Biryani With Locals: What Ajit Doval's Visuals From Kashmir Tell Us

Doval seems to be acting as one of the new faces of the second Modi government. In doing so, he appears as little more than a cog in the Centre's publicity wheel.

New Delhi: Sometime in 2013, journalists from nearly two dozen countries watched a media presentation by the Israel government’s foreign ministry in Jerusalem.

We were shown through that presentation how ministry officials and individuals on government payroll at times pose as common Israelis on social media. This was done, they said, to pursue an outreach model of engagement with common Palestinians, which would in turn help form favourable opinions about Israel and Israelis. All of this would go towards ‘blunting’ anti-Israeli feelings among common Arabs.

In 2013, this was a novel idea. Not anymore.

Watching the video clip released on August 7 featuring national security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, one is reminded of the 2013 presentation and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s longstanding fondness for the Zionist model of nationhood. In the clip, Doval is seen breaking bread with a handful of people – they might or might not be villagers, we don’t know – purportedly in south Kashmir, while explaining to them in chaste Urdu that the Narendra Modi government’s recent decision on Jammu and Kashmir is good for “the safety and prosperity of locals and (their) kids”.

Aap bilkul mutmayeen rahiye. Aapki hifazat, aapki salamati, yahi hum log chahte hain, ki yahan kis tarah se khushaali ho, aapke bachhe sukun se rahe, duniya mein apna naam bana sake (You can relax and rest assured that your protection and well-being is what we want; [along with] how to bring about prosperity, how to ensure your children live in peace, and are able to make their name in the world),” he was heard saying.

Doval was eating what seemed like biryani, served from an aluminium pot. Laying out New Delhi’s apparent priorities, Doval is also heard saying, “Aur woh apne mazhab Islam ki hifazat kar sake (and they can protect Islam, their religion).”

The video, fast becoming the subject of social media forwards, was shared through the news agency ANI. Social media handles which claim to support the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, along with Ajit Doval’s public page on Facebook, have also shared it. Last checked, it had 78,000 views on his page, with 1.7K shares and 337 comments, most of which bestowed the Uttarakhand-born bureaucrat with compliments like “The Great Maratha”.

The video, along with other visuals of Doval interacting with security force personnel in the Valley, including at Shopian which is considered to be the hotbed of militancy, were then picked up by all media houses to highlight the supposed “calm” and “normalcy” that is prevailing in Kashmir despite the government’s tumultuous announcements withdrawing not just special status for J&K but its statehood too.

Though both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah have so far stayed away from sharing via their social media handles what is clearly an integral part of a carefully crafted plan to manage the optics of the situation in the state, the needful was done by BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav.

Doval’s son, Shaurya, leads Madhav’s think-tank, India Foundation.

Also read: Ground Report | In Kashmir, Clampdown on Movement and Communication Fuels Anxieties

A senior New Delhi-based journalist who requested not to be named, reacted sharply to the video. “After watching it, I couldn’t ignore Doval’s privilege as the NSA to organise a biryani-filled picnic in the market place of curfew-bound Shopian against shops with shutters down due to a statewide shutdown. Or was it a barakhana of sort meant for security personnel which Doval forwarded to Delhi’s friendly media as an outreach with common Kashmiris?” he asked.

Well-known political commentator Salil Tripathi dug in a bit deeper. “The Modi government produces a lot of material to reach out to people but has shown little by way of listening to or letting un-vetted ordinary citizens speak. This shows a desire to control communication — not only what’s said but also what others can’t say, unless scripted. Starting with Modi, his ministers too have followed that cue. Doval’s surreal encounter with Kashmiri men nodding their heads vigorously is part of that pattern – where the camera angle is in ‘portrait’ and not ‘landscape’ format, which would have permitted us to see how many security officials were guarding the encounter, or if there were any ordinary folks looking on,” Tripathi added.

He said it reminded him of veteran press photographer S. Paul’s famous shot the day the Emergency was declared.

“It showed a bunch of kids going to school, surrounded by security personnel on the sidewalk. The cops weren’t guarding the kids but the idea was chilling. The genius of a caption said: ‘The situation was normal in the capital’, Delhi. That’s what the Doval clip also conveys – the situation is ‘normal’ in Kashmir. So normal that for their own safety, Kashmiris aren’t allowed to use any mode of communication, their leaders are arrested, their assembly suspended, and centrally-appointed unelected officials have made the decision on their behalf, diminishing their status,” he added.

Taking off from where Tripathi pointed out, a Zee News report on Doval’s Kashmir outreach said the NSA was told “by locals in Shopian that people have for the first time realised that local politicians have always acted on selfish interests.” The same reason was also cited by Doval as justification for putting them under house arrest.

The videos also portrayed Doval as the man in complete charge of Kashmir. While previous NSAs have preferred to remain in the background and let political leaders in government take the limelight and hog TV footage, Doval appears as an exception.

“There is nothing wrong in it, as such. He wants to show us that he is leading from the front, unlike other NSAs,” said strategic affairs expert Manoj Joshi.

He, however, pointed out, “The subsequent photographs and the videos from Doval’s trip showed him interacting with security personnel. While the central forces were seen fully armed in those clips, the Jammu and Kashmir policemen were not.”

Joshi may have been hinting at recent news reports claiming that the Central government had disarmed the state police prior to announcing the decision to scrap Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir.

NSA Ajit Doval with the armed security forces and (right) with Jammu and Kashmir police, bearing no arms. Photo: Twitter/@ANI

Aside from utilising the power of social media to portray a friendly government, what Doval’s widely circulated videos also insinuate is a possible utilisation of a comparatively newer face to implement Modi 2.0’s landmark decisions.

While during the Modi 1.0, it was the prime minister himself who was the face of the decisions – be it demonetisation or the surgical strike against Pakistan, now home minister Shah is also as important an image, say political observers. On the Kashmir issue, Shah is the man of the moment in parliament. Modi has looked on.

Tripathi said, “Doval is indeed seen in the videos more as a party official and political appointee, rather than as a non-partisan senior official. He should know better, he probably knows better. Think also of the economic advisor (K. Subrammanian) seeing some divine justice in an action undertaken by the government of what is still nominally a secular republic. Doval’s performance is the new norm, not an aberration.”

He also pointed out the unique responsibility of journalists in such a situation. “The role of journalists becomes the same as amanuenses, of someone taking dictation, not someone who questions,” he added.