Sinners, saints, spooks and moles

The abrogation of Article 370 and 35 A, which stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status, the Kashmiris of their ‘lone fig leaf of dignity’, and integrated it into the Indian Union in 2019 as a Union Territory, is the elephant in the room in this riveting memoir by Amarjit Singh Dulat. Former spook and ultimate insider, he’s unafraid to tell it like it is.

Going toe to toe is the other pachyderm in the room, India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, whom he critiques for his ‘Doval Doctrine’ that crashed and burned his own ‘Dulat Doctrine’ of talking to separatists and mainstreaming moderates.  

A Life in the Shadows, Dulat’s new book, peppered with one fascinating inside story after another, couldn’t have been released at a more appropriate moment. Not only has a political family, and a new Pakistan Army chief, both risk-averse to stoking tensions with India, retaken power in Islamabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has re-invented himself internationally as a peacenik — Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s jibe notwithstanding. The urbane former spy chief’s remarkably prescient book, is a timely, if biting, advisory to India’s tough-talking NSA to revisit his Kashmir policy, and ensure a semblance of peace on at least one contested boundary.

Unsurprisingly, his critique of the ‘muscular policy’, is leavened with high praise for the current NSA with whom he worked closely and remains friends, as he has, with the previous NSA M K Narayanan.  

‘Nobody’s friend’

In an eye-popping chapter entitled ‘Spooks as Friends: A Tale of Two Spymasters’, he characterises Doval as ‘everyone’s friend and nobody’s friend,” as the man he knew would always get the top job. He dwells on Doval’s role in Mizoram, his handling of the December 1999 Taliban hijacking of IC 814 to Kandahar as part of the negotiating team, but what really grabs attention is when he spills the beans on Doval’s highly unusual move as an officer who goes undercover during Operation Black Thunder II in 1988. This is when he posed as a rickshaw puller with ISI leanings at the Golden Temple, winning the trust of Khalistani militants holed up inside the shrine while feeding his own team with the ‘actual strength and positions of the terrorists’ from inside Harmandir Sahib.’ Doval won the Vir Chakra for his efforts.

It was also Doval, who cultivated the young and upcoming Pakistan politician Nawaz Sharif when he served in the Indian mission in Karachi from 1982-1985. Nawaz threw a huge party for the Indian cricket team when it arrived in Lahore. The man behind it, Doval!

Dulat’s own ‘life in the shadows’ when he headed the Research & Analysis Wing, and the Intelligence Bureau before that, and went on to serve as an adviser to two successive Prime Ministers, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh on Kashmir, never involved going undercover. Instead, he had to win the trust and confidence of separatists who answered to their Pakistani masters, and keep pro-India leaning politicians like his abiding favourite Farooq Abdullah on the right side, all the while being second-guessed, by his own bosses in Delhi.

And yet, the irony and the paradox, in this book filled with anecdotes of his enduring relationships with the principal actors in the Kashmir imbroglio who gave him unprecedented access and a rare insight into the way the Kashmiri mind works, is this — his admission that while the abrogation was ‘not necessary’, he backed Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement in parliament that ‘the erosion of Article 370 was happening for such a long time, that Narendra Modi’s BJP government was merely completing the process.’ Only to follow that up with a searing indictment of the government’s Kashmir policy, the ‘darkness that has descended on Kashmir today,’ as Delhi attempts to break Srinagar’s political stalwarts, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, former rivals joined at the hip now as the Gupkar movement to restore statehood.

The Kashmiris he is still in touch with, ‘no longer speak of azaadi, no longer even dream of going to Pakistan, fear being reduced to a minority in their own land’.

As challenging as it must have been for India’s premier spymaster to navigate what the CIA chief James Angleton called the ‘wilderness of mirrors’, Dulat, known by his moniker ‘Mr Kashmir,’ clearly drew on his unerring ability to look into the soul of the protagonist, be it President Giani Zail Singh, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Ajit Singh and his handling of the Bhopal gas leak or even the powerful Indira Gandhi. And of course, the Kashmiri.  

Perhaps, the last of a breed of self-described ‘rascals and moles’, who gambled on whom he could and could not trust, Dulat recounts how separatist Yasin Malik despite his ‘Gandhian’ avatar, put his feet up on the table in an act of defiance when the spook walked in for a meeting. He didn’t make the cut. Another separatist Shabir Shah did. In fact, Shabir had gained enough of Dulat’s trust to be allowed to travel to Kathmandu to meet a Pakistani contact. Except, Dulat’s boss suddenly got cold feet and Shabir’s trip was aborted midway.  When Dulat heads to Jammu to ask the separatist’s forgiveness, Shabir tells him ‘If you don’t trust us, how can we have a relationship? I tell you everything, but you don’t …”

A sentiment echoed by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, head of the separatist Hurriyat Conference, who tells the spy chief: “Aap kehte hain hum bahut jhooth bolte hain. Par jhooth bolna toh aap se seekha hai. Aap hume sach nahi bolte, toh hum bhi aapko jhooth bolte hain…” (You accuse us Kashmiris of lying, but we have learnt it from you.)

Rascals, he says, make the best agents, and moles have many uses! More so, if they work for arch-enemy Pakistan, which he says lies at the ‘heart of India’s paranoia, the mistrust, the lack of imagination that governs the espionage game in Kashmir.’

The first IB chief to head R&AW, his backroom negotiations with Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists feature in two previous books. But it is here in his third book, ‘A Life in the Shadows,’ that he steps into the light, as unashamed to gaslight Doval’s much vaunted m.o. of ‘trickery and a tough line’ with a ‘streak of ruthlessness’ thrown in, to calling on Delhi to recraft ‘Kashmiriyat.’

‘The idea is to get to the persons you are aiming to get — and engage with them. I have always felt that engagement is crucial, even if it must be kept secret. We spooks are sinners after all  — more than we are saints. We talk to our enemies more than we talk to our friends.’