The success of Vivek Agnihotri-directed movie ‘Tashkent Files’ has aroused the interest of Indian youth in the field of espionage during the cold war between USSR and USA. The second world war led to the dismantling of the British empire, and almost all countries were split between two ideologies- Communism and Capitalism; each backed by the Soviets and Americans respectively. India, in particular, was seen as the playground for International espionage between the espionage agencies of the two superpowers- KGB and CIA.
The Mitrokhin Archives, which contains information about Soviet misadventures in India that got leaked by former KGB spy Vasili Mitrokhin on his defection to the United Kingdom, showed the dirty history of the Congress party and how they almost sold the country to Soviets for financial incentives. The archives particularly spoke about the way Soviets had infiltrated into the politics of the country, but didn’t go much into detail about public misinformation campaigns of the KGB to swing Indian public opinion in its favour.
However, the CIA declassified a document titled ‘The Soviets in India: Moscow’s Major Penetration Program’ in 2011, two decades after the fall of USSR; which revealed the depth of KGB infiltration in India’s media circles.
According to the document, the Soviets operated the media penetration program from the press section of its embassy in New Delhi, where they infiltrated deep into journalist circles by offering financial incentives to them. Initially, the Soviets banked on CPI-owned magazines and mouthpieces to spread Communist beliefs to the public, but then decided to scale up their operations by moving onto larger news outlets.
In 1984, the Soviets engineered its affiliation with the left-leaning Indian Federation of Working Journalists (IFWJ) through its political connections and began to ‘lobby’ with (or more appropriately, ‘prey on’) journalists from top media houses. The Soviets created a network of journalists and media houses that already were influenced by Leftism to peddle Communist propaganda in Indian media. The CIA document further alleges that these networks and propaganda campaigns were planned by the CPSU’s central committee and Novosti (a USSR press agency), though carried out by the KGB and Soviet Embassy press department.
To sway Indian public opinion in favour of nuclear disarmament in January 1985, the Soviets used the CPI and WPC to engineer the participation of pro-communist scientists and academicians from top universities in passing a resolution favouring nuclear disarmament at the Indian Science Conference in Lucknow. The resolutions passed in the conference were used as a source by media houses under Soviet payroll like The Blitz.
The declassified document alleges that almost 3,000 propaganda articles were planted in leading English dailies such as Hindustan Times and Times of India to flare up anti-USA sentiments in India, the details of the articles as mentioned in the document are-
12 May 1984- “There is existence of Khalistan terrorist training camps in Canada, with support from Western governments of USA, UK and Canada.”
August 1984- “Sikh Separatist leaders Ganga Singh Dhillon and Jagjit Singh Chauhan on the payroll of US Defense Intelligence Agency (USDIA).”
Times of India:
14 September 1984- “Pakistan is CIA base for recruiting guerillas.”
The Hindu, Madras edition:
November 1984- “CIA has set up centers in Pakistan for subverting the Afghanistan and Indian governments.”
Shortly after Indira Gandhi’s assassination on 31st October 1984, the Soviets began their propaganda campaign, with Radio Moscow declaring that the Khalistani assassins got their “ideological inspiration” from the CIA, and accused the Americans of assassinating Third World leaders who didn’t succumb to capitalism. Soon after, various Indian news agencies joined the chorus, including The Patriot, The Daily, Hindustan Times, National Herald and the CPI-owned Hindi newspaper ‘Janayug’.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) was also a major part of the campaign, with the document alleging that several managers of the news service agency were on the payroll of the Soviets. The Soviets used the PTI to plant articles that were molded in a way to promote communism in Indian newspapers; the CIA document says that a car with a Soviet diplomatic license plate was regularly seen at the PTI headquarters, and was jokingly referred to as ‘Press TASS’ by Soviet officials.
The objective of USSR’s propaganda campaigns were to arouse Leftist feelings in the public, but failed to gain much traction due to the mindset not favouring such ideologies. However, despite failing to achieve its objective, the USSR unknowingly exposed the greed of Indian journalists and media houses of that time, who agreed to sell their dignity and national integrity to the Soviets despite knowing about the consequences of their actions.