Did you know that there’s a hawk-eyed man behind our country’s intelligence system, who laid the foundation of R&AW and came to be known as the first Indian spymaster?

This man was R.N. Kao. 

A master of espionage, an enigmatic man who maintained a network of spies throughout the world, he was photographed a few times only in his whole life.


Born in 1918, in Benares (Varanasi) in a Kashmiri Pandit family, Kao completed his MA in English literature from Allahabad University and joined the Indian Police Services in 1939.

Just before India’s independence, he joined the Directorate of Intelligence Bureau (IB), founded by a British civil servant in the 19th century.


By 1957, Ghana had gained freedom from British rule. Its then president requested Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to help build his country’s intelligence agency.

PM Nehru then sent Kao to Ghana, where he worked for a year and formed the Foreign Service Research Bureau (FSRB).   


The war in 1965 with China & Pakistan had necessitated a separate intelligence agency in India. So far, India’s intelligence totally depended on the Intelligence Bureau. 

In 1968, the then PM Indira Gandhi took a decision to bifurcate the Intelligence Bureau and appointed R. N. Kao as its head. Kao carried out extensive research on the intelligence system of various countries and came up with a blueprint of India’s new external intelligence agency. 


As for the name, he picked Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) to give an impression of an academic organization. With 250 sharp minds, that Kao handpicked from the IB, R&AW was launched on 21st September 1968.  

R&AW expanded itself internationally within a year. New posts were created in countries such as US, UK, Europe and South-East Asia. A new school for language experts was established and new check posts and offices were opened in different cities located on India’s borders. 

All these brilliant minds who were trained by Kao called themselves the ‘Kaoboys’.  


In 1971, after the West Pakistani Army began the mass killing of people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), millions of people sought refuge in India. Meanwhile, Kao received information that Pakistan was planning military action in Bangladesh.

It was then that PM Indira Gandhi asked Kao to prepare a strategy to help Bangladesh.

Soon after, Kao sped up secret operations in areas bordering India and Bangladesh. Covert operations were carried out to infiltrate West Pakistani Army camps. Technical staff was deployed to tap messages between East and West Pakistan Army and civil establishments.


According to a former R&AW official, R. K Yadav, it was Kao who devised a plan to ban flights from West Pakistan to Bangladesh with soldiers on board.

Apparently, Kao got one of the R&AW agents to hijack an Indian Airlines plane from Srinagar to Lahore. The hijackers were portrayed as a Kashmiri separatist. While all the passengers were safely sent back to India, the hijackers blew the plane at Lahore airport. 

This gave India a chance to ban overflight of Pakistani aircraft over the country, rendering Pakistan unable to send its troops to Bangladesh via air.


In March 1971, India had begun to face refugee crisis with an influx of people from Bangladesh crossing the boundary.

Kao began training the refugees from East Pakistan with paramilitary forces to prepare them for a guerrilla war.

They named the army of 1,00,000 civilians, fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh, as Mukti Bahini. For eight months, these guerrillas fought with the Pakistani Army and considerably beat their morale.

The final blow came in December 1971, when Indian Army entered East Pakistan, forced West Pakistan to surrender its 93,000 soldiers and declared Bangladesh an independent nation.


By 1975, Kao was convinced that a military coup was being planned against Bangladesh PM Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

To warn him, Kao arrived in Dacca (now Dhaka) disguised as a betel-nut exporter and met Rahman. During their hour-long meeting, Kao tried hard to convince him that his life was in danger but Rahman refused to believe him. 

Just a few weeks later, the same military officials that Kao had warned Rahman against, invaded his residence with tanks and killed him along with his family and personal staff.


Kao, who worked closely with Indira Gandi, resigned from his position when Morarji Desai govt. came to power in 1977. In 1980, when Indira Gandhi won elections again, she appointed him as her security advisor.

Famous for leading a fiercely guarded life, Kao always refused to write his memoirs, perhaps for the reason that he knew way too much. He also shied away from making public appearances or giving interviews.

India’s original super spy finally breathed his last in 2002 at the age of 84.