How a double agent in Madras helped change the course of the subcontinent’s history

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
The Indo Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardene on July 29, 1987
The Indo Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardene on July 29, 1987

Chennai

IT might be hard to imagine Madras as the nerve centre of a high-stakes, international espionage operation. Thanks to its languid, laid back approach to life, it might seem even futile to conjure up a super-spy episode in this part of the country, except within the febrile imagination of storytellers and filmmakers. Back in 1954, the Sivaji Ganesan starrer Andha Naal (That Day), a murder-mystery cum spy thriller which was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, had the proud distinction of being Tamil cinema’s first noir feature, and that too set in Madras.
Several decades later, Madras, now renamed Chennai, formed the backdrop of yet another inspired take on the spy thriller. The 2013 Bollywood film Madras Cafe, starring John Abraham was set against the turmoils of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a cause for misery on both sides of the Ocean. The latter film deftly interweaves vignettes from an episode that had taken place in Madras in the 1980s that was not only a source of embarrassment and agony for the Indian intelligence agencies, but was so closely guarded that the truth was not revealed until much later.
The episode unfolded during the peak of the Lankan Civil War when State-sponsored pogroms by the Lankan military and retaliatory strikes by the LTTE cadre were in full swing. The surge of Tamil refugees into our State lent an emotional gravitas to the proceedings and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was compelled to play peacemaker. What started as an exercise to shelter refugees, soon led to air-dropping of food and relief materials, and finally, stationing the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). It was an unnecessary war that India was unwittingly drawn into, and was referred to by many political observers as India’s Vietnam. As a regional superpower, India had no need to undergo such indignation, but it could be argued that a large share of the blame for India’s military debacle in its southern neighbour could be placed at the feet of intelligence failure, more specifically, the betrayal of a spy who had been in charge of coordinating India’s most sensitive covert ops – tackling Tamil militancy in Lanka.
In the late 1980s, it could be argued that there was little information in the public domain regarding an Indian spy who was honey trapped by foreign agents and who in turn transformed into a double agent, while supplying the enemy with sensitive information. The unearthing of this mole in India’s armour was carried out after a year-long exercise that involved phone tapping, trailing and stakeouts which ended in the arrest, in-camera trial and imprisonment of the spy in Tihar jail. What follows is a retelling of how this spy was brought to justice.
The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was founded in the 1960s when the Indira Gandhi government decided that India needed a full-fledged, modernised security agency that went beyond the call of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Though not as celebrated as its peers like the Israeli Mossad or UK’s MI5, RAW has been involved in more than its fair share of espionage and undercover activity.
The episode involving the Spy from Madras was so painful for the RAW, that its top officer would reveal the same on the day of his farewell from the agency. And that’s how the news was released to the public. On the day SE Joshi retired as the RAW Chief in 1987, he addressed his fellow officers and revealed the most painful episode of his tenure – of a senior RAW official being charged and arrested for spying for the Americans. His name was KV Unnikrishnan and he was a 1962 batch IPS officer, heading the Madras bureau of RAW.
The deception came to light as New Delhi and Colombo were set to sign a peace accord to end the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. Comprehensive negotiations had been taking place with an aim to instil peace between the warring factions and to settle the Tamil issue once and for all. But during these discussions, the Indian government was surprised to find that Sri Lankan authorities were already well-informed of classified details pertaining to the Indian side.
The Lankans were up to date on India’s talks with Tamil militants and the Indians could never take the Lankans by surprise on information pertaining to the shipment of arms or the confiscation of weapons. It was a running joke that the Sri Lankans had typed answers to questions the Indians had not yet asked.
The Home Ministry then decided to follow up on its hunch that there was an insider clandestinely feeding the counterpart with intelligence. A wide net was cast to catch the mole. Perhaps the largest counter-intelligence operations since the inception of RAW took place when the hunt shifted to Madras. Politicians, police officials, and RAW officials were placed under surveillance as their phones were tapped and recording devices planted.
It came as a body blow to the government to discover that Unnikrishnan, who was placed in charge of India’s negotiations with Sri Lankan Tamil militants based in Madras, was the mole.
Although he was not part of the policy making apparatus, as the one coordinating talks with various Tamil militant members, he was privy to the particulars of the hush-hush negotiations involving New Delhi, Colombo and the militant Tamil groups. Ironically, by the time he was caught, he had been endorsed to the Prime Minister’s Office for elevation.
But why and how did Unnikrishnan turn rogue? The answer could be summed up in two words: human nature. Since the dawn of time, spies have employed sexual allure as a means to coerce sensitive information out of gullible individuals – from the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah to the Mauryan Vishakanyas, to the legendary German double agent Mata Hari who spawned a whole subculture of ‘sparrows’. During the Cold War, East Germany is known to have set up spy schools where the art of seduction was part of syllabus.
Unnikrishnan was honey trapped by a PanAm air hostess almost a decade earlier. The CIA had waited until he was transferred to the crucial Madras posting before milking him for information. The Ministry of External Affairs even registered a protest with the US Embassy to expel the diplomat involved. However, on the day Unnikrishnan was arrested, his handler in the US consulate was quietly sent home, no questions asked.
But the damage had been done. The insider’s information had strengthened the Sri Lankan side and it subsequently wrecked the peace accord. The Indians were left bloody-nosed fighting a pointless war where they had intended to play peacemakers. History remembers India’s involvement in the Lankan crisis as a catastrophic error that led to the loss of numerous lives, which did not really bear the desired outcome.
To avoid publicity, Unnikrishnan was tried in a secret tribunal, dismissed and imprisoned for a year in Tihar jail. Many months after this painful episode, the RAW leadership was engaged in changing its confidential codes and communications practises which might have been compromised. While RAW emerged stronger over the next few decades, the episode of the double agent had far-reaching ramifications on the geopolitical history of the Indian subcontinent.

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