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Indian intelligence lost in translation

Only a fraction of intercepted messages gets translated into actual intelligence, writes Manoj Joshi. Express your views

india Updated: Oct 24, 2006 12:11 IST

Indian intelligence services accumulate a vast amount of intercepted messages, some in code in relation to Pakistan and China. In addition, there is a dizzying number of newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, books and so on. But due to a lack of trained linguists, only a fraction of this ever gets translated and processed into real intelligence. While India has 30 universities where Urdu is taught, none produce the kind of experts required for intelligence.

For its needs, the government has a parallel set of training establishments that simply lack the capacity to produce volume. This is the reason why when the Delhi Police wanted a translation of a conversation in Kashmiri between lecturer SAR Geelani, an accused in the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack case, and his brother in Srinagar, it asked a fruit merchant.

The resulting mistranslation led to Geelani's conviction, which, on appeal, had to be overturned.

Neighbourhood out of focus

Besides raw information, an intelligence agency must have a cadre of area specialists familiar with both the language and culture of the target country, so as to be able to context information and come up with balanced assessments of an event.

Whether it is foreign language teaching or area studies, India remains backward, not so much because of quantity but because of quality, and its larger inability to link education with its practical application. According to 2004 University Grants Commission figures, there are 24 area studies centres in India of which seven specialise in the neighbouring countries. However, none of them provide language training.

A measure of how indifferently the country's strategic interests mesh with its area studies programmes is brought out by the fact that while there is no centre for Pakistan or Bangladesh studies, there are as many as five centres for Canadian studies.

Burmese daze

These area studies centres do not teach language; for that there are separate schools, which though plentiful, are not synchronized with India's strategic needs. While English, French, German and Russian have been taught across India, the languages that India needs for intelligence and strategic purposes - Urdu, Arabic, Chinese, Pushto, Farsi, Tibetan and Burmese - are poorly served. Pushto is taught only at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Burmese, Nepalese and Tibetan are not taught at all.

The Indian situation is not unique. In the wake of 9/11, the world's foremost superpower realized it did not have enough people knowledgeable in Arabic and Arab culture. Because of the Cold War, the United States had focused on Russia, eastern Europe and China, and when the Al-Qaeda came calling, America was found wanting.

But the US, with its first-rate university system which is well attuned to its needs as a superpower, has quickly remedied the situation. The problem in India is that intelligence agencies simply refuse to acknowledge the problem, in part because they do not want to think big. Perhaps it is a failure of imagination to see India as a superpower.