Book review: A rare, masterful glimpse into Indian statecraft

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 06, 2015 15:40 IST

Last year, soon after Narendra Modi was elected as Prime Minister, a senior independent journalist, Ved Pratap Vaidik, met the Laskar-e-Toiba supremo and alleged 26/11 mastermind, Hafeez Sayeed. This sparked widespread condemnation from segments of the political class as well as the media. Given Vaidik's close links with the BJP and those in government, it was not clear whether he was operating on his own as a journalist or whether he had been deputed by the government to reach out to Sayeed, in a manner that would allow the state to maintain 'plausible deniability'.

Many dismissed this as wild speculation and argued that there was little chance the government would engage with an 'enemy' like Sayeed. The issue faded soon after and we still do not quite know the full truth.

But engagement with adversaries is a part of the brief for intelligence agencies and the national security state- as a new book shows us. From dialogue with Hashim Qureshi who was involved in hijacking a domestic airline back in the early 70s and enabling him to return to India to wooing an imprisoned separatist like Shabir Shah to participate in elections in 1996; from co-opting a militant like Firdous Syed who was involved in kidnapping the first foreigners in Kashmir and successfully lobbying for his inclusion as a legislator in the assembly to doing a favour for the Hizbul chief Salahuddin by getting his son admitted in a medical college, India's intelligence agencies have done it all - even as the state has continued to project these very individuals as adversaries to be fought and defeated.

(FILES) In this picture taken December 27, 1999, A Taliban security official receives a paper on which the hijackers of Indian Airlines flight IC-814 have put their demands at Kandahar Airport. AFP photo

In a masterful account of his engagement with Kashmir over twenty five years, A S Dulat, a veteran of the spy trade – who was first in the Intelligence Bureau (IB); then headed Research and Analysis Wing (R&Aw) and worked in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s PMO – has, among other issues, written about the critical role of ‘engagement’, of ‘talking’, of ‘dialogue’ with all stakeholders in any political conflict.

The book, co-written with the senior journalist Aditya Sinha, extensively documents Dulat’s and the Indian state’s engagement with various shades of political opinion in Kashmir, from the mainstream outfits to the separatists and the militants.

He deals with the element of financing; the patronage mechanisms available with the state and how it uses it; he documents how the state even lets separatists decide the timing of their release if under arrest (for instance, in the case of Shah in the mid-90s); he writes about the multiple rounds of conversations he has had with all the actors even when there was little tangible outcome.

This may have been well-known in the valley and those who make it their business to watch the Kashmiri political process; it may come as no surprise to those who have followed the trajectory of the Indian state’s engagement with various rebel outfits in the Northeast; and it may have been written about in the past in journalistic accounts based on intelligence sources.

In fact, examples of engagement with 'enemies' stretches beyond borders. In 2002-2003, Nepal was in the middle of a brutal civil war. The Royal Nepalese Army, backed by the international community, was battling a radical Maoist insurgency. India had been the first country to call the Nepali Maoists ‘terrorists’; it officially backed the Nepal government in the civil war. Yet, as it was arming Nepali security forces, India’s intelligence apparatus had begun engaging the Maoists, first through Intelligence Bureau and then the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) officials.

Almost seven years, after the war had ended and the Maoists had become a part of the democratic process, I asked a former R&AW chief, who had been in the thick of Nepal operations if this did not indicate hypocrisy at best and deception at worst. He explained the approach, “We had links; we had communication. But that is the nature of intelligence organisations. We keep in touch with the enemy, and we establish channels so that if at any point, our policy-makers shift tracks, there is a pathway to implement it.”

The value of this book lies in the fact that disclosures about engagement of this nature have come from a former top-ranking official. The value lies in the fact that at a time that at a time when public discourse is often reduced to us and them, heroes and villains, black and white frameworks, ‘driven by a hyper-nationalistic media’ as the journalist Barkha Dutt put it on her show on the book, Dulat puts on record that reality is a lot more complex.

Conflicts are messy; neat linear theories do not quite explain it all; and examining such situations through the prism of only morality, giving one side the high ground; is futile. In this sense, those in government are, at times, more mature and open than many outside in the public sphere, who becomes the self-appointed advocates of the national security state.

The Indian state has learnt key skills over its decades of dealing with rebel movements. And this is why force is only one of the tools at its disposal. It engages; it coerces; it divides; it threatens; it frustrates the leadership and cadre; it exhausts; it corrupts; it lures and co-opts; it repeats the cycle; and it gives nothing. Dulat has been careful about not revealing operational details and this is not a ‘tell-all’, but his account gives us a good sense of how these tools are used. As a Kashmiri interlocutor told him, “You were sent to disrupt the (Kashmir) movement…in the friendliest possible manner.”

The fundamental premise of this multi-layered approach is that the state’s bleeding capacity is a lot higher; the state is far more resilient; its coercive apparatus is formidable; and it just has to ‘manage’ the situation. At the HT leadership summit last year, the National Security Advisor, A K Doval, gave a peek into this mindset - perhaps inadvertently - when he suggested that India's ability to take a lot of casualties had dented the impact of terrorism. India's size and population means that even if one part is rocked by violence, life continues as 'normal' in the rest of the country. The 'body bag' issue - where administrations have to pay a price for the death of US soldiers and citizens and is of great salience in American politics - has never become as live a political issue in India.

A neat solution is ideal, and Dulat himself has always taken the initiative to think out of the box to look for such solutions. But when no neat solutions exist, the choice is not, in Ashis Nandy’s evocative phrase, ‘between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos’.

Intelligence agencies in difficult conflict zones hope to achieve manageable chaos; they have to ensure that if there is instability, this instability remains controlled. Kashmir presents such a fundamental challenge for them precisely because the degree of control keeps slipping, given the multiple other actors around.

If laying out the complexity of a conflict, and giving us a glimpse into the Indian statecraft, is the first achievement of the Dulat-Sinha book, the second lies in revealing how policy is often formulated and implemented; the role of chance in shaping history; the interaction and discord between the different institutions of the state; and the dynamic between the political leadership and bureaucratic initiative.

Policies are often not made after deep introspection. Key policies emerge at moments of crisis, when the government is in damage-control mode. Individual impulse, casual conversations often have a far-reaching impact and unintended consequences. Dulat gives innumerable examples to show us this.

Vajpayee’s formulation of ‘insaniyat’ as the framework to deal with Kashmir came as an off the cuff response to a journalist who asked about the utility of dialogue within the constitutional framework. In the 90s, a young militant who was arrested revealed to Dulat that Abdul Majid Dar, a key Hizbul Mujahideen leader, may be willing to move back – Dulat could not do much since he was in IB and Dar was based in Pakistan, which was R&AW’s domain. The intense turf war between the two outfits is an open secret in Delhi – and Dulat saw it first-hand when he became the RAW chief and had to face hostility from within. But this also gave him a chance to take up Dar’s issue and facilitated his transfer. This, in turn, led to a ceasefire with the group and dialogue – it did not go far but it is instructive to remember how a set of events by chance led to a peace initiative.

Dulat ends his book with a set of ‘what if’ questions – what if Sheikh Abdullah had not been arrested in 1953; what if Farooq Abdullah had not been dismissed in 1984; what if a separatist leader like Shabir Shah had participated in the 1996 elections; what if Vajpayee had not lost power in 2004 and the peace initiative with Hurriyat continued?

More questions can be added to this set, based on Dulat’s own account. What if the 1987 elections were free and fair and not rigged – would individuals like Salahuddin and Yasin Malik ever joined the separatist ranks? What would have happened if India had not released militants to rescue Rubaiya Sayeed? What would have happened if the more moderate leaders of Hurriyat, like A G lone, not been killed?

But while these are fascinating questions, this is not a book of counter-factual history. It is an empirical account of what has happened in the past two and a half decades in Kashmir. Dulat has his soft spots – he appears very fond of Farooq Abdullah, for instance. It is striking that the issue of the cost of keeping the Indian state’s supremacy in the valley intact – the massive human rights violations at the hands of security agencies – barely figures in the narrative of someone who claims to have such deep empathy for Kashmiris.

In the focus on high-politics, the roots of the persisting alienation get neglected. Separatists may also well see this as a plot to discredit them and expose their dalliance with the government they oppose.

But none of this can take away from the fact that Dulat and Sinha have done great service by giving a rare glimpse into the working of the Indian state.

Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, A S Dulat with Aditya Sinha
Harper Collins
Rs 599

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