Review: A Life in the Shadows by AS Dulat
The former head of the Intelligence Bureau and the RA&W writes about his childhood, his years as a young intelligence officer, Kashmir, and more
Former spymasters aren’t given to writing about their lives so AS Dulat’s memoir takes its place on a bookshelf with not too many volumes on it. Born in pre-Partition Sialkot, where his father Shamsher Singh Dulat was posted as a sessions judge, Dulat recounts the story of his life with remarkable honesty, wit and verve. His father, a man of few words, bundled off young Amarjeet to Bishop Cotton School in 1951. Later, while a student at Punjab University in Chandigarh, he met his wife Paran, who, he writes, has proved to be the strongest pillar of his life. In 1965, he joined the Intelligence Bureau, beginning a career in “the wilderness of mirrors”, a term borrowed from the legendary CIA chief of counter intelligence James Jesus Angleton.
Working on the desk as an analyst for four years at the headquarters in New Delhi, Dulat shared a room for two years with MK Narayanan, who went on to become the National Security Adviser of India. Dulat would receive source reports and analyze them for further course of action in the bureau. He recounts that, in the early years of his career, he knew nothing about counter intelligence, which requires looking for foreign spies within the country. Later, he would formulate what came to be called the “Dulat Model”, which believes in the importance of dialogue.
Some of the most interesting parts of the book are to do with Kashmir where the author was posted in 1988, a few months after militancy had rendered Srinagar and its surroundings almost unlivable. “More than any other place, it has been Kashmir that taught me the real game of intelligence,” says Dulat. Nobody wanted to be in Kashmir that winter. People ran away as bombs exploded in the streets. And then the IB faced a crushing blow in December 1989 when Home Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter Rubaiya was kidnapped by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.
One of the most evocative parts of the book recollects Dulat’s conversation with his officers when they approached him demanding that they talk.
“Come outside,” I told them, “and we can talk.”
As soon as we were outside, a babel of pleas broke out.
“We can’t stay here anymore… Everyone is leaving, why can’t we?”
“We can’t leave,” I remember telling them. “In our job, we cannot leave. I am here, and as long as I am here, you will have to be here too.”
The panic and threat perception prevalent in Kashmir has been lucidly articulated and it is in the context of this fear that Dulat formulated one the most remarkable conclusions of his tenure there: “The first and the most brutal lesson — which became a guiding principle in my own methodology as a spook — that Kashmir taught me was that gun is the most counterproductive means to an end.” His methods of dealing with Pakistan and its agents apparently differ from those now in use. “The biggest feather in your cap, as an Indian Intelligence agency, would be if you can turn around someone working for Pakistan to work for you,” he says.
He has interesting things to say about the response of ordinary Kashmiris to the effective nullification of article 370. The boys he speaks to want neither azadi nor Pakistan and the general reaction to the government’s muscular policy has been increased radicalisation, all of which he calls a “failure of our policies in Kashmir.”
Another section entitled A Handful of Greats deals with the personalities who have had an impact on his life. These include the highly decorated police officer Ashwini Kumar, Prince Charles of Wales and Margaret Thatcher. “...underneath the official veneer of their positions of power, they were rather charmingly human,” he says. Dulat’s travels as part of the security detail of President Giani Zial Singh are also richly described. It was on one such international trip in 1984 that the president’s entourage heard about Indira Gandhi’s assassination and had to return home immediately.
An entire chapter deals with Dr Farooq Abdullah. “Not for nothing have I always considered Farooq to be one of the most intelligent politicians in the country. He is, to my mind, the tallest leader – certainly the tallest Muslim leader – that India has right now. There is no one who has been more closely entwined at the heart of Kashmiri politics than Doctor Sahib,” he writes. He describes his last meeting with Farooq Abdullah at his Gupkar road residence in early 2020: “Farooq was sitting by himself in his study, a bank of telephones on one side of him and an open Quran on the other... It was the first time I was seeing Farooq after his detention. I noticed that he didn’t let the phone ring more than once and he was eager to talk to whoever was calling. That’s what loneliness does.”
AS Dulat’s memoir is a highly readable work that includes interesting anecdotes about his personal life. From his Partition-bloodied childhood in Lahore and New Delhi to his early years as a young intelligence officer and beyond, this is a fascinating story of a life richly lived and insightfully observed.
Saleem Rashid Shah is an independent book critic. He lives in New Delhi
The views expressed are personal