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Barbs, banter as former RAW and ISI chiefs meet at LSE

AS Dulat and Ehsan-ul-Haq, who served as head of the RAW and ISI respectively in the early 2000s, came together at a seminar in the LSE that was marked by much banter and barbs.

world Updated: Oct 07, 2017 19:58 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
AS Dulat, former RAW chief (left), LSE academic Mukulika Banerjee (centre) and Ehsan-ul-Haq, former ISI chief (right), in London on October 6, 2017.
AS Dulat, former RAW chief (left), LSE academic Mukulika Banerjee (centre) and Ehsan-ul-Haq, former ISI chief (right), in London on October 6, 2017.(HT Photo)

What happens when two former chiefs of intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan meet in London – not covertly but openly in the company of diplomats, students and current operatives in the academic environs of the London School of Economics?

AS Dulat, the former head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Ehsan-ul-Haq, former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), retired long ago but the unique event on Friday night was marked by much banter and barbs, delighting the packed audience that was left wanting more.

Lost in the air was the theme of the seminar – “Can intelligence services do good?” – when “Ehsan-sab” and “Boss”, as Dulat called him, focussed on Jammu and Kashmir and terrorism in his opening remarks, setting the stage for the two issues that dominated the event.

Dulat and Ehsan, who served in their respective offices in the early 2000s, were key players in sensitive issues, often taking adversarial postures and actions, but at LSE they could not agree more with each other on Jammu and Kashmir, terrorism and peace talks.

Ehsan dwelt on what he called the “mass uprising in Jammu and Kashmir since July last year”, following the death of jihadi commander Burhan Wani, and harped on the need to resume the stalled dialogue between the two countries. Dulat agreed with him that India had committed “mistakes” and created “a mess” in the state.

Dulat also agreed that talks should be resumed between the two sides, since war is not an option and dialogue is the only way out. India, he said, needs to make an exception and talk along with terrorism (New Delhi has ruled out parleys until Pakistan-backed terrorism is stopped).

The former RAW chief said: “The magic of it all, as Ehsan-sab said, is mainstreaming and also democracy. The mistakes that we are making (in Jammu and Kashmir), apart from the mess that we have created, still not talking to people, high time we started talking to people…We need to deal with Kashmir in a more civilised manner. 

“These red lines about Hurriyat…we have got it absolutely wrong because the whole idea of talking to the Hurriyat is to mainstream them, get them into the democratic process…The PDP-BJP coalition was expected to bring Jammu and Srinagar closer, but it has taken them further apart because Kashmiris have never forgiven the PDP for bringing the RSS into the (Kashmir) valley.

“In the BJP’s mind, the RSS may have come into the valley but the RSS is not going to achieve anything there,” he added. 

A flyer for the seminar on the theme “Can intelligence services do good?” that was held at the London School of Economics on October 6, 2017. (HT Photo)

Another point of agreement between the two former spooks was the need for cooperation between Indian and Pakistan intelligence agencies.

Dulat, an old Kashmir hand who headed India’s external intelligence agency during 1999-2000, said there were instances when interaction between RAW and ISI had “produced more than the desired results”, and Ehsan had been witness to at least one such major result.

Amid knowing guffaws and smiles, Dulat chided Ehsan and reminded him of his “relationship” with his Indian counterpart, of India tipping off Pakistan about a potential threat to the life of former president Pervez Musharraf, and of covert talks defusing a major flashpoint in the early 2000s. 

Dulat said: “He (Ehsan) is still using the ploy of plausible deniability and being rather modest about his relationship which was well known. And from all that I know it was a great relationship that produced results. I think Sir, you recall the 2003 ceasefire took place because of you and your friend.”

The remarks evoked laughter from Ehsan. 

Dulat added, “And if I can go beyond, your friend also tipped you with intelligence which may have saved Gen Musharraf’s life. And I think that is something that even Gen Musharraf in a way acknowledges. So I don’t think we need to deny that. It is a feather in your cap, Sir, and a feather in your friend’s cap.”

Ehsan was made the head of the ISI in October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the US, and remained in the post for three years. His elevation was part of a reshuffle carried out by Musharraf to purge the military and intelligence agencies of officers who were considered sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In early 2004, media reports had suggested that a tip-off from then RAW chief CD Sahay to Ehsan had helped thwart an attempt on the life of Musharraf, who had survived two assassination attempts in December 2003. At the time, Islamabad had strongly denied receiving any tip-off from India.

According to Ehsan, a debate was on in Pakistan about deradicalising and mainstreaming “these entities which have been involved in extremist and militant activities”. A consensus is needed on this but such attempts, he said, “should be music to India’s ears”.

The development of democracy in Pakistan, he said, had a difficult history but he felt encouraged by events of the past decade. After the 2008 general election, there was the first peaceful transition from one elected government to another.

There are growing demands for better democracy, governance and accountability, and not to support military intervention, Ehsan said.