From Thuggees to fake WikiLeaks

December 17, 2010

lahore mosqueThe fall-out from the fake WikiLeaks cables in Pakistan continues to be far more interesting than the real WikiLeaks cables. To recap, several Pakistani newspapers retracted stories last week which quoted WikiLeaks cables ostensibly accusing India of stirring up trouble in Baluchistan and Waziristan, cited U.S. diplomats as ridiculing the Indian Army, and compared Kashmir to Bosnia in the 1990s.  Since the anti-India narrative presented in the stories chimed with the views of Pakistani intelligence agencies, the alleged cables were then dismissed as fakes and most likely an intelligence plant.

However, just to complicate matters, some of the information in the “fake cables” is also in the “real cables”.  For example, the real cables do contain allegations of Indian support for Baluch separatists, largely sourced to British intelligence, according to The Guardian. The British newspaper, which had advance access to the cables, also cited them as evidence that India practiced systematic torture in Kashmir.

So if the anti-India stories really were an intelligence plant, why did “the agencies” in Pakistan not use actual cables to bolster their allegations, rather than fake cables which could be easily discredited?

In a column in The Express Tribune headlined “Can’t they just be spies?”,  journalist Aamer Khan blamed it on an inability to manage the media. Recalling a news agency he said was set up by Pakistani intelligence to spread the word about the Kashmir revolt, he said that eventually, ”the spooks running the operation went haywire and lost all perspective on what they had set out to achieve. As more and more newspapers started accepting its copy, the agency started reporting a dramatic increase in the number of Indian casualties at the hands of our fearless jihadis.”

The daily death toll rose at such a furious pace that several years later one Western analyst said if that agency were to be believed, jihadis must have killed all the Indian Army posted in the Kashmir Valley twice over by then. He concluded that the fake WikiLeaks story suggested nothing had changed in the last 20 years.

This implied inefficiency is intriguing. The Western media narrative ascribes a great deal of power to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in its influence over the Afghan war, based on its alleged support for the Taliban.  But bear in mind that an organisation sometimes believed capable of ending the Afghan war did not - if it was indeed responsible – manage to plant durably a WikiLeaks story even when it had real cables to back up its case.

 Nadeem Paracha at Dawn, however, argued it did not matter that some newspapers retracted the story since enough papers and television channels carried it for it to be believed. He ascribed the fake WikiLeaks cables to an over-enthusiastic pro-military media eager to deflect attention from real cables which highlighted the role played by the Pakistan Army in the country’s politics as well as other awkward revelations about Pakistan’s  ally Saudi Arabia.

“Is veteran journalist, author and media commentator, late Zamir Niazi’s fear and warnings about the Pakistani media becoming a chaotic hub of agency men who are amorally willing to lie and cheat to protect even the most atrocious ways of their patrons in the figurative establishment be true? Perhaps. But the deluge that was created by the Wikileaks around certain sacred cows who identify themselves to be the saviours of Pakistan’s internal and external religious and ideological identity – mainly the military, the political clergy and Saudi Arabia – was such that no attempt to deflect criticism from these gallant souls seemed to be working.

“So, off went many dailies and TV channels to try something else. First, certain specific leaks were selected to make the President (Asif Ali Zardari) seem like a Satan incarnate. Not much came out of this, and the gear was shifted and all of sudden one saw certain journalists claiming something about how the leaks were a conspiracy against Muslims. Obviously, this too made them seem even sillier, until the fake leaks – certainly a desperate last ditch effort.”

Dawn columnist Cyril Almeida went further, suggesting the fake WikiLeaks served to manipulate public opinion against U.S. demands that the Pakistan Army “do more” to tackle the Taliban and Islamist militants. 

“The fake WikiLeaks cables give the first public hint about how opinion is being shaped in this country right now. Unpatriotic, secular, godless liberals may sniff about such naked manipulation, but the smart money is on a population raised on a diet of conspiracy and paranoia swallowing it as yet more evidence of external plots against the country.”

Before anyone thinks this is a conspiracy theory too far, let’s go back to the oldest intelligence agency in British colonial India. Both the ISI and its Indian counterpart, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW),  are – like the Pakistan and Indian armies – inheritors of a system that was designed to maintain British rule.  That system was not set up to promote democracy, and despite attempts at reform in India, neither have completely shaken off that legacy.   While the ISI remains powerful in Pakistan, in India the activities of R&AW are rarely questioned - I have yet to see for example any serious media investigations into its alleged role in Baluchistan.

According to academic reports I had collected on the  ISI and R&AW, the oldest intelligence agency in South Asia is the Intelligence Bureau (IB). It apparently dates back to the creation of a Central Special Branch by British colonial rulers in December 1887 to gather domestic intelligence in the context of the Anti-Thuggee Organisation. ”Thuggees” were highway robbers who strangled their victims and gave the world the word “thug”.

You can read whole books about the Thuggees, and there are frequent references to them in British colonial literature presenting them as a terrifying cult whose members worshipped the Hindu goddess Kali and indulged in ritual murder.

But then do also read historian Manan Ahmed at Chapati Mystery arguing that the British East India Company (which ran Britain’s India possessions until The Mutiny/First War of Independence in 1857) exaggerated the Thuggee threat in order to increase its own power. “… the argument was that the entirety of India was being menaced by these devotees of Kali and it was only the Company’s intervention that can provide security to the people of India.”

Sounds familiar? In a very dotted line, with much inefficiency on the way, we get from Thuggees to fake WikiLeaks.   The problem for all of us is to work out how much the real threat exists, and how much it is used to perform a useful function.  And that as any student of South Asia will tell you, is very hard to tell.

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