After Independence, India did have a decent intelligence body in Intelligence Bureau (IB). But when Pakitan started playing dirty when they supplied arms and ammunition to the Sikh militants, Indira Gandhi thought it prudent that we have our own foreign intelligence agency.
We didn’t get an agency, though. We got a Research And Analysis Wing, which is not classified as an agency, and hence does not have to declassify any secrets it holds. Founded in 1968 by the legendary RN Kao, RAW’s first focus was Pakistan and second, China.
Why China? Because China was helping Pakistan as a strategic ally, with the common enemy being – India.
After India’s Pokhran test in 1974, an arms race was triggered between India and Pakistan. Being very wary of India’s fledging nuclear capabilities, Pakistan sought any help needed to build nuclear weapons for itself.
Just as US and Canada helped India with nuclear processing plants, France helped Pakistan in supplying the same technology in the 1970s.
Adding to this, Chinese technicians also helped Pakistan to purify Uranium to produce nuclear-grade weapons.
Although the French help was known openly, the secret nuclear plant at Kahuta was unknown to everyone, including Israel and India.
Israel’s MOSSAD was insecure about Pakistan acquiring nuclear arms. It partnered with RAW in gathering everything there was to know about the Pakistani nuclear program. MOSSAD also had concerns because A. Q. Khan, the father of Pakistani Nuclear Program, had visited Pyongyang.
Now we know that North Korea got all the secrets of building an atomic bomb because A. Q. Khan literally gave the secrets away.
France grew concerned about the intentions of Pakistan too. It withdrew its support for building a plutonium reprocessing plant.
The French government withdrew all support because of pressure from the USA. Back then the USA did not openly support the Pakistani cause. With the French support gone, Pakistan was half blind. That is why Pakistan concentrated all its resources and manpower in developing the Kahuta plant, in complete secrecy.
By the late the 1970s RAW had already established a good network inside Pakistan and had heard rumors about the Kahuta plant. But how would they confirm this intelligence?
Trying to infiltrate the nuclear plant would be foolish and could take years. By then they would get their hands on rich fuel for an atomic bomb.
It was important to remember that Pakistan kept this so close under wraps that even with the extensive network RAW had, they only got rumors.
Then, in a stunning intelligence operation, RAW agents stole hair samples from the barber shops in Kahuta where the nuclear scientists came to get their hair cut.
The RAW agents went into the barber shops and stole samples of hair fallen down after cutting. These samples were analyzed for radiation traces, and boom! India knew that Kahuta plant was a plutonium refining plant to develop an atomic bomb.
India now confirmed that Pakistan was indeed making nuclear weapons. Israel straightaway wanted to bomb the Kahuta plant. But there was a big screwup on the Indian side
Our then Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who used to be on talking terms with General Zia Ul Haq, let it slip on a phone conversation with him that he knew of Pakistan’s “secret” plan.
Pakistan promptly took all the RAW network down and bargained with the USA to save their asses from an Israel bombing.
Our government was not really enthusiastic about developing foreign intelligence. Morarji Desai had even slashed the budget of RAW and reduced all its operations, and after his big gaffe of giving the secret away.
And after this great operation, Pakistan has always been on the backfoot about keeping their nuclear secrets safe.
What the RAW and its agents did was nothing short of one of the most gutsy intelligence operations executed in history.
Imagine – getting to know about a country’s nuclear secrets, by going to a barber shop!