A spymaster speaks: Review of ‘A Life in the Shadows’ by A.S. Dulat

A.S. Dulat focusses on his relationship with Kashmiris and believes that a muscular policy does not move us closer to solving issues in the Valley.

Published : May 18, 2023 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

The one thread that runs through A.S. Dulat’s book is the passionate commitment of the author to the path of negotiation as opposed to confrontation.

The one thread that runs through A.S. Dulat’s book is the passionate commitment of the author to the path of negotiation as opposed to confrontation. | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

There is no contesting the fact that a spy’s life is lived in the shadows. This is perhaps why the word “shadow” or “shadows” is often found in the titles of books by or about spymasters. Some examples are Robert Gates’ book titled From the Shadows and Vappala Balachandran’s book on A.C.N. Nambiar titled A Life in Shadow. And now, Amarjit Singh Dulat’s memoir, A Life in the Shadows, has emerged into the glare of the limelight.

A Life in the Shadows: A Memoir
By A.S. Dulat
HarperCollins India
Pages: 264
Price: Rs.699

This book, which reads like a novel, is decidedly well-written. Dulat recounts how his bosses in the Intelligence Bureau were insistent on the quality of report-writing. He has obviously gained a great deal from their guidance. John le Carré, the ultimate spy turned spy fiction writer, says that he honed his writing skills under the eagle eyes of his bosses on the fifth floor of the MI5 headquarters and not at a university. Dulat mentions stalwarts like A.K. Dave who perfected his writing style. I can recall S.M. Warty performing a similar role in the Research and Analysis Wing of the Cabinet Secretariat.

A major part of the book is about the author’s relationship with Kashmir and Kashmiris, especially Farooq Abdullah. Dulat’s overall assessment is that the present muscular policy in Kashmir has not clicked so far, although he admits at places that things may have improved. He feels that elections could offer a way out and they should be conducted soon.

Dulat leaves no one in doubt about where he stands on Kashmir. “Not engaging makes no sense because our main aim since 1947 has been to mainstream Kashmir. That is not possible without engagement,” writes Dulat. He goes on to say rather plaintively, that over the last five years, he has seen a steady decline in that process.

Art of engagement

Dulat invokes Richard Helms, Efraim Halevy and Elizabeth Manningham-Buller, who led some of the world’s leading intelligence agencies, in support of his advocacy for dialogue and engagement in dealing with the enemy, especially terrorists and insurgents. He points out that engagement is the principle that is at the heart of Jonathan Powell’s classic, Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts.

It is in the context of Kashmir that an evaluation of the relative merits of Ajit K. Doval’s so-called “Doval doctrine” and what Satyapal Malik, a former J&K Governor, referred to as the “Dulat doctrine” becomes relevant. Doval evidently believes in the muscular approach, employed most noticeably in dealing with the Kashmir issue in recent years. Dulat clearly thinks that the muscular policy is not taking us closer to resolving the Kashmir issue, despite the prevalence of relative peace in recent times. He believes in talking to the enemy, the terrorist, the insurgent. I am not aware if the details of the “Doval doctrine” have been spelt out in the public domain, but the general outline is clear enough. Adoption of an “offensive defence” approach to our enemies, especially Pakistan, seems to be at the core of the Doval doctrine. The precept that offence is the best form of defence may hold true in a game of football. However, there is a view that in geopolitics it could be counterproductive. The history of war is replete with leaders who tried to put this theory into practice and paid dearly for it. Conversely, it could be argued that in the Second World War, it was Winston Churchill’s offensive-defence strategy that paid dividends as compared to Neville Chamberlain’s conciliatory approach. One needs to think about this in some detail.

Laldenga Affair

The Laldenga affair, to which reference has been made in the book, brings to light Doval’s ability to reach out to the adversary. There are many claimants to the success of the endeavour to win over Laldenga, but there seems to be little doubt that Doval had a role to play. The moral of the story is that at least some of the successes attributed to Doval came about because he was not averse to pursuing the “Dulat doctrine” when the situation warranted.

An engaging aspect of this book, which holds good for any creation from someone like Dulat who has traversed the corridors of power for so long, is the insight it provides into the lives and times of personalities who played a role in contemporary history. Dulat does not hide his admiration for M.K. Narayanan, who was described by B.N. Mullik, the Mahaguru of Intelligence in independent India, as “by far the greatest intelligence officer in Asia”.

Dulat goes on to grade R.N. Kao and M.K. Narayanan as “Indian espionage’s absolute best”. An extremely significant lesson that Dulat learnt from Narayanan is that it is always best to wait and mull over all aspects before taking a decision; intelligence is basically a waiting game and “no one has played that game better than Narayanan”. Other experts from the strategic community, especially those who are “consumers”, may hasten to point out that it could be disastrous to wait too long; the art, they would argue, lies in sharing intelligence in real time, after testing it expeditiously for reliability. This is the eternal dilemma faced by those in the business of intelligence—to share or not to share?

The one thread that runs through the entire book is the passionate commitment of the author to the path of negotiation as opposed to confrontation. He refers to Martti Ahtisaari, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his contribution to conflict resolution in Nambia, Kosovo and Aceh. Yes, what Ahtisaari and Sergio Vieira de Mello (who was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad) achieved through talking and talking, does strengthen the case for negotiations in resolving conflicts and disputes. One wishes Dulat had also made a reference to the efforts of Ambassador Satinder Lambah, who moved into the Prime Minister’s Office just as the author was leaving it. Meeting the adversary quietly and unobtrusively, away from the media limelight, in obscure locations around the world, Lambah nearly achieved the impossible—bringing India and Pakistan to break bread together in Kashmir.

A secret history

A memoir such as this throws up many questions—do books by former espionage officers, especially spy chiefs, serve any useful purpose? There are many who feel that they do, by way of contribution to the documentation of recent history by those who played a role in shaping it. But intelligence officers are not the only ones who help shape events. The decision-makers are the political masters who are aided by bureaucrats and diplomats, apart from defence and intelligence officers. All of them can help in documenting history. What is so special, then, about intelligence officials? Well, the general belief is that intelligence officials, especially spy chiefs, are privy to more secrets than others in government. But then, they are also bound by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. Moreover, recent government instructions restrict the release of details relating to national security obtained during the course of people’s work, even if it does not amount to violation of the provisions of the Official Secrets Act. Whether such restrictions have an impact on the study of contemporary history is an obvious question.

The other useful contribution that a former spy chief’s book could make is to generate a discussion about the national security architecture of the country. Dulat mentions that there have always been tensions between the National Security Adviser (NSA) and the Union Home Minister, whether it was Brijesh Mishra and L.K. Advani, or M.K. Narayanan and P. Chidambaram, or, at present, Ajit Doval and Amit Shah. Is such discord attributable to an inherent defect in the national security structure of our country at the apex level as it has evolved over the years? As far as I am aware, the original concept was that the NSA, as convener of the National Security Council (NSC), had the role of coordinating, on behalf of the Prime Minister, the working of all ministries in dealing with issues relating to national security. It would be worthwhile examining whether a way can be found to eliminate inter-ministerial tensions that are bound to arise in any effort at coordination. By now, we have a sufficient number of former NSAs and former Cabinet Ministers who have been NSC members. All of them can contribute to a discussion on this point, which can only serve to improve the existing national security architecture.

A Life in the Shadows covers a whole lot of other issues that are of immense interest to the intelligence professional, apart from the general reader. The author’s insights into talent-spotting, the relative advantages of technical intelligence and human intelligence, the handling of agents, surveillance, and above all, the use of interrogation as a weapon of intelligence, coming as they do from a veteran who has led from the front, are worthy of note to those who strive unceasingly from deep in the shadows to protect our people and our patrimony—this beloved nation of ours.

Hormis Tharakan is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing.

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