India’s spies and spymasters do not usually write their memoirs. This is in keeping with bureaucrats, judges, ministers and their like elsewhere across the subcontinent who, when they do write, usually put out something that exculpates their actions while condemning their circumstances or their peers.
A.S. Dulat had headed the Intelligence Bureau in Jammu and Kashmir in 1988-90 when the insurgency broke out and was head of the Research and Analysis Wing when IC-814 was hijacked in 1999. He has written a fine work that takes us through the broad doctrine of India’s intelligence agencies, especially as it has evolved in the last three decades.
The book is a patchwork of chapters that is part memoir, part character sketches and part reflections on postings. At its heart is a rich 50-page essay on spycraft, the Indian intelligence community’s outlook and his own view of his work. It is headlined “Wilderness of Mirrors”, a phrase used by another intelligence man describing the “stratagems, deceptions, artifices” used by the Soviets to confuse their opponents.
Dulat reveals some, though not much, of what it is that intelligence officers actually do. He says that “desk work is actually quite important”. He is a man of the field and likes to be known as such, but it is clear that he looks up to the intellectuals more than he does the dashing doer type.
He refers to M.K. Narayanan, the former national security adviser who was his senior in the IB, as “the great Narayanan” in three places. There is a sketch of the current NSA, Ajit Doval, and while Dulat describes his action-packed career glowingly personally, he appears attracted towards the thinkers, the George Smileys rather than the James Bonds. His writing reveals that he is a thinker himself.
Of his early years, he says that “those were the days that the IB would boast of classical learning that transformed policemen into intelligence officers and even men of letters”. Presumably this is no longer the case.
Other things have changed over time as well. In his earlier days, counter-intelligence (seeking out and engaging foreign spies in India) was a more important aspect of spying than it has become. “Today, counter-intelligence does not have the kind of importance” because “counter-terrorism has now rightly taken prime place”.
Part of this was by default. In Kashmir, when the insurgency was building, the Indian establishment had little or no information. “We had no inner contacts within militant networks” because of which “militancy was increasing by the day in the Valley, and we were clueless about how to stem the tide”.
In January 1990, the IB lost four officers in three weeks. Dulat’s officers surrounded him and demanded that they be sent back home. “We can’t stay here anymore”, they said. It is remarkable how little things have changed.
What is the role of the intelligence officer in such a place? Dulat is clear that it is to “engage with them”. That makes sense. Spies are useless if they fraternise only with their own. We learn the enemy only by being in its midst. But India’s governments for 30 years have followed the opposite path, likely sliding into this posture by default. Delhi has only seen things in black and white, Dulat says, and adds that such a position doesn’t work in difficult areas like the Northeast and Kashmir.
It doesn’t help us that the intelligence agencies refuse to hire Muslims out of suspicion, something Dulat has been vocal on for years. More disturbingly, he writes that the very idea of a dialogue (with Hurriyat) and of engagement with the militant groups is looked down on by the Indian State now.
“This line of thinking has been considered soft by most of my colleagues in Indian intelligence”.
The reason, he says, is Pakistan. It tends to switch off thinking in some sort of Pavlovian response in India’s State apparatus. Pakistan is “at the heart of paranoia, mistrust, lack of imagination and absolute convention that governs much of the espionage game in Kashmir”.
Like the shift in national security and the military focus on counter-insurgency after 1990, he says that for intelligence “Pakistan, in our minds, is our only adversary”.
And yet, having arrived at or defaulted to this conclusion, the State apparatus and its individuals don’t want to engage with the adversary. For instance, by trying to recruit the ISI chief, because “somehow we have an apprehension that a Pakistani is untrustworthy, that he will create trouble, that he is, simply speaking, a rascal”.
It is remarkable that such primitive thinking exists in, of all places, that part of the State concerned with understanding and defanging the enemy.
Dulat says that a CIA chief’s first question in morning meetings would be: “Have you recruited anyone new since last night?” He adds that “there was no point in pretending that this was not actually the basic principle of our business”. But what business is possible when we have no capacity or desire to recruit?
This shift in focus, or more precisely this abandoning of one strand of intelligence, has not proven beneficial as the situation in Kashmir reveals.
What this ex-head of RAW, who was also one of the IB’s senior-most officers (he also had a position in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s PMO) has written is astonishing.
He quotes the spy and acclaimed writer John le Carre as saying: “If you are looking for the psyche of a country, its secret service is not an unreasonable place to look”.
We will look at the wider implications of what Dulat has revealed next week....