Sunday, February 25, 2024

An Insider’s Telling Tale

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The former R&AW chief’s book provides an insight into how governments actually function and how they deal with insurgencies

By Ajith Pillai

This is not the first time that those who served in Indian intelligence have penned their memoirs. But what sets AS Dulat’s Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years apart is that it is written with a reporter’s instinct of presenting recent history in a “this is how I saw the story unfold” format. But in doing so, the writer has not excluded the human element and drama from the narrative. This makes the book readable, entertaining and credible. In fact, so much so that for a moment the reader may even forget that the ex-spook (Dulat served with the IB, headed R&AW and was in the PMO as part of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Kashmir peace initiative) has held back certain uncomfortable facts from his eyewitness account of what transpired since terrorism reared its head in the Kashmir Valley in 1988.

For instance, those who have covered Kashmir will note that the shocking human rights violations that were often brushed off as collateral damage inflicted on innocents in the fight against insurgency finds no mention in the book. Neither does it offer any insight on the prolonged deployment of the army and paramilitary in the Valley and its fallout on the civilian population. That said, it needs to be pointed out that the reader should not mistake Dulat’s narrative to be a comprehensive history of the period covered by the book. This is a frank, personal and emotive account of a journey during which the author saw and observed much. In fact, distilling those memories into an engaging tale is the charm of the book.

Dulat’s ringside view of events has already ruffled several feathers. There are many who are upset that he has written what he has. The Abdullahs are cut up. The PDP is also unhappy. There have also been discussions on TV on whether the writer should have pointed out strategy flaws in the handling of the Kandahar hijack. Was he making state secrets public when he “revealed” that insurgents willing to come over-ground were lured by the government with money and other sops? And should he have shared information about the intrigue, fears, apprehensions, priorities and suspicions that influenced our political leadership?


Much of what has found its way into the book is not new for those who have followed events closely in Kashmir or have an understanding of how governments and intelligence agencies function. Perhaps, it’s the way Dulat has put it that has made many see red. Here is a sampling of his candid observations: “Using money to win people over is perhaps the most effective tool at the disposal of intelligence officers not just in Kashmir, and not just in the subcontinent, but all over the world. Most agents are paid agents. If in Kashmir, for instance, you find someone who is working for the ISI, you just offer a lot more money than it does. Perhaps he will be afraid of getting killed by the ISI but at the very least you have neutralised him. Corrupting a person by giving him money is not only a lot more ethical than killing him, but a lot smarter in the long run. And no one has come up with a better way of dealing with Kashmir. Money in Kashmir goes back a long, long way.”

Such frank admissions and the human element which peppers the narrative makes Dulat’s book a gripping read. For instance, he recalls how he received a surprise call from Namrata, Vajpayee’s adopted daughter, a week after he joined the PMO. “Welcome to the family,” she said, adding: “Now that you are here, we’re reassured. Please look after the two old men. They’re your responsibility.” The reference was to the 76-year-old Vajpayee and Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to the PM and NSA, who was four years his junior. Again Dulat’s description of the all powerful Brajesh Mishra, who “most senior ministers in the government did not see eye to eye with” including LK Advani and Jaswant Singh, is something most journalists missed or dared not write about. “He was not a social namby-pamby drinker. He drank everywhere and drank only Scotch. Also, he would talk about how, when he went to New York, the first thing he wanted to do was go and listen to some jazz. He loved jazz and often spoke of the jazz in New York….At the same time, however, you would never see him in anything but a safari suit …,” he writes. Dulat was obviously unimpressed by Mishra’s dress sense!

Buy this book because it gives you an insight into government functioning and how it dealt with separatists as well as political parties in insurgency-bound Kashmir. And in between all the serious business, there are delightful nuggets that have great entertainment value. This is an insider’s story that is at times unbelievable, yet true. For instance, who would have thought that separatists as well as militants were in constant touch with the government and their demands and creature comforts were often met by the state. If Dulat had tweaked it appropriately, he could have passed his story off as a political thriller.

But as the old saying goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

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