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Who was RAW officer Rabinder Singh trending in India?

Rabinder Singh, former R&AW officer who defected to the CIA in 2004, lived a tormented life in exile in US, haunted by his betrayal of India. His covert escape and subsequent struggles shed light on espionage intrigue and personal cost of double-dealing.

By Ground report
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Who was RAW officer Rabinder Singh trending in India?

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Former Indian Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer Rabinder Singh, who defected to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2004, died in a 2016 Maryland road accident. After being abandoned by the CIA, Singh lived as a refugee in the United States, facing financial difficulties and deep depression. His failed attempts to secure employment at a US think tank worsened his situation. Burdened with remorse over betraying his country, Singh spent nearly 12 years as a recluse in New York, Maryland, and Virginia, near his extended family.

A former India's Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officer, Rabinder Singh, disappeared in 2004. His story is recounted in dramatic accounts and adapted into Netflix's "Khufiya (House of Spies)," based on the 2012 novel "Escape To Nowhere" by former spy chief Amar Bhushan. Although promoted as fiction, the adaptation resembles the account in another book by former intelligence officer RK Yadav.

Yadav's 2014 memoir, "Mission R&AW," details Indian intelligence, chronicling Singh's recruitment, betrayal, and escape. It reveals a race to catch a double agent and how the CIA convinced an Indian citizen to turn on his government.

Who was Rabinder Singh?

Rabinder Singh joined R&AW in the late 1980s after a short military career. Described as a clean-shaven man from an affluent family in Amritsar, he was the son of a retired lieutenant in the Indian Army. He joined the Gorkha Regiments in 1970 and participated in Operation Blue Star in 1984. Despite his service, he was overlooked for further promotion due to his "mediocre calibre" as a soldier. His appointment to R&AW was facilitated by an old family friend who had worked with his father.

Singh, stationed in Amritsar, gained a reputation for his close relationships with local police and alleged involvement in an embezzlement scheme involving secret service funds for operations in Pakistan. After being posted to the Indian embassy in Damascus, Singh reportedly let slip to an American diplomat about a secret Indian Air Force visit, which may have led to his recruitment by the CIA.

In the early 1990s, Singh requested a transfer to Washington, D.C., for his daughter's treatment after she was injured. The request was denied, and Singh was stationed at The Hague. Colleagues noted his expensive tastes and lavish dinner parties, inconsistent with his income.

By the early 2000s, Singh had returned to New Delhi, working as a joint secretary at R&AW headquarters, focusing on South-East Asia operations. Despite being considered a "fairly ordinary" agent, Singh was hiding a significant secret.

In late 2003, Singh's colleagues noticed unusual behavior. He became curious about topics outside his department and spent a lot of time at the photocopier. A fellow officer reported this to Bhushan, the senior secretary of the Counter Intelligence and Security division.

Singh's request to attend his daughter's US engagement was denied, confirming his fears. Bugs at R&AW headquarters showed Singh searching for hidden cameras. In April 2004, Singh began stacking classified documents to smuggle out. Bhushan ordered officers to frisk every employee, seizing hundreds of classified documents, pen drives, CDs, DVDs, and a large volume of pornographic materials.

Spy who vanished

Certain he was under surveillance, Singh planned his escape. Meanwhile, operatives installed a photocopier that recorded digital copies of every page he scanned. Over 16 days, Singh copied 210 reports, including classified documents on R&AW's assessments of activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and neighboring countries.

Despite gaining momentum, the investigation lacked conclusive evidence to question Singh or identify his handler. On May 1, 2004, Singh and his wife, Parminder Kaur, escaped. They borrowed a car, drove to the Nepal border, crossed at Nepalganj, and met Singh's CIA contact, David Vacala. The trio stayed overnight at a hotel before flying to Kathmandu, where Singh and his wife were issued US passports under new names.

Counter-intelligence officers discovered Singh's disappearance after he boarded an Austrian Airlines flight to Washington, D.C. Despite a city-wide search and family interrogations, Singh remained elusive. A search of Singh's home revealed a laptop with pilfered documents, but it was too late.

In 2005, Singh was dismissed as an R&AW officer under India's constitution allowing dismissal without a formal inquiry if deemed against national interest. An internal inquiry was conducted, but the findings were never made public. The Indian media focused on the "spy who disappeared" and the secrets he may have sold.

Singh's value to the CIA diminished in the US. According to novelist Shaunak Agarkhedkar, the CIA stopped paying Singh, blocked his employment attempts, and declined his naturalization request. In November 2004, a man claiming to be Singh petitioned the US Court of Appeals for asylum, stating he had fled India after refusing to aid in an assassination.

The immigration judge denied Singh's asylum request due to lack of evidence. The Ninth Circuit Court sent the matter back to the Board of Immigration Appeals, acknowledging R&AW. Singh's asylum status remains unconfirmed, but he seems to have stayed in the US.

In 2007, the CBI requested Interpol to issue a global arrest warrant for Singh, but Interpol declined, citing political charges. Media reports suggest Singh lived reclusively in the US before dying in a road accident in 2016.


Why did the US spy on India, and how did Singh escape? Theories range from intelligence on terrorist activities to India's nuclear capabilities. Yadav suggests the CIA sought information on India's nuclear tests, while Bhushan claims the leaked documents were of minor sensitivity.

R&AW confirmed eight missing operatives since 1968, sparking backlash and integrity questions. Yadav's book suggests widespread complicity within R&AW, with 57 officers allegedly involved in Singh's deception. He complained to the CBI, but Delhi's High Court declined to press further due to insufficient evidence.

Few former agents have spoken about the Singh case. Retired officers now need permission before publishing. One former R&AW officer is being sued for allegedly publishing classified information in his 2007 book. Former colleagues' accounts provide insight into espionage and the truth behind Rabinder Singh's disappearance.

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