru that she was "wallowing in luxury”. Indira Gandhi’s official visit to the USSR, along with her father, was in 1956. While at that time Indira Gandhi was a means to befriend Nehru, by 1967 KGB had "funded the campaigns of several agents and confidential contacts within Congress”. Shockingly (or should we say not so shockingly), Mitrokhin informs us that "the most senior agent identified in the files ... was a minister code-named ABAD”, who was considered as "extremely influential" by the KGB. Anti-communist Congress leaders like S K Patil were discredited and charged with forgeries with the help of a KGB mole in the US consulate. When the 1967 elections were over, the KGB noted with satisfaction that it "was able to influence 30 to 40 per cent of the new parliament”. Now Moscow gave instructions to CPI to get into the government. The authors write:
Encouraged by Moscow, the CPI swung its support behind Mrs Gandhi. By infiltrating its members and sympathizers into the left-wing Congress Forum for Socialist Action (code-named SECTOR by the KGB), the CPI set out to gain a position of influence within the ruling party.
One can say that the Marxist takeover of Indian academia and media, which we see today, started aggressively from this period onwards.
At this point, principal private secretary to Indira Gandhi was Parmeshwar Narain Haksar, who was said to have "a direct link with Moscow and the Soviet embassy”. He needed no manipulation from KGB, for he himself was a committed leftist. By the early 1970s “the KGB presence in India became one of the largest in the world outside the Soviet bloc”. Indira Gandhi was instrumental in making the KGB gain a stronger foothold in India.
The book explains:
Indira Gandhi placed no limit on the number of Soviet diplomats and trade officials, thus allowing the KGB and GRU as many cover positions as they wished. Nor, like many other states, did India object to admitting Soviet intelligence officers who had been expelled by less hospitable regimes. ... Oleg Kalugin, who became head of FCD Directorate K (Counter-Intelligence) in 1973, remembers India as “a model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government”: “We had scores of sources throughout the Indian government - in intelligence, counter-intelligence, the Defence and Foreign Ministries, and the police.’
Growing corruption under the regime of Indira Nehru-Gandhi was well used by the KGB. While she herself never indulged in conspicuous luxurious lifestyle, she did not care much about the source of funding for her party, and her son Sanjay Gandhi also needed support for his misadventures. The fund collection was managed by Lalit Narayan Mishra, who would eventually be killed. The archive notes reveal instances of huge money inflow from the KGB:
On at least one occasion a secret gift of 2 million rupees from the Politburo to Congress (R) was personally delivered after midnight by the head of Line PR in New Delhi, Leonid Shebarshin. Another million rupees were given on the same occasion to a newspaper which supported Mrs Gandhi. ...Though there were some complaints from the CPI leadership at the use of Soviet funds to support Mrs Gandhi and Congress (R), covert funding for the CPI seems to have been unaffected. By 1972, the import-export business founded by the CPI a decade earlier to trade with the Soviet Union had contributed more than 10 million rupees to Party funds. Other secret subsidies, totalling at least 1.5 million rupees, had gone to state Communist parties, individuals and media associated with the CPI. The funds which were sent from Moscow to Party headquarters via the KGB were larger still. In the first six months of 1975 alone they amounted to over 2.5 million rupees.
Apart from the politicians, the KGB was also very closely working with the Indian media. As in the case of politicians, the media also was equally corrupt even then. This highlights the ease with which KGB was able to plant stories in Indian media:
According to KGB files, by 1973 it had ten Indian newspapers on its payroll (which cannot be identified for legal reasons) as well as a press agency under its ‘control’. During 1972, the KGB claimed to have planted 3,789 articles in Indian newspapers - probably more than in any other country in the non-Communist world. According to its files, the number fell to 2,760 in 1973 but rose to 4,486 in 1974 and 5,510 in 1975.
The KGB also started to manoeuvre into organising ground-level demonstrations. In 1969, Yuri Andropov, who was the chairman of KGB reported to Brezhnev about the KGB activity in India, asking for more funds:
The KGB residency in India has the opportunity to organize a protest demonstration of up to 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in India. The cost of the demonstration would be 5,000 rupees and would be covered in the... budget for special tasks in India. I request consideration.
Brezhnev wrote ‘Agreed’ on the request. After the 1971 victory of Indira Gandhi, from 1971-76 the Politburo approved "the establishment of a secret fund of 2.5 million convertible rubles (code-named DEPO) to fund active-measures operations in India over the next four years”.
In 1976, even as the entire nation was under near-fascist Emergency, the entire Nehru-Gandhi family with the two sons and daughters-in-law were part of Indira Gandhi's official visit to the USSR. A films division movie (directed by H S Advani) speaks about how "Mrs Gandhi's elder son Rajiv and daughter-in-law Sonia were on a sight-seeing trip to Sergiyev, 70 kilometres from Moscow" and "the commentary adds that it was the centre of Russian orthodox church”.
During the 1977 elections, CPI general secretary Rajeshwar Rao and the party’s national council secretary N K Krishna were summoned to the Soviet embassy. They were persuaded to support Indira Gandhi. Another three-member Soviet team also asked the CPI leaders to go with Indira Gandhi.
The book reveals:
KGB files report Rao and Krishna as saying that they greatly appreciated the advice of their Soviet colleagues and were steadfast in their support for Mrs Gandhi. Their appreciation also reflected the unusually high level of Soviet subsidies during the CPI election campaign – over 3 million rupees in the first two months of 1977.
There is an interesting aside to this. Indira Gandhi was either paranoid or purposefully vocal in public about a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plot in the country against her. She always spoke of the hand of CIA being behind her political reversals and blamed the agency for the popular movements against her. This repeated public statements against the US led the then US ambassador in New Delhi, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to order an investigation. After the probe, he announced that there were indeed two occasions when CIA had provided funds to Indian political parties – once in West Bengal and then in Kerala. On both occasions, it was done for the Indian National Congress during Nehru regime.
Both times the money was given to the Congress Party which had asked for it. Once it was given to Mrs Gandhi herself, who was then a party official. Still, as we were no longer giving any money to her, it was understandable that she should wonder to whom we were giving it. It is not a practice to be encouraged.
The victory of Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) in West Bengal even as non-communist opposition defeated Indira-CPI in 1977 elections attracted the attention of Andropov. Soon we find that ‘‘important information’ about CPI-M policy was obtained by the Delhi main residency from its contacts with Party leaders”.
Janata, Post-Janata And Post-Indira (1977-1991)
During the Janata Party rule, KGB came up with a directive "on measures in connection with the results of the parliamentary elections in India”. The main objectives were not only to preserve the special Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty that was signed by Indira Gandhi but also "to deter Janata from seeking a rapprochement with the United States and China”. The Politburo approved a directive on KGB active measures entitled "on measures to influence the ruling circles of India in new conditions to the advantage of the USSR”.
Meanwhile, KGB was also working to influence Indira Gandhi. KGB in Delhi had "re-established covert contact with her through an operations officer... operating under cover as a Trud correspondent”. Indira Gandhi had set up a committee for democratic action (CDA) for high-voltage propaganda against the Janata government. KGB set up an active-measures fund to buy influence within the CDA. The authors write: "though there is no evidence that Mrs Gandhi knew of its existence, the fund had, in July, 275,000 convertible rubles”.
After the Janata experiment failed miserably, Indira Gandhi came back to power, winning 351 out of 542 seats. However, now KGB had a problem in the form of her son Sanjay Gandhi, who was vocal about his disapproval of socialism and exhibited his fondness for capitalism. CPI strongly criticised Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. Still in his entourage too KGB had planted an agent who was code-named PURI. In June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash which was a big relief for KGB establishment in India.
Interestingly, with CPI attacks increasing on Indira Gandhi, she took to the strategy of competitive Soviet-leaning to fight CPI, creating ‘the friends of the Soviet Union’, as a counter to CPI-dominated ‘Indo-Soviet cultural society’. In 1981, an instance of Indira Gandhi openly seeking Soviet intervention in Indian politics was exposed only because it ended up in a fiasco:
In June 1983, she sent a secret letter to the Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, attacking the CPI for having ‘ganged up’ against her with right-wing reactionaries. The letter was entrusted to Yogendra Sharma, a member of the Party Politburo who disagreed with Rajeshwar Rao’s opposition to Mrs Gandhi. Once in Moscow, however, Sharma had second thoughts and ‘confessed all’ to a Party comrade. When the story was made public in India, Indira’s critics accused her of “inviting Soviet interference in India’s internal affairs”.
According to the archives, by 1983, the KGB had started courting Rajiv Gandhi, who entered into the family business of politics soon after the death of Sanjay Gandhi. Clearly, Rajiv Gandhi was clever enough not to criticise socialism and was more amicable. He was given a huge reception in the USSR, which showed he was "virtually anointed by the Soviet commissars as the unquestioned successor to Mrs Gandhi”.
In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Rajiv Gandhi was promptly declared as the prime minister. The following period saw a great personal friendship flowering between Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev. However, things were changing at a fast pace Soviet Union. The policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were signalling the end of Cold War and would ultimately lead to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the same year Rajiv Gandhi, who had already been ousted from power in 1988, would pay with his life for the misadventures he conducted in Sri Lanka. The operations of KGB in New Delhi itself had lost their relevance.
There would, however, be a swan song act – with the KGB planting a false story of AIDS virus had been ‘manufactured’ during genetic engineering experiments at Fort Detrick – in the Indian magazine, Patriot. This report soon gained currency in many of the third-world countries despite international scientific community rejecting it. Ultimately, Soviet authorities themselves became "concerned that exposure of Soviet disinformation might damage the new Soviet image in the West”. So, in August 1987, the Soviet authorities officially disowned the AIDS story.
The Evidence – Some Amazing Corroborations
More than any other country India should have been shaken by the Mitrokhin revelations, which exposed the untrustworthy nature of the entire Lutyens' Delhi. But then there was no serious demand to investigate the allegations made in the book. When the book was launched in 2005, it was the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which was in power, and Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi simply pooh-poohed the book as "pure sensationalism not even remotely based on facts or records”. Except for a few articles here and there, the mainstream media did not bother to pursue the story. Why should they? They were mostly the heirs of the very establishment that profited from both KGB, CIA and every other extra-territorial agencies, who served the vested interests of Lutyens’ Delhi – vested interests political or otherwise.
One such exceptional article was published in India Today by reporter Dilip Bobb, who had taken the effort to check the claims made in the book with a book written by an Indian intelligence officer. And this is what he found:
M.K. Dhar, former IB director, in his book Open Secrets, wrote that the IB had succeeded in “identifying four Union ministers (in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet) and over two dozen MPs who were on the KGB payroll”. He went on to state that “the most surprising area of KGB penetration was the Defence Ministry and those layers of the armed forces which were responsible for military procurement”.Dilip Bobb, “Book on KGB unveils Russian agency’s ops in India during Cold War, political storm ensues”, India Today, 3-Oct-2005
Independently, co-author Christopher Andrew would tell India Today the same. Eminent historian Prof Jayanta Kumar Ray in his work on India’s foreign relations corroborates well with what Mitrokhin archives reveal. Soviet agencies "established a sort of stranglehold over Indian culture by running as many as 53 front organisations which in turn ran 47 newspapers and periodicals along with many books and brochures”.
Even advertisement firms were set up so that newspapers could receive large Soviet subsidies regularly. The success of the press services of the information department of the Soviet embassy in New Delhi could be measured by the number of reproductions of these press services in various newspapers. In February 1965, for example, the number of reproductions was 305 in English, 291 in Hindi, 263 in Punjabi and 271 in Urdu. ... Amazingly, to carry forward this story of Soviet intrusion into India’s cultural sphere, in 1965, Aruna Asaf Ali received the Lenin Prize. It could not be a simple coincidence that she was an important partner of a company called the United India Periodicals Private Ltd. For, this company was in financial trouble, and had to operate the daily newspaper Patriot and the weekly magazine, Link. Link House was a highly expensive modish building on a central locality in New Delhi. Surprisingly, the Indian Refineries Limited (affiliated to the Union Petroleum ministry under the control of a fellow traveler, K D Malaviya) granted a huge loan for the construction of this building. East Germany supplied at a heavily discounted price the printing presses for Patriot and Link ...India’s Foreign Relations, 1947–2007, Routledge, 2013
Clearly, the KGB operations, Mitrokhin archives reveal, were more than sensationalism. If anything, for obvious legal reasons, the authors have played down many aspects of KGB operations in India.
Dr Preeti Dilip Pohekar in her well-documented and scholarly work on ombudsman system in India hints at another very dark and disturbing possibility. According to her, during the Sino-Indian conflict, when Indian government raided and seized all papers in the Bank of China, it was discovered that Nehru had an undisclosed account of 'royalty' for his books in Soviet Union. (Pohekar, 2010, P 60). The book was not a sensational one nor does it have any ideological bias against Nehru. She simply states this as a fact. But this hint can explain why Nehru was clearly soft towards Soviet sponsored magazine like Link and Patriot to such an extent that many officials and politicians felt that these magazines had the blessing of Nehru. If true, then Soviet operations in India were far more sinister than even what the Mitrokhin archives reveal.
Dr Yevgenia Albats, a fellow at Harvard University's Nieman Foundation for Journalism (1993), was in 1992 a member of government commission to examine the involvement of KGB in Kremlin coup that happened in the previous year. She later wrote her findings in the form of a book The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia-Past, Present, and Future' (1994).
A letter signed by Vikor Chebrikov, who replaced Andropov as head of the KGB in 1982, noted: “The USSR KGB maintains contact with the son of Premier [sic] Minister Rajiv Gandhi (of India) ... R. Gandhi expresses deep gratitude for benefits accruing to the Prime Minister’s family from the commercial dealings of an Indian firm he controls in cooperation with Soviet foreign trade organizations. R.Gandhi reports confidentially that a substantial portion of the funds obtained through this channel are used to support the party of R.Gandhi.”
In 2011, CIA declassified a 1985 report, titled "The Soviets in India: Moscow's Major Penetration Program”. A "sanitized copy" is available online. What it reveals independently tallies with what Mitrokhin archives reveal. It says that Soviets "provided funding to Congress-I Party coffers through kickback arrangements with Indian businesses”. But what is even more interesting in the CIA report is that it shows both CPI and CPI(M) had been funded by the Soviets "through a combination of kickback schemes, normal business transactions, and direct cash payments”. There were essentially three methods:
a) Publishing house subsidies (60-65 per cent discount to Peoples Publishing House (PPH) which accounted for three-fourths of PPH's annual sales, which as on 1985 exceeded Rs 10 million.
b) Soviet advertisements in CPI journals which accounted for $60,000 in 1984 alone.
c) Visitors' expenses which included cash as well as air tickets for visitors to the USSR sponsored by CPI or its front groups. Subhadra Joshi, a rabid anti-Hindu politician was supported in her 1977 election (which she lost) by East Germany diplomats, who financed her election campaign giving $50,000. Later, she became head of the GDR-Indian Friendship Society.
The most interesting aspect of planting stories in the press by KGB then shows some remarkable parallel between how the pro-Congress old establishment media plants anti-Modi atrocity literature today. The report details the KGB operation:
According to a recent defector, the Soviets’ goal in most of their propaganda and disinformation campaigns is to place materials in the larger, prestigious English language press. ... Many Indian papers, especially the more prestigious English language press, are reluctant or unwilling to publish an article without source. ... The Soviets sometimes get a source attached to an article by placing it in the pro-Soviet or Indian Communist press. The Soviets then try to get a journalist to place it or a spinoff article in one or more of the prestigious English language papers, which establishes the credibility of a story with most Indian audiences and increases the chances that other papers will pick up the story. A second technique for attaching sourcing and planting articles is to place materials with an Indian news service, which then attributes its name to the story and telegraphically distributes the story to the wire services’ newspaper subscribers. The Soviets have had immense success using this technique with the Press Trust of India (PTI)... and have several key PTI managers on the Soviet pay roll. ... The Soviets have such automatic access to PTI that when they pass an article to, for example, a prestigious English language paper, they also often place it with PTI to ensure that it gets published.
Inside Soviet circles, sometimes people joked that PTI was actually ‘Press TASS of India’.
The question one needs to ask now is what happened to those journalists, bureaucrats and their Indian political associates after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not very hard to guess. There is a very strong possibility that this valuable asset of individuals and networks created by KGB and India’s own corrupt, powerful and suave Lutyens cabal, could have been taken over by both China and CIA, not to mention the growing pan-Islamic forces with territorial ambitions in India. Today, a second generation too has come up, well entrenched and well networked – challenged only by the decentralised new digital media. So, the persistent allegations of KGB operations in Indian polity and media – creating a systemic malicious stand was vindicated by independent corroborations. It is the duty of the government now to go through the allegations, with inputs from intelligence agencies, and produce a white paper.
The Soviet-manipulated leftist stranglehold on Indian institutions continues to this day. Consider for example the National Book Trust (NBT). Here, one sees two instances of national book festival being conducted in this writer's hometown – Nagercoil. NBT is an autonomous body under the Ministry of Education of the government of India. New Century Book House (NCBH), which is shown as partnering with NBT, is one of the Soviet-supported publishing houses in Tamil Nadu. One would expect NBT and NCBH to be equal participants along with some other publishers shown in the welcome banner. However, as one enters the book festival venue, the vast majority of the books displayed are rabid Marxist and anti-Hindu. A handful of books of NBT and other publishing houses are also on display, just to be legally correct.
However, when I made a purchase carefully selecting from those handful of books from other publishers, the bill was raised in the name of NCBH. In other words, the NBT was used as a banner to attract people, while what is happening inside is anti-Hindu Marxist propaganda. This is just one instance of how the system works right under the present government also. Any attempt to change the system would be met with shrill voices of "danger to freedom”.
Given the way India’s media has been functioning over the last four years, hyping isolated events of violence as national epidemic, highlighting fringe groups of one particular ideological persuasion as the caricature of entire ruling party, they all seem to suggest that there are forces at work within the media which are planting stories in a way very similar to KGB operations in the 1970s and 1980s.
Consider this: John Dayal, one of the most vocal ‘Breaking India’ personalities, actually started his public career from the very same Patriot KGB used in its Indian operations.
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 999/year is the best way you can support our efforts.