Why Modi govt should have carried on with Sandhu as deputy NSA

Deputy NSA Nehchal Sandhu’s continuity with the new government would have sent a strong message that the Modi regime favoured a bureaucracy without any political allegiance

Prabal Pratap Singh | August 14, 2014



The resignation of deputy national security adviser (NSA) Nehchal Sandhu on July 31 is seen as a precursor to a major change in the government’s approach towards higher echelons of bureaucracy. The 1973-batch IPS officer, who retired earlier as director of Intelligence Bureau (IB), is one of the most celebrated sleuths of the country.

Though Sandhu was appointed as deputy NSA during the UPA regime, his continuity in the Modi government would have sent a strong message that the new regime favoured a non-committed bureaucracy. On the contrary, days before Sandhu resigned, the new government interviewed Arvind Gupta, a 1979-batch retired Indian foreign service (IFS) officer and director of Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a prestigious think-tank, for the post of deputy NSA.

Gupta, who has since been appointed deputy NSA, has been apparently inducted into the national security apparatus to give critical inputs on foreign affairs and diplomacy. But Sandhu’s exit by a sleight of hand seemed to be necessitated by a government determined to sever any ties with the past. The move, however, set tongues wagging in bureaucratic circles as Sandhu, considered one of the finest counter-terrorism experts and credited with combining human intelligence with technology for India, was believed to be a favourite with incumbent NSA Ajit Doval.

Sandhu was never uncomfortable working as a deputy to Doval, his senior and a long-time colleague from the IB. In fact, both worked in tandem on their first major assignment under the new government. Immediately after coming to power the NDA was faced with the hostage crisis in Iraq. When the Iraqi militant group Islamic State (formerly ISIS) started marching towards Baghdad, calls to rescue Indian nurses trapped in Iraq got louder within and outside the government. Doval was called in for action, and Sandhu came in handy with his vast knowledge and resources.

Given Sandhu’s three-decade career in intelligence, stories of his valour and sharpness have attained a ring of myth. For instance, while heading the operations unit of IB during the Vajpayee government, Sandhu had liquidated several terrorist modules across the country. He was also part of the team that negotiated with the Taliban in Afghanistan following the hijack of Air India flight IC184. Endowed with an elephantine memory, Sandhu’s capacity to memorise numbers and inputs is the stuff of legend.

During his stint as the joint director of IB posted in Srinagar, he became a prime target of Pakistani terrorist groups, though he never allowed himself to be guarded by security personnel. His daredevilry in an anti-terror operation in Mumbai is recounted in intelligence circles. He had flown down to oversee the operation. As the story goes, Sandhu, along with his colleague, pounced upon two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants and held them captive till a team of anti-terrorism squad of Mumbai police reached the spot. Had he not reacted in time, the terrorists would have slipped away.

Yet another story associated with Sandhu relates to a brief encounter he had with former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton when he was the IB chief. After he gave her inputs about rising militancy in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, Clinton showed keen interest in working closely with him in view of his profound understanding of the region.

That an officer of Sandhu’s calibre becomes a victim of political pride and prejudice is a pathetic reflection on the state of affairs in India.

Singh is a senior journalist.

The story appeared in the August 16-31, 2014 issue of the magazine.

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