Revelations of a Secret Agent

  • Publish Date: Jan 19 2016 11:22AM
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  • Updated Date: Feb 17 2016 5:06PM
Revelations of a Secret Agent

Espionage is probably not the “second oldest profession” (as it has often been called), but it is certainly as old as the state itself. Indeed, ancient kingdoms and empires engaged in espionage to gain dominance in the world and as part of their internal dominance strategy to ensure the preservation of their regimes. From its mundane, functional tradecraft of collecting, analyzing and circulating critical and strategic information to the high intrigue of clandestine and covert operations, espionage has been an intrinsic component of statecraft throughout history.

While essential to the state in times of peace, the work of spies has perhaps been most crucial for statecraft in times of war and conflict – whether defending against attacks, suppressing revolts, pursuing conquests or engaging in humanitarian interventions. In his classic handbook The Art of War, the fifth-century-B.C. Chinese strategist Sun-tzu emphasized the importance of intelligence to the state, famously writing that “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Towards the end of his classic handbook, Sun-tzu advises the state to: “Be subtle! Be subtle! And use your spies for every kind of business.”

Former Indian spymaster Amarjit Singh Dulat reveals in his just published memoir, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, how since 1947 the Government of India has made more than abundant use of spies like him “for every kind of business” deemed necessary in its perpetual exercise at managing Kashmir’s ever-restive politics. And as he makes amply clear, this reliance on spies (and the more cynical methods in their arsenal) only exponentially increased in the Indian state’s desperation to counter the popular uprising for independence that erupted in Kashmir in 1989.

There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mr. Dulat has a thing or two to say about how the Indian state has handled Kashmir over the years. He has been a veteran of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which Dulat admits has earned “a sinister reputation in the Kashmiri mind. Part of it because since Independence, the IB had basically been running Kashmir, advising the home ministry and reporting directly to the prime minister on whatever happened there.” Soon after serving as the head of the IB station in Srinagar from 1988 to 1990, Dulat was put in charge of the IB’s Kashmir Operations Group in Delhi where “he did nothing but Kashmir” until being made chief of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) in 1999. He finally worked in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), “monitoring, managing and directing” the Vajpayee government’s initiatives on Kashmir until 2004. Indeed, Dulat’s experience has been unique given the overlap he has had serving in both the domestic and external intelligence services and within India’s highest office of political decision-making.

This fact – that he has been an insider to India’s dealings on Kashmir from multiple institutional as well as political vantage points – is perhaps where Dulat’s book disappoints most of all.  It is by no means an analytical book about Jammu & Kashmir. No attempt is made to offer a strategic or structural understanding of Kashmir’s contemporary history or to diagnose the roots of Kashmiri political discontent and the unrest that continues to grip Kashmir. On the analytical front, Dulat’s book disappoints very early on, in the introduction itself. He fails to offer even a passing retrospective analysis of the political events and factors that led to the popular uprising and outbreak of full-blown armed insurgency in Kashmir, which began while he was posted there as the IB’s eyes and ears. On this critical period preceding that dramatic turn of events, Dulat merely offers a sigh of nostalgia: “It all seemed like a picnic. Kashmir was at its glorious best. Soon I would see it at its worst. The first report of serious concern I got a month into my tenure . . . There was a lot of going-to-coming-from Pakistan, and for someone new in the Valley like me, who was tasked basically to keep Farooq Abdullah in good humour, it was bewildering.” From what he has written in his chronicle, it appears that Kashmir continues to bewilder the author.

Instead of a serious professional work, the book (co-authored with journalist Aditya Sinha) is the rambling narration of a retired spy who, having perhaps realized that official retirement is here to stay, comes out of the shadows to claim his final bragging rights. First and foremost, Dulat prides himself on having talked “to anyone and everyone in Kashmir”. Like a Victorian era hunter displaying his taxidermy trophies mounted on the wall, Dulat seeks to exhibit to the reader the broad network of contacts (i.e. assets) and “friends” (i.e. targets) that he developed in Kashmir. He names name after name, ridicules and reminisces about how these relationships were exploited and how people were manipulated like pawns to achieve the operational objectives he was tasked with in the service of India’s “national interest”. The running theme of the book is the author’s claim and anecdotal account about how, for the right price or with the right inducement, almost “anyone and everyone” in Kashmir (from mainstream politicians to separatist and militant leaders) is basically up for grabs. Quite a work of nostalgia, indeed!

Both in Kashmir and Delhi, the emerging criticism of Dulat’s controversial book is that it should never have been written in the first place. In selectively leaking his version of behind-the-scenes dialogue between New Delhi and numerous Kashmiri leaders, Dulat stands accused of having widened and cemented the trust deficit in all directions in Kashmir and between Srinagar and Delhi, causing great harm to the cause of peace. Some critics have gone as far as to say that, in less than 350 pages, Dulat has completely obliterated any imaginable prospect of a peace process (already deadlocked and derailed) for the forseeable future. The question being: who in Kashmir will be willing to talk to New Delhi after seeing one of its envoys go about discrediting (and possibly endangering) every person who was ever willing to explore political negotiations with India? No answer there.

The impact on Kashmir’s impasse and the question of shutting doors on the elusive peace process aside, it’s safe to say that Dulat’s book has disqualified him from any future peace gigs in Kashmir. His future visits to Royal Springs will just have to be golf for golf’s sake. What Dulat has achieved for himself is a guarantee of footnote mentions in the articles and books that will undoubtedly continue to be written about the Kashmir Conflict and India’s failed policies and peacemaking in Kashmir. He has provided much grist to the mill and it is quite likely that, instead of any claimed tactical feats in Kashmir, Dulat will lastly be remembered as the Indian spy chief who “talked and talked and talked” too much, finally penning a controversial memoir on Kashmir. And in regards to the controversies, Dulat couldn’t be doing better these days. The pre-release curtain raisers, relaying tidbits of the book’s intriguing disclosures in the media, have succeeded at gaining the intended attention grab. The book is selling.

Nonetheless, serious questions have been raised contesting the authenticity of Dulat’s book, which includes many sensational (and slanderous) claims about contemporary events and the various actors in Kashmir. Rather than disclosures, most of what Dulat has written about his subjects could be categorized as the passing of opinion, thinly veiled insults, and mock. It’s all quite petty. While he has talked about the state using corruption to co-opt people in Kashmir, he hasn’t gone in to the specifics. He’s also talked of a few personal favors that he claims have been done for various people. In some cases, his “disclosures” are a listing out of his meeting diary (claims about who he met and how many times) or they are a mere re-telling of street gossip or echoing of some of the more nonsensical conspiracy theories that have occupied the minds of the professionally paranoid spooks in Delhi. It is expected (rather hoped) that many of the Kashmiris who have been named and defamed will be coming forward soon to correct Dulat’s account of them. As a matter of public record – not to mention accountability – that certainly is going to be necessary.

However, when that happens, don’t expect Mr. Dulat to ever come back with any defenses to substantiate his claims. He doesn’t feel a need to. The ex-spy stands by the contents of his book, which he says is “nearest to the truth” even while confessing that “some of what I write may be contested.” He has already tendered his pre-emptive apology for the book if it “has hurt somebody” and, financially speaking, he stands to gain from any controversy that arises regarding the truthfulness of the book (i.e. more controversy, more sales). Dulat doesn’t care much for facts anyway – in his book, he professes a great preference for rumor over fact. In his opinion regarding the sources of intelligence, rumor intelligence (RUMINT) is most reliable. Corroborating this “brainwave” of his, Dulat quotes a Kashmiri journalist who he claims once told him: “whether facts are true or not, rumours are generally true in Kashmir.” Irrespective of what this suggests about the professional rigor of India’s spies (and also some Kashmiri journalists), it should not shock if it is eventually discovered that Dulat has been highly selective with his facts or if he has indulged in embellishment while narrating his sordid tale. Rather it should be expected of spies like him, who operate from the shadows, dealing in the currency of half-truths, insinuations and lies. As his book plainly shows, Dulat is a very deliberate man who knows the operational game of muckraking all too well. In Dulat’s case, it’s more than fair to assume that old habits would die hard.

Beyond the credibility of the book, many people in Srinagar and Delhi are questioning Dulat’s motives for writing such a controversial book on Kashmir. If we take Dulat’s word for it, then “the whole purpose of the book is to arouse interest in Kashmir”. His intentions could perhaps be no more ulterior than wanting to sell a few books. His critics have offered a number of other theories about his possible motives: that the book is personal boast at the expense of Indian “national interest”; that it is payback for a royal ignore now from two successive dispensations in New Delhi; that it is his final, parting shot at Kashmir aimed at harassing, demoralizing, discrediting or cutting down to size Kashmir’s leadership (bar none); or, that Dulat is “still on the job” and that the book is part of an ill-conceived psychological operation to use disinformation on a wide scale (amplified by media buzz and social media) to further sow confusion, distrust and division across Kashmir’s political landscape.

Whether it be all of the above or none of the above, whatever his motives are – at least one thing is clear about Dulat: he has discarded Sun-tzu’s sage advice to the state regarding spy work, i.e. “Be subtle! Be Subtle!” He has been anything but subtle in his book and, in doing so; he has not only badly exposed himself and India’s intelligence agencies but has provided a rare window into Indian statecraft and its approach to handling Kashmir. It is for these reasons that Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years is certainly a must read.

Dulat’s book raises serious questions about the functioning of India’s intelligence. For long, India’s intelligence infrastructure has been in need of a good dose of transparency and public accountability. It continues to suffer from a lack of parliamentary oversight and real questions of constitutionality also exist – especially in the case of the IB, whose only legal framework is an order passed by the British Raj in 1887. In addition to the structural problems, if Dulat’s book were any indication of what has been going on behind the scenes, it would seem that many things are seriously awry. To begin with, the accuracy, depth of ideas and quality of analysis presented in the book give rise to questions about the overall effectiveness of India’s intelligence services and possibilities for unprofessional analysis and implementation. It raises doubts about whether or not India’s elected political leadership has been (or can be) misled and misguided by its all-powerful spooks about critical situations and policy issues like Kashmir. The book also raises questions about the vested interests, biases, mindset, assumptions, strategic culture, and moral threshold levels that India’s intelligence operate under. These are not just important questions for India to grapple with as a democracy but are also central questions for the prospects of peace, democracy and justice in Kashmir, since India’s Kashmir policy-making continues to be the monopoly of its intelligence agencies.

Coming from an Indian spymaster, Dulat’s book and what it reveals about his partialities, mindset and understanding gives one a sense about those who have been running India’s intelligence operations in Kashmir. For starters, Dulat gladly recites his own personal likes and dislikes among all hues of Kashmiri politicians. He shares his pick regarding who in Kashmir he thinks New Delhi should “test” for trustworthiness and who it should consider as potentially eligible candidates for “getting to the top” or being “big players” in future rounds of Kashmir’s power game. Implicit in this is the fact that New Delhi micromanages Kashmir’s electoral politics and decides who should or should not get elected as Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir. Regarding the selection criteria for who should rule, Dulat presents Farooq Abdullah as the benchmark to judge all others by.