Thursday, 27 January 2011

More On An Ancient Intelligence Apparatus

Book 1, Chapter 10

Before launching into this chapter, I would like to thank all those who read and comment on this blog, as well as those who email their thoughts and reactions to me.

Also, a clarification: this blog is not a translation; nor is it in any way meant to be an “authoritative” study or analysis of Chanakya’s text. I am using various translations and versions to do one simple thing: record my personal responses to this seminal political text. In the process, I hope that more people are made aware of the incredible worth and value of this book.

Far too often, in contemporary India, we treat our classical texts either with a Macauley-ist disdain or with unwarranted reverence. The unfortunate result of both these responses is that many of us no longer have access to these incredible documents of our ancient culture. This blog attempts to do something very personal: demystify and thus decolonise ancient political thought through an individual reading and thus bring it to more modern readers.

And so, onwards:

The first of two chapters on establishing an intelligence system explains the five kinds of spies who occupy relatively stationary, long term posts and are primarily used for gathering internal intelligence.

The fascinating point that Chanakya emphasises repeatedly is that the contact of government officials with spies must be limited as much as possible. Only the ruler or a very small number of trusted advisors should have contact with the spies, and must do so in complete secrecy. This is especially important as Chanakya suggests the use of spies for purposes of not only gathering information but also as an aspect of statecraft which may be deployed to entrap opposition, convince populace of specific aims and ideas, as well as use them as agent provocateurs to create controlled disturbances which may be of benefit to the state.

What is also intriguing in this chapter is Chanakya’s very modern use of the varieties of potential spies. The five explicit categories include students and/or intellectuals, unsuccessful businessmen, farmers, ascetics (or at least spies disguised as these), and women.

The first of these categories, according to Chanakya, include students. These, in addition to their intellectual capacities, should be bold even brash, argumentative and capable of eliciting information from others. These may include students or those involved in research, teaching, intellectual activity at a university or institute of higher learning.

Chanakya suggests that such students be recruited directly by the chief of intelligence services and only report to the chief and the ruler. Moreover, these spies ought to be regularly rewarded in cash and in honours. This seems very modern of Chanakya and throws open an entire possibility of ancient scholars not only working at universities but also benefitting from intelligence sharing, a practice quite prevalent in many western nations. Indian intelligence establishment could benefit from a revival of this ancient practice!

Interestingly, these students are intended to report on discontent and conspiracies developing amongst the youth. It seems that regardless of Europe’s soixante huitards, political analysts have long viewed students with suspicion, most likely with probably cause.

I must confess that suddenly the ancient Nalanda university gains a political science dimension that I had not considered before. Of course, given Chanakya’s own apparent link with the university at Takshashila, this comes as no surprise.

The second category of the five extends the intelligence apparatus to ascetics, especially those renowned for their intelligence and knowledge. Most curious, however, is Chanakya’s role for these. He recommends that such an ascetic be aided by the state in setting up a network of other ascetics who report on matters across the land. In return, these informants are paid in cash and material comforts. Indeed, the chief ascetic of the operation ought to have access not only to funds but also know-how in areas of animal husbandry, farming and small business, especially through the use of earlier mentioned student spies.

This is fascinating not only for the use of ascetics and religious figures for purposes of the state, but also for its absolutely pragmatic view that these may serve as apt conduits of information.

A secondary aspect that is quite impressive is the cohesion of network that emerges – despite the textual disruptions – in the organisation. University students provide the know-how in their fields to ascetics, just as other farmers, traders and craftsmen benefit from the information. What emerges in this description is a seamless understanding of how various aspects of the society may be linked and interconnected for purposes of gathering information.

The third category – and a logical one for an ancient agrarian society – includes spies who are drawn from ranks of impoverished farmers or disguise themselves as such. These farmer-spies are again paid by the state and expected to report on the loyalties and discontents of the farming communities. In addition, the farmer-spy is expected to create a network of informants drawn not only from amongst the farmers (and thus, presumedly, landowners) but also amongst the farm labourers.

The fourth category links up to the farmers, as it draws on the traders and business communities. Here, Chanakya again suggests recruiting an impoverished or unsuccessful trader and/or businessman. These spies are not only expected to recruit a network of business informants but also use their travels for business to gather intelligence on other entrepreneurs, market conditions and discontents.

The final category links back to the role of ascetics and are concerned with religious leaders who live in ashrams. However, here the instructions are far more specific: these religious leaders are expected to establish a peaceful and attractive ashram near major urban centres.

Initially, they should at least provide the impression of austerity. This practice of visible austerity is meant not for any spiritual purpose but rather to impress the local populace and diminish the respect they have for any other local ashram or teacher.

Interestingly enough, the ashram should make use of other spies to not only discover secrets of the populace but also the weakness of other religious institutions and leaders. These secrets can then be utilised for fortune-telling, counselling and persuasion (sounds like blackmail, but if it works…). The guru ought to also conspire with the state in order to predict accidents and calamities which can then be ‘proven’ by action on part of the state. From some of the commentaries on the text, these predicted acts seem to include acts of arson, poisoning and mysterious deaths which are obviously assassinations carried out by the state.

Within the text itself, the examples of ‘fortune-telling’ include predicting government honours and rewards for specific citizens which have been agreed upon earlier with the state. This may appear devious but logical if convoluted pragmatism embodied by the text.

Indeed the pragmatism of the text extends to the final verses of this chapter which explain the suggested course of action based on the internal intelligence provided by this spy network.

Chanakya suggests that should intelligence reveal that a citizen or organisation has been upset unintentionally by the ruler or the state, there must be an honest attempt made to address these complaints and bring the discontent elements back into the fold. The state may use rewards, economic reparations, or honours to allay a justifiable grievance.

However, in case of those who are discontent without justifiable reason, or cannot be persuaded otherwise, the state must use the intelligence apparatus to dispatch them. For this brutal if expedient remedy, the text suggests using accidents, apparently criminal assault or a confrontation between two opposing groups which may serve as cover for the assassination. (More on the art of assassination later as Chanakya goes into vast detail further on).

Before ending the chapter, Chanakya points out that a ruler ought to learn from the spies about those who are trustworthy and reward them appropriately. In contrast, the disloyal ought to be removed with as little fuss as possible as the ruler should not waste resources on them, and instead should focus on matter of the state and welfare of the people.

The next chapter deals with the second category of itinerant spies, with four specific classifications. Hope to get to that soon.


  1. what a informative blog this is, I'm impressed with your knowledge. I look forward to reading every article you write!