India and the United States (US) have a rocky relationship, yet depend on each other to maintain their best interests. This article analyzes this relationship through the lens of India’s Intelligence Community (IC) and finds that it has been an essential partner to the US and will continue to be crucial going forward. With India being one of few democracies in its area of the world, it is a target not only for terrorism and the countries that support it but also for the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) bid for regional hegemony. India is nuclear-armed and frequently engaged in armed conflicts, usually along its borders with the PRC, resulting in high tensions in the region. The US supports India overall, though it also works against it at times in an effort for peacekeeping, leading to a lack of trust. The two nations work together best when it comes to counterterrorism. They often have successful information sharing between the two that has thwarted many terrorist attempts. India needs the US for its vast resources and superior capabilities. The US needs India for its regional capabilities and location advantage, as it is near the Middle East and the PRC. While strained at times, cooperation between the two has produced significant results, such as finding Osama Bin-Laden and stopping many terrorist attacks. India’s position next to the PRC makes it an important strategic ally for the US in its struggle to keep China from expanding its influence. The two nations, while often at odds with one another, must continue to depend and rely on each other for support in their mutual campaign against terrorism and the peacekeeping mission in South Asia.
The Indian government’s IC is headed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). The JIC is run directly by the Prime Minister of India, and India’s parliament has no oversight authority of any kind on it. Two agencies primarily run the JIC: the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which focuses on domestic intelligence, and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which focuses on foreign intelligence (Global National Security and Intelligence Agencies Handbook 2011). Similar to the US, the Indian Intelligence Community has many agencies, several of which are within different branches of the military, but they all report to the IB and RAW. The organizations are exempt from any sort of public’s right to know laws (Shaffer 2015). Contrary to many other intelligence agencies, especially Western ones, India’s are particularly difficult to gain information on. The Indian government suppresses almost all information it possibly can on it and denies any sort of publication that can be made, even stopping entertainment media, such as Bollywood movies, from portraying them in any way (Shaffer 2015). Due to this, information gained on RAW and the IB is challenging to verify. With RAW and the IB reporting directly to the Prime Minister, they are not held accountable to anyone else or any sort of committee. Both the IB and RAW’s specific structures and clandestine activities are even kept secret from India’s parliament, and it has been made clear that, budget-wise, the organizations typically get what they want and operate with little worry of public scrutiny (Shaffer 2015).
The IB focuses on counterterrorism as well as the suppression of Indian citizens and their access to information. They monitor border regions and keep track of all international communication that crosses India’s border. In addition, the IB pushes pro-government agendas and often targets political opponents and media outlets (Global National Security and Intelligence Agencies Handbook 2011). RAW focuses on collecting foreign intelligence and conducting espionage operations. They are primarily active in India’s neighboring nations, especially Pakistan and the PRC. They have been instrumental in the various border wars India has been engaged in, as well as in setting up Bangladesh and helping them gain independence (Shaffer 2015).
India’s IC has proven to be formidable yet flawed. Despite some successes, it has also had many prominent failures. The lack of accountability and scrutiny has made the IC, particularly the IB, more focused on political and other issues than security. Additionally, despite the IB and RAW often cooperating successfully, there have also been many times where there has been failed or rejected cooperation that has led to successful terrorist attacks and casualties to India’s citizens (Shaffer 2015). The IC has frequently needed to lean on others, such as the US or UK, for intelligence matters. Various Indian leaders, including Prime Ministers, have been assassinated by dissidents throughout India’s history, many of the threats the IC knew about beforehand but failed to take seriously (Shaffer 2015). Another problem with the lack of oversight is a weakness in counterintelligence. The number of times India’s IC has been compromised by outside intelligence, particularly by the US, Canada, and the UK, is very large (Shaffer 2015). Many of these cases had compromised people in very high positions.
While the IC has these major flaws, its capabilities and successes should not be downplayed either. During their initial inception, India’s IC was trained by Western intelligence personnel, which gave them an edge in the region. Since then, there has been subsequent training, especially in technological forms of intelligence, like SIGINT (Shaffer 2015). Despite the political and economic issues that often drive India and the US apart, the intelligence organizations have sometimes cooperated to great results. The moments of true cooperation with others have led to great victories for India’s IC, such as when RAW was particularly helpful in the US’ search for Osama Bin-Laden and played a crucial role in finding him (Shaffer 2015). RAW’s focus on the PRC and its proximity to it has led to a lot of useful information sharing with the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They have successfully pulled off many espionage operations in Pakistan and continue to have success there. As stated before, they were instrumental in establishing Bangladesh’s independence and have played a prominent role in India’s border disputes. One of the most notable moments of the IC’s capabilities was the annexing of Sikkim. RAW was able to use influence and espionage to begin setting up the agitation of the local people and help facilitate the annexation. After India took it over, the IB was able to put pressure on the region and focus on quelling any subsequent rebellion attempts, leading to a relatively smooth transition for a conquered region (Shaffer 2015).
With such a focus on suppressing information regarding India’s IC, it is difficult to ascertain their specific capabilities in collection and analysis. It appears they are adequate in all forms of intelligence. Their many successes in espionage operations, which often involved placing agents behind enemy lines, show that they have a focus and knowledge in HUMINT. Combined with India’s massive population, HUMINT is likely a large part of the intelligence apparatus. India has air reconnaissance capabilities and has established military bases outside the country with this ability. It is known that they have significant SIGINT capabilities; they have placed satellites in space and likely collect information from them (Shaffer 2015). One thing that sets India apart from other developing countries is its use of OSINT. Many countries write off its usefulness, but India uses OSINT for about 90% of its collection on political data (Shaffer 2015). Additionally, India is close to releasing the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID), which will be a database for all intelligence and law enforcement personnel to centralize their information. It is expected to officially be in use within a few months (Chaturvedi 2021). They will all be able to access this information through a search engine, which can filter results based on what security clearance the user has (Shaffer 2018). This effort to centralize intelligence is indicative of a growing IC, both in technology and capability.
Relationship with the US
India and the US’ relationship could be characterized as a somewhat shaky, but ultimately allied, relationship. With India being a democracy and a promoter of it, the US supports it for the most part. The two countries have worked together many times in peacekeeping missions in the area (A Timeline of U.S.-India Relations n.d.). They have often shared information, particularly when it comes to terrorism, and worked together to suppress it overall. India’s proximity to the PRC also leads to the US desiring to keep a friendly relationship with it, as India is a strategic place for gathering intelligence on the PRC as well as preventing Chinese expansion (Burgess 2019). Additionally, with India being a nation armed with nuclear weapons, the US has a significant interest in keeping tensions between India and its neighbors low (A Timeline of U.S.-India Relations n.d.). The regional goals of India and the US are largely the same, and as a result, the two do work together more when it comes to defense (Konwer 2020). The US and India have a mutual interest in keeping navigation around the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea open. Both countries are looking to keep the PRC from pushing too hard for regional hegemony and reducing the influence of the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (Lewis and Brunnstrom 2021). To this end, India not only cooperates with the US but with Australia and other countries in the region as well (Burgess 2019). As it currently stands, the governments in the region are attempting to work together for peace, but with the exception of the ASEAN nations, they are not yet forming close ties to counter the PRC.
The US-India relationship has had many setbacks over history. The US has to balance the needs of India with the needs of its surrounding neighbors, and has had to go against India’s interests in many cases. Due to the nature of peacekeeping, the US has often worked against India and imposed sanctions, particularly surrounding nuclear weapons issues, such as India hiding its nuclear weapons testing from the US in 1998 (A Timeline of U.S.-India Relations n.d.). This type of relationship causes a rift in the two nations' trust, which often creates a lack of full cooperation. The US and India are often suspicious of each other’s true intentions, and may refuse to accept certain efforts at support if they believe there to be alternative motives. India's IC could have prevented several failures in intelligence, such as the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, if it had accepted shared information from Western agencies (Shaffer 2015). The need for cooperation is apparent in these failures, and it seems that they are learning. With the growing concern of the PRC’s rise to power, the countries are working together more and are continuing to grow their relationship (Lewis and Brunnstrom 2021).
Despite these faults in the relationship, the US and India work together for each other’s benefit. Politically, the nations are at odds frequently over matters which may affect the benefit of one country or the other. Still, on the intelligence level, the nations depend on one another for their exclusive benefits. The US requires India’s regional assets and knowledge and needs an important ally in the area due to the PRC expanding its influence and the need for proximity to the Middle East. India needs the US’ resources and intelligence capabilities to defend itself adequately. Their mutual work in counterterrorism has been essential in preventing many horrors from unfolding. If this relationship were lost, both countries would suffer a severe setback in security. India’s IC has proven to be capable, and its information sharing with the US makes it a major asset for the US’ intelligence community.
“A Timeline of U.S.-India Relations.” n.d. Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed September 13, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-india-relations.
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Chaturvedi, Amit. 2021. “Delayed by Covid, NATGRID Likely to Be Implemented Soon. Check Details.” Hindustan Times. September 14, 2021. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/delayed-by-covid-natgrid-likely-to-be-implemented-soon-check-details-101631609979429.html.
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