A spymaster's memoir: India's missing security doctrine
How the Indian State’s refusal to engage with the adversary has proven counterproductive in Kashmir and elsewhere
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.
A.S. 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 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 ‘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 M.K. Narayanan, the former national security advisor who was his senior in the IB, as ‘the great Narayanan’ at three places.
There is a sketch of the current National Security Advisor, 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 ‘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, 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 militant groups is looked down upon 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 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; 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’. And 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 R&AW, 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.’
In concluding his chapter on intelligence agencies and their manner of functioning, Dulat writes that R&AW is ‘pretty good, better than the ISI’. He left it at that, without explaining in what way and it would be interesting to learn how he arrived at this conclusion.
To know whether something is good, bad or indifferent one must first ask what it is intended to do. What are the outcomes that are sought to be achieved? For the ISI, it has been two things. First to tie down its giant neighbour so that the military and economic asymmetry is neutralised. Second, that it controls its western neighbour through proxies. That is to say that primary national security objectives have been tasked in large measure to the intelligence agency.
If it is possible for one to be a dispassionate observer in this matter, it appears that both outcomes have been achieved. Indeed, achieved so comprehensively that they have managed to get to the minds of the adversary and switch off his thinking, as Dulat’s book reveals.
To draw a comparison, we must first know the outcomes R&AW seeks to achieve. This is not clear because we have no national security doctrine or national security strategy. A defence planning committee under the current NSA Ajit Doval was tasked five years ago to write up the doctrine and strategy, but it has not done it till now.
While we have not defined what the threat is in a doctrine, we know who the enemy is by instinct. Addressing his first combined commanders’ conference in October 2014, the PM said ‘the threats may be known, but the enemy (terrorism) may be invisible’. His NSA has spoken of, though not written about, something referred to as the Doval Doctrine. It also identifies Pakistan as the national security threat and terrorism as the primary problem. His solution is to do to the enemy what the enemy does to you, though he does not reflect on what that might mean in the long term.
To be clear, this focus on terrorism is not just about the current government. Going back to 1990, the Indian State determined that Kashmir was where its national security strategy would be centred. The army raised a unit called Rashtriya Rifles, which would focus on counter-insurgency rather than on war. The Line of Control and bits of the international border were fenced off in a defensive act.
The intelligence agencies would be focused on counter-terrorism. As head of R&AW, Dulat refused to let go of the Kashmir portfolio he held in the Intelligence Bureau. Why the agency tasked with external intelligence (spying on other nations) was intruding into the space of the agency working on internal security is not explained. But it doesn’t have to be. For the entire Indian State apparatus, Kashmir and Pakistan were the twin obsessions.
Spies are useless if they fraternise only with their own. We learn of the enemy only by being in its midst. But India’s governments, for 30 years, have followed the opposite path, sliding into this posture by default. New Delhi has only seen things in black and white, which does not work in Kashmir
This has been rudely taken apart by happenings on the eastern front. Till the clash in Galwan in June 2020, out of India’s 38 divisions only 12 faced China while the rest were ranged against Pakistan. Today, 16 face China with more on the way. We have been yanked into a military posture that is conventional again. India has been compelled to do this against its will though there is of course no media uproar over why we were wasting time obsessing over the wrong thing.
For decades, instinctively and in a sort of primitive manner, India showed laal ankh to Pakistan. Years of refusal to engage with either the insurgents or the separatists mean that we no longer have a meaningful intelligence game in Kashmir. And of course, we have no agency to act either, except through force.
It is disappointing that this is how a democracy and a modern State responded, but it is not surprising. Obsessing over something but also refusing to deal with it is a strange paradox, though understandable if one is familiar with the Indian psyche as it has evolved on the communal question.
Refusal to hire minorities and especially Muslims has likely also affected counter-intelligence and espionage and operations capabilities. How many individuals in R&AW and IB have knowledge of Urdu and Pashto (or Mandarin)? It would be interesting to know.
Dulat’s book tells us that our intelligence agencies followed military’s approach. In the absence of defined threats and a doctrine, the system fell into a sort of sleepwalk mode. The political establishment and the media enthusiastically barked up the wrong tree.
Building intelligence capabilities now to counter our primary threat, China, will not be easy. We will need to write the doctrine and the strategy and that will not be easy for a government that prefers certitude over doubt. It will require, above all, the nation to be weaned off the ideas that the problem is terrorism and the adversary is Pakistan, as well as the belief that the current policy in Kashmir is meaningful or sustainable. None of this is, of course, going to happen.
For this reason, we will bumble along. The light that Dulat shines on the state of affairs is at once bright and illuminating and also very depressing and scary.