Former RAW chief reflects on India’s secret service and its failings

Spies are useless if they do not or cannot engage with the ‘enemy’ but for the past three decades, writes Dulat, Indian Intelligence agencies have done just the opposite

(Left to Right) M.K. Narayanan, Former National Security Adviser of India; Ajit Doval, Current National Security Adviser of India; A Life in the Shadows by AS Dulat
(Left to Right) M.K. Narayanan, Former National Security Adviser of India; Ajit Doval, Current National Security Adviser of India; A Life in the Shadows by AS Dulat
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Aakar Patel

India’s spies and spymasters do not usually write their memoirs. This is in keeping with bureaucrats, judges, ministers and such like elsewhere in the subcontinent who, when they do write, usually put out works exculpating their actions while condemning their circumstances or their peers.

AS Dulat headed the Intelligence Bureau in 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 spy craft, 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 ‘deskwork 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 MK Narayanan, the former national security advisor 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 Smileys rather than the Bonds. His writing reveals 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 is now. ‘Today, counter-intelligence does not have the kind of importance’ because ‘counterterrorism 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 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 dialogue (with the 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 counterinsurgency 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; 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 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 head of RAW, who was also one of the IB’s senior most officers (he also had a position in the Vajpayee PMO) has written is astonishing. He quotes the spy and 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.

Views are personal

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