Britain needs Stronger Intelligence Cooperation with India

Intelligence cooperation between the UK and India has a long history and remains a key component of the bilateral relationship. Like most intelligence relationships, there have been moments of highs and lows. However, moving ahead, the quality of this relationship can be strengthened by infusing a sense of equality into a relationship that has hitherto been viewed with a sense of power asymmetry favouring Britain.  

Historical Evolution of India-UK Intelligence Relationship 

The evolution of India-UK intelligence relationship can be observed in five phases. The first phase is the pre-independence period when the Indian intelligence bureaucracies were led by colonial Englishmen. The agencies focused on tackling threats from criminals, subversives, and revolutionaries, with the aim of solidifying British colonial rule in the subcontinent. Many of the tools and techniques of intelligence were learnt by India during this period.  

The second phase began from the time of independence to the 1971 Indo-Pak war. During this period, the intelligence relationship strengthened over time. Since independence, even as the Indian political leadership sought to sever the umbilical cord between the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the British intelligence, interpersonal relationships between officers of the IB and the MI5 became a key driver for strengthening ties. After the 1962 India-China war, Britain became India’s key intelligence ally by sharing technical intelligence equipment, imparting analytical training to Indian intelligence personnel, and establishing some of India’s covert action agencies. 

Although this period could be seen as the golden age of Indo-British intelligence relationship, the power asymmetry was palpable. British intelligence relationship with post-colonial states during this period was giving rise to a ‘commonwealth intelligence culture’. Although the post-colonial states certainly benefited from British tutelage, on balance, the relationships were just means for British influence in the regions and largely served Britain’s anti-communist agendas. London’s reserved approach towards Indian intelligence was reflective of this trend. Where skills related to anti-communism were required, such as counterespionage, British intelligence services were readily available. On other areas, however, help was less forthcoming. 

The third phase emerged during the 1971 Indo-Pak war and lasted roughly till the 9/11 attacks. Geopolitical changes brought Britain closer to Pakistan and China whilst India became a key partner for the Soviet Union. Against this backdrop, Indo-British bilateral relations began plummeting. Britain even played host to several of Indian insurgent leaders causing discomfort in New Delhi. Despite this, intelligence relationship remained much stronger than between other organs of the government, driven mostly by the interpersonal relationships developed between intelligence officers over the years. Therefore, except on matters such as Kashmir and Pakistan where severe restrictions were placed by British policymakers, intelligence cooperation continued across several important matters.  

The fourth stage was born after the 9/11 attacks and picked up steam after the 2005 London tube bombings. A Joint Working Group (JWG) on Terrorism was established and witnessed sharing of intelligence between the two countries. However, this relationship too was not without limitations since the key source of terrorism in India, i.e. Pakistan, was Britain’s ally. Additionally, London was restrained in its options given the large and active British Pakistani diaspora, which frustrated Indian counterterrorism efforts. Once again, Britain’s own interests dominated the Anglo-Indian intelligence relationship leaving disastrous consequences for India as seen in instances such as the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Not only did Britain not share vital intelligence it had developed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it also further insisted on India exercising restraint against Pakistan. The latter was motivated largely due to the presence of many British Pakistani citizens in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. 

The Present and Future of UK-India Intelligence Cooperation 

Whilst counterterrorism related intelligence cooperation continues, the present and fifth phase of the relationship is witnessing shifting priorities on both sides, particularly in Britain. Recognising the threat posed by China and emerging technologies, the UK has declared an Indo-Pacific tilt and desires leadership in artificial intelligence (AI). With respect to the Indo-Pacific, as most observers confess, Britain’s aspirations are larger than its ability to deliver. US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, also noted that Britain is ‘more helpful’ in the Euro-Atlantic space than in the Indo-Pacific. Such a scenario provides Britain with reason to strengthen relationship with India, and intelligence cooperation is one such area to foster deeper ties. 

In the last few years, India has made considerable investments in naval power under the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) to develop a safe, secure, and stable maritime domain. Efforts have been taken to develop maritime domain awareness through creation of avenues such as Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) hosted by the Indian Navy. When established in 2018, France became the first country to post a liaison officer at the IFC-IOR headquarters where non-classified information is exchanged. UK followed suit two years later, in 2021. The same year, the UK’s Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 21 held maritime training with the Indian Navy. However, as noted by the Defence Committee of the House of Commons, ‘Indian Navy received less benefit from this training then from its combined training with US Navy carrier groups’. The committee, thus, suggested that ‘the UK must be a reliable partner to India’. As the CSG 25 is set to arrive at Indian shores next year, there are hopes for positive developments. 

On cyber and AI, modest efforts towards cooperation are beginning to emerge, although much of the AI related cooperation is seen in non-security domains. Critical infrastructure protection, prevention and deterrence of cyber-crime are areas that hold potential for greater India-UK intelligence sharing. However, hitherto cooperation is mostly happening under the aegis of multilateral frameworks such as UN led conventions and the International Counter Ransomware Initiative. Last year, there were explorations for bilateral cooperation with the visit of Lindy Cameron, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to India and meetings with key stakeholders, including India’s then National Cyber Security Coordinator, Lt Gen. Rajesh Pant. However, the real outcomes of these explorations are yet to be fully ascertained. There is, nevertheless, a clear indication of the availability of a talent pool and political will on both sides to enhance cooperation in AI and ICT towards early detection and prevention of threats. 

Need for a Relationship of Equality 

In sum, the Anglo-Indian intelligence relationship has deep historical roots with a clearly changing character. The early years’ asymmetric relationship can almost be relegated to the past as India grows in its capabilities and aspirations. In such an environment, the future of this relationship will need to take into considerations India’s growth aspirations rather than simply reflect British objectives. To be sure, steps have already been taken in this direction as witnessed in the announcement of a £95,000 investment by the UK towards tackling pro-Khalistan extremism emanating from Britain. India has reciprocated by partnering with British agencies and sharing information in support of UK’s anti-fraud strategy.  

Despite these steps, there are still trickle-down issues from the past wherein perceptions of superiority continue to dominate the British approach towards India. Overcoming these and establishing a closer and sustainable relationship with the Indian intelligence community is inevitable for the UK if it aspires to fulfil its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific as laid down in the 2021 Global Britain in a Competitive Age strategy. Moreover, a successful intelligence relationship can become a guiding force for cooperation in other areas of defence and security cooperation, which have been missed out due to Britain’s uncompromising attitude whilst capitalised by other countries such as France and the United States.  

(The writer is a Lecturer in Intelligence and International Security at the University of Hull, UK) 

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