This Swarajya columnist stumbles upon an old CIA record linking a top-ranking Indian journalist to the American intelligence agency.

In a feat most unlikely to be replicated by any Indian scribe in our times, legendary journalist Durga Das counted among his sources — if not friends — a person no less than a director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Allen Dulles was the CIA’s longest-serving director who is now mostly remembered for the agency’s infamous Cold War operations such as Operation Ajax, the Lockheed U-2 program and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Das’s many claims to fame included conception of the idea of setting up the Press Club of India.

The conclusion becomes inevitable with the bare perusal of the following 1959 letter I came across browsing through declassified CIA records. It’s written by Das on the letterhead of The Hindustan Times of which he was the editor those days.

“Dear Mr. Dulles, You may recall the long talk I had in your room in October 1957,” Das wrote to Dulles, “When we exchanged views on the situation in the world in the light of my visit to Russia and Europe.”

Evidently Das was seeking help from Dulles.

What I make of the Das-Dulles link I will explain towards the end, but for now a backdrop is must for those not aware of a few snippets from the modern Indian history. Beginning late 1960s, the Indian ruling class as well as intellectuals began suspecting the CIA’s intrusion into our polity. By the 1970s, this suspicion had turned into a full-blown, grossly misplaced CIA-phobia — the morbid fear that the US intelligence agency was lurking in our backyard and was behind all sorts of bad things.

The situation turned serious when even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi fanned the suspicions and so did her senior ministers and fellow partymen. On 5 October 1972, Minister of External Affairs Swaran Singh complained to his US counterpart that the Government of India “has its own sources and knows that CIA has been in contact with people in India in ‘abnormal ways.'” On 20 October in Bhopal the same year, then Congress party president Shankar Dayal Sharma (later President of India) accused the agency of “colluding with opposition parties to ‘create chaos and frustrate our efforts to banish poverty'”.

On 29 November 1974, 21 MPs charged the US and the CIA of subverting India’s internal situation. On 1 July 1975, just after the Emergency was imposed, then Congress president Dev Kant Baruah told Youth Congress workers that “the Opposition in India with the support of reactionaries at home and abroad were determined to destroy democracy in India”.

Everyone knows that Jayaprakash Narayan, a close follower of Mahatma Gandhi, was called a CIA agent during the dark days of Emergency. Such was the state of paranoia as late as June 1991 that TheWashington Post reported that “the view that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency wanted [Rajiv] Gandhi dead is pervasive even among those Indian politicians, bureaucrats, academics and journalists who have lived or traveled in the West”. One of the journalists who fanned this utterly preposterous conspiracy theory would later join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Judged against this alarmist backdrop, Das’s letter to Dulles, if disclosed in his lifetime, would have put him in a spot.

“The series of articles I wrote were published in a book called ‘India & the world’. I sent you a copy of the book and hope you had an opportunity to glance through it,” he had written to Dulles.

“I am very keen to exchange views with you on the subject and hear your assessment of the situation in the West and the world generally. I hope you will find time for me and let me know when I can see you. I enclose a copy of my travel schedule,” he added.

“Mr Durga Das will be grateful for any assistance that may be rendered in making his mission a success,” read the accompanying CIA note for the director.

“Mr Durga Das is also interested in finding out from Press Clubs as to how they are being organised and financed, The Press Club of India was inaugurated four months ago by Pandit Pant, the Union Hone Minister, It already has membership of 250 including both Indian and foreign newspapermen.”

On the face of it, the prospects of an Indian editor reaching out to the CIA director in such a way even in today’s open era are so slim as to regard them unthinkable. Any high-profile editor doing so indiscreetly, as Das appears to have done, would be risking his career to begin with.

Back in the heydays of Das, the 1950s and 60s, when we were told that people were far more morally superior than they are today, it was inconceivable for an Indian journalist to write to the CIA director of the time seeking help, leave alone getting an audience with him.

Forget Indian, meeting the CIA director would have been an enormous feat for any top-ranking American journalist. Just as the very existence of Research and Analysis Wing (India’s external intelligence agency) was spoken about gingerly in the 1970s, the CIA would not be openly discussed in the US up to the 1960s.

Those were the days when the CIA’s headquarters in Langley was identified by a deceptive highway sign reading “BDR” — Bureau of Public Roads. The agency itself was referred to as “the pickle factory” or “the company” — just as in John le Carré’s imagination “Circus” was a byword for the MI6.

All the same, I am as of now disinclined to cast Das in sinister paraphrasing “Tinker Tailor Editor Spy”.

For, if indeed Das was a source for Dulles, not the other way around, there is no way the CIA would have released this record about him. Unless there has been a lapse of some sort. The CIA Director has “statutory obligations to protect from disclosure (the agency’s) intelligence sources”. The names of the agents and method of intelligence gathering are the most guarded secrets for any intelligence agency.

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