In an interview to The Wire, former head of the Research & Analysis Wing A.S. Dulat talks about his new memoir, A Life in the Shadows. The book covers Dulat’s interactions with multiple senior leaders and important members of India’s security establishment – including current NSA Ajit Doval. Doval’s ambition and drive, Dulat said, was clear from the very start.
Below is the full text of the interview, covering Dulat’s impressions of Doval, his opinions on the Kashmir issue and how it has been handled by successive Indian governments, Arjun Singh’s treatment of the Sikhs in his time as Madhya Pradesh chief minister, and more.
Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire.
A well-written memoir is a joy to read, with its riveting anecdotes and its crisp indiscreet comments about the powerful and the important. And that description fits to perfection the book in my hands. It’s called A Life in the Shadows and its author, Amarjit Singh Dulat, is the former head of RAW and let me tell you, as a former spook, which is how Mr Dulat describes himself, he knows an awful lot about people, which they very definitely do not want revealed. The key question today is, “Is he prepared to spill the beans?”
On Ajit Doval
Mr Dulat, I want to start with what you write about Ajit Doval, the present National Security Advisor. A whole chapter in your book is devoted to the man who you met for the first time in the parking lot of the Intelligence Bureau in North Block. And you say that you were struck by his ambition. You write the initial thing that struck you was his determination to go places. What was it about his ambition that made itself so obvious?
A.S. Dulat: You see, we had both been in the Bureau for a while and, but we hadn’t met really. And this encounter that you mentioned in the parking lot may have happened, I feel around ‘87, by which time the “Doval Legend” was just beginning to grow. He had come back from Pakistan and Narayanan had just been appointed DIB. And when we met he was full of Narayanan, and you know how it was a privilege to work with him, and how wonderful a boss he was, and this-that and all. So I thought to myself if this guy is so full of his master’s voice, then he’s got to go places you know. Ironically, when I joined the bureau, three years before Ajit, during my first posting I shared a room with the great man and for two years, Mr Narayanan was very good to me, very kind to me always, but I could never claim to be his blue-eyed boy in the manner that I saw Ajit Doval was in the mid or late 80’s.
KT: So because he was so full of praise for his boss, Narayanan…
KT: You realised this is an ambitious man. This man is going to go places because he knows how to keep his boss happy.
ASD: That’s right and as I said, he had just come back from Pakistan so the Doval Legend was just beginning to grow.
KT: Was he sucking up, as they colloquially put it? Was he deliberately praising his boss to get into Narayanan’s good books? Was that a tactic?
ASD: He was all full of Narayanan, all right. I’ve heard people praise their bosses but this was almost without provocation. He was just telling me how much of a privilege it was to work with Narayanan. So, ambition was written right across his forehead. You know I said, this guy is going to go places.
KT: Was he, to use the colloquial term, “sucking up”?
ASD: Yeah in a way he was. But (on this occasion) he was not sucking up to him. He was, he’s telling me about him. So I don’t know what … how he used to. If he was sucking up to Narayanan, possibly would be if he’s telling me these stories. Ajit has always managed to be on the right side of people who are in position of power.
KT: And at this first meeting in the parking lot of the Intelligence Bureau.
ASD: I don’t know if it was the first meeting. Let me make that clear, it’s just the first time that I remember talking to him, or the two of us having you know, a little conversation.
KT: But on this occasion, he spent his time praising his boss.
ASD: Yeah he did. He did.
KT: And that’s what made you say this guy’s a very determined man. You can see from the way he talks, he intends to be on the right side of Narayanan.
ASD: Yeah. Yeah, he was ambitious and I could sense that this is a guy who’s going to go places, you know.
KT: In fact, the interesting thing is it wasn’t just that you sensed that Doval is ambitious. You also sensed that he will succeed, because this is what you write: “What I saw in him right from those days convinced me that here was a man who was going to rise to the very top of his career. He was everyone’s friend and nobody’s friend at the same time, a line that is vastly difficult for most of us to walk on an everyday basis.” So you knew at once this guy will get to the top.
ASD: I knew it once and I have known all along. But on this thing about being friends with everybody and friends with nobody, you know, he was a perfect spook and also the quintessential bureaucrat, you know. So he knew how to be on the right side, how to stand and deliver, let me put it like that.
I’ll give you an example. Let me take you back to 1996. Dr Farooq Abdullah was coming back as Chief Minister for the third time. Coincidentally it was a time when Ajit was being posted to Srinagar and Farooq had invited me for his swearing-in so I suggested to Ajit that he come along. I said this would be a good time to meet the Chief Minister. So he came and I took him straight from the airport to Farooq’s residence and I said this is one of our finest Intelligence Officers. So there were very cordial hellos and smiles and it was a great photo opportunity, except that there was no photographer. But what happened was that the chemistry didn’t work and Ajit gradually drifted away to the other side, to Mufti Sahab, and then the story is, one of the stories attributed to him, is that he played a role in creating the PDP. So these are the stories. Whether Ajit admits it or not, but this is talked about.
KT: But you know that description that you have. He’s everyone’s friend and nobody’s friend at the same time. Does that mean he can be an awkward and difficult person? Does it mean he’s reserved? Does it mean you have to make an effort to get on with him?
ASD: No I don’t say that, but, like I said, if he could shift from, so easily, from the man in power to the man hoping to be in power. And I could say that if today, let’s say, the Government of India needed Farooq, Ajit would again be his best friend.
KT: So Ajit Doval knows how to get on with people who are good for his career.
ASD: Absolutely. Absolutely.
KT: You endorse that phrase, “He knows how to get on with people who are good for his career.”
ASD: Good for his career and also, in his reckoning, good for the government.
KT: When you say he was everybody’s friend and nobody’s friend, what sort of person is that?
ASD: Self-serving, determined, ambitious, and somebody who’s going to go places.
KT: A calculating person?
ASD: Always, absolutely.
KT: But tell me something. You sensed his ambition when you met him, you sensed that he would go to the top.
KT: Did you at that time actually believe that he would end up as National Security Advisor with Cabinet rank?
ASD: Not at that time. But this is again an interesting question because I said this many times before he was appointed NSA. I said this to the media many times that he will be NSA.
KT: He will be NSA.
ASD: And the TV channels would ask me, “How do you know?” What I didn’t tell them was that I know this man and he will be the National Security Advisor. It was obvious. He was just waiting for 2014 and he was expecting actually that probably Advani Ji would be Prime Minister, and it would have been the same with him I mean.
KT: I’ll come to Advani in a moment’s time, but there’s something else about Ajit Doval that you sensed and which you write about. You say not only was he ambitious, not only did you sense that he would rise to the top, but he also had this ability to act unconventionally, to take gambles, and to take risks. You write, and I’m quoting you, “he was willing to do the unconventional in order to succeed. As a man, he is ready to take risks and employ the art of the gamble”, and your book has a wonderful illustration of this. It’s the role Doval played in Operation Black Thunder in 1988. What was it about that role that impressed you so much?
ASD: I’ll come to Black Thunder in a moment, or I can start with Black Thunder. You know, we worked together in Kashmir, Ajit and me. And as I said earlier we thought differently, different types of people. But when we were working in Kashmir, I knew that he would employ his own tactics and that didn’t bother me. I said “do it your way. I want results”, and he produced results. He always produced results. So on the question of Black Thunder, well as the legend goes, he was masquerading at that time as a rickshaw puller, around the Golden Temple, and he entered the golden temple pretending to be an ISI agent now whether that …
KT: An ISI agent dressed as a rickshaw puller?
ASD: As a rickshaw puller. Now whether that part of the legend or the story is true or not, I have no doubt that he produced exceptional intelligence from within the Golden Temple, which was crucial for the success of Black Thunder. And you know he was also awarded the Kirti Chakra which is exceptional. No other intelligence officer has ever been given a Kirti Chakra. It’s actually the equivalent of the Mahavir Chakra.
KT: But explain to the audience how unusual is it for an intelligence officer to pretend to be an ISI officer, i.e. an intelligence officer of an enemy country, and then to disguise himself as a rickshaw puller and enter the Golden Temple, when it is in the hands of Sikh militants. How unusual was that?
ASD: Totally unusual. Very unusual. See this is the legend, whether he was a rickshaw puller or not I don’t know. This is part of the Doval Legend, but I’m sure he did something exceptional. So he might have, there were people who did manage even during, I mean, prior to Blue Star, who did manage to go in and come out, and so it’s possible that Ajit did get inside. And the rickshaw puller story may be exaggerated I don’t know.
KT: Now one of the things which has changed between the young Doval that you knew and the NSA of today is his attitude to Pakistan, and again I’m going to quote you. “The Doval who was once interested in some kind of engagement has gone for good. He wants nothing to do with talking, with accommodation. His focus is on toughness, on ruthlessness, on ensuring that targets are met.” I take it this is a change that you don’t fully approve of?
ASD: No, I approve of it. I mean this is what Doval is. So ruthlessness, toughness, it’s a part of his DNA you know. When he has to be ruthless, he will be ruthless. The muscular policy that we’ve been hearing about in Kashmir is his idea. So I’m not surprised and I think it’s a great attribute for a spook, but yes, there was a period, there was a period when he used to talk about talking to Pakistan, engaging Pakistan.
I can give you a couple of examples. I remember, 2005 yeah, he had just finished his tenure as DIB then, and it was shorter than what he expected. So he was at a loose end and we were having lunch at the Gymkhana Club. I remember it because I was then contesting the Gymkhana Club Presidential Election, and I said, “Ajit this is a tough one.” Now he says, “You won’t lose, you’ll win.” And then he said, “You know, if you and I were to work together, we could sort out Pakistan as well.” I said, “Any time you say, anytime you want.” So that is the way he was thinking in those days.
I’ll give you another example you know, about seven or eight years later. Peter Jones of the University of Ottawa, who used to do the back-channel track started a Spooks track on India-Pakistan and Ajit attended the first couple of sessions. Now when the first session took place, I remember very vividly, Peter Jones said to me, “Will you make a few introductory remarks?” I said okay. So I said Peter this is a serious dialogue, because you’ve got somebody in this room today who’s going to go places. So everybody looked around and then they realised that I was referring to Doval. And he left after I think two or three sessions because he knew what was happening, that elections were coming up. He was eyeing the NSA’s job and he left. But interestingly a couple of sessions later, the Pakistanis complained that nothing is happening, nothing’s moving. So again I made a suggestion I said, “I have a suggestion for you guys why don’t you invite Ajit Doval to Lahore?” He was then NSA.
KT: He was NSA at the time?
ASD: He was NSA at the time. And those on the Pakistani side who knew the establishment better or knew the establishment well thought about it for a moment and said, “Yeah, this is doable.”
KT: What happened?
ASD: What happened? Then they said, “But what if we, if he’s invited and he doesn’t come?” So I said we can do a check on that and we did a check on that, and Ajit was willing to go to Lahore, but the Pakistanis didn’t invite him.
KT: So this is very interesting even in the first few years as NSA…
ASD: Yeah, yeah.
KT: …he was still open to dialogue and talk. This predates the present muscular ruthless policy.
ASD: Yeah, but I haven’t finished yet. Interestingly, there is a story which goes around that Ajit had a very good equation with General Bajwa. But yes, these are not things that he wants to talk about anymore.
KT: How sure are you that he had a good equation?
ASD: I’m not sure.
KT: But this is not something you would say casually, not in an interview.
ASD: I’m sure there would be some truth in this. I’m sure a lot of people have said that they met in the back-channel somewhere. So I’m sure it’s not just my speculation or conjecture.
KT: It’s suspected that Ajit Doval was responsible for the renewal of the 2003 Ceasefire, which happened in February of 2021.
ASD: Quite possible. Quite possible. At that time it was said that he had met Moeed Yusuf possibly, but I don’t know. The thing is, I still I mean this was common talk and I believe it, that there must have been some relationship between Ajit Doval and General Bajwa.
KT: So even after the muscular ruthless no-talk policy began, he still found ways of talking to Bajwa on the back-channel, that’s what you’re saying?
ASD: He is so adaptable. He can change anyway. If required today he would do it again.
KT: Okay now there’s something else you mentioned in your book. One is his capacity to be unconventional, to take risks, to gamble. As you said now he’s also adaptable. He can change any way, Those are your words. But the other change that’s happened is in fact he was, when you first met him, a great admirer of L.K. Advani and as you said he used to hero-worship M.K. Narayanan, who at the time was Head of the IB and his boss. Today, he’s transferred his loyalties and his hero-worship to Narendra Modi.
ASD: See, he and Advani Ji had a great relationship when Ajit was in the IB. In fact I think Advani admired Ajit more than vice versa.They got along fabulously and Mr Advani used to think that this is the best spook in the country. And when I was in the PMO, Ajit would often say to me that, ”Why don’t you meet Advani more often? It would sort out our problems in Kashmir.” And he was absolutely right, but unfortunately, I was on the other side of the fence and so I didn’t.
KT: You were with Vajpayee.
ASD: I was with Vajpayee. More importantly, I was with Brijesh Mishra – and Brijesh and Advani never saw eye to eye at all.
KT: So meeting Advani would have looked very bad in Brijesh’s eyes.
ASD: Yeah. So, I mean, I didn’t go unless I was summoned upon.
KT: In those days…
KT: Ajit Doval was Advani’s blue-eyed boy.
ASD: Absolutely. Absolutely.
KT: And I take it Ajit Doval believed that this was a relationship that he needed to nurture, because it would be good for his career.
ASD: Yeah it was important in every way, and it was important for Advani as well.
KT: And when you said earlier that he was eyeing becoming NSA, he hoped it would be with Advani as Prime Minister. That’s why he was building a relationship with Advani.
ASD: Yes yes when 2014 happened, when the election happened and it was obvious that there was going to be a BJP government, he was thinking, I guess like a lot of people were thinking, that it would be Advani. But now that it is it’s been Modi Ji he’s extremely happy. I don’t think he’s ever been happier in his career, because he and Modi Ji are made for each other.
KT: Now there’s a very interesting comment about Ajit Doval in your book, and I suspect it’s a sort of conclusion and I want to bring it up at this point. You write, “His loyalty is not so much to the politician as it is to power.” You’re suggesting, aren’t you, that he changes his heroes and his loyalty to be on the right side of people who are in office and power?
ASD: You know, Ajit is very good at sniffing power and yeah he tries to stay on the right side. He would stay on the right side. But I won’t say that he doesn’t have his preferences. That’s why I said he has never possibly been happier in his career than he is today because he and Modi are just made for each other.
KT: Maybe. There’s no doubt that he and Modi, as you put it, are made for each other. You say they think alike and they have the same attitude of toughness and muscularity and ruthlessness. But, recall what you said about Ajit Doval’s hero-worship for M.K. Narayanan…
ASD: Yeah, yeah, I’ll come to that.
KT: And now you say that in fact his loyalty is not to the politician as it is to power. You’re suggesting, but suggesting politely, that here is a man who can sniff who’s important and make sure that he’s on the right side of him, and this is one way in which Doval will also ensure his own success.
ASD: I’ll tell you what happened with MK, and how Doval got disillusioned. You know, he became DIB when the UPA came to power, and that was 2004. So immediately after coming to power, I mean I’m talking of MK here, he knew that he needed Doval as DIB and Doval became DIB. But I think he only got about 10 months, because what happened was that he was not given a two-year term, which happened immediately after him. Now I didn’t get a two-year term. I only got a 17-month term and we know that in the West our contemporaries, our colleagues, get much more.
KT: Why didn’t Doval get a two-year term?
ASD: Because at that point of time the government hadn’t decided that Chiefs should get two years. As I said, I didn’t get two years.
KT: So this is when Doval got disillusioned with Narayanan?
ASD: Yeah he felt he’d been sort of cheated or let down.
KT: But come back to the earlier point.
ASD: Because the next guy got two years.
KT: But come back to the earlier point, and I’m going back to your quotation, “His loyalty is not so much to the politician as it is to power.” You’ve given one example of how he was praising Narayanan, because you said it was good for his career. Similarly he was close to Advani, because it was good for his career. And now he’s close to Modi. You’re suggesting, aren’t you, that Doval sniffs out people who are important and makes sure he’s on their right side.
ASD: Let me put it like this.
KT: I mean am I right or wrong?
ASD: No, you’re right, you’re right. Let me put it like this. That if he was not ageing, like all of us are and he had time, I would imagine Doval as a future Home Minister of India. And you know the relationship between the NSA and the home minister in our structure has never been easy.
KT: Are you also suggesting that though Doval is very close to Modi his relationship with Amit Shah is not so good?
ASD: Possibly. Possibly. I don’t know, but it’s a very difficult relationship. So I sense there would be problems.
Karan Thapar: So let’s sum up on Doval, because I then want to move to other aspects of your book. You’re saying three or four very important things. A man who can sniff out power and make sure he’s on the right side of the person in power, a very ambitious man determined to get to the top, a man who’s ruthless in his attitude if need be, but also a man who’s capable of taking risks and gambling. And as you said he can be everybody’s friend and nobody’s friend. That characterises his relationship with people.
ASD: And the most perfect professional spy.
KT: He’s a man you clearly admire.
ASD: I do.
KT: Is he a man you like every bit of?
ASD: No I don’t. But as I said we can disagree, we can differ, and we can still be friends. And the time that we spent together in Kashmir, we got along fantastically. So there’s no problem, no issue.
KT: He’s a man you admire, but you don’t like everything about him.
ASD: No I don’t like everything about him. I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. I admire almost everything about him, but we are different types of people. I mean I’ll tell you what MK once said that if he needed to wield the stick in Kashmir, he would depute Doval. And if he needed, if he wanted to offer a carrot he would send me. So that’s the type, that’s the difference that there is between the two of us.
On Kashmir and Kashmiriyat
KT: A second big focus in your book is your reflections on Kashmiris and Kashmiriyat. This is what you write about Kashmiris.
ASD: Now I can breathe easier.
KT: Were you on tenterhooks when we were talking about Doval?
ASD: No I wasn’t on tenterhooks. I can keep talking about Doval, but then, you know, I didn’t want to say anything wrong. Let me put it like that, okay?
KT: You were worried that Ajit Doval wouldn’t like what you said?
ASD: No, no. Not at all.
KT: What were you worried about then?
ASD: I have always spoken well of him and I said this to Ajit some time ago. I said, “You know you can do an audit on how many times I’ve spoken about you on television, and every time I’ve spoken well of you. I have never once criticised you.” And I’m not criticising him today either.
KT: But you speak well of him because I imagine you’re a little worried what the repercussion will be from his side if you don’t.
ASD: Not at all, not at all. At this age, at this time, what repercussions can I worry about? No, no, no.
KT: Let’s then come to what you write; your reflections about Kashmiris and Kashmiriyat. On Kashmiris, you say “the Kashmiri has learned over the years to be devious. It is for them the key to survival. They will not trust you easily. They will not trust each other at all”. Is this the reason why Kashmiris are so often misunderstood by the rest of India?
ASD: You know, I’ve said this before, that it could take more than a lifetime to understand Kashmir and Kashmiris. You take any Kashmiri, you’ll find there are layers and layers and layers within him. He doesn’t let you get into him, you know. And you’ve got to sit down on the ground and partake of his food and eat with them, and then maybe they sort of start talking to you. They don’t trust you easily and the Mirwaiz explained this to me once, you know. He said, “You say we lie, and we do lie. But who taught us how to lie? Because you never speak the truth to us.” Therefore, I mean it comes naturally. There is a deviousness in the Kashmiri and you can’t make out the Kashmiri.
KT: Is this why the Kashmiri is misunderstood by the rest of India?
ASD: Now, coming to the rest of India, here I would say that Delhi thinks differently than Bengal or South India does. In Delhi, people think of Kashmir only in terms of a holiday in Gulmarg or skiing in Gulmarg or going to Pahalgam. There are very few people who go to Kashmir and try and understand the Kashmiri. You know we come back with stories that the Kashmiri says, “Aap Hindustan se aaye. [You’ve come from India.]” I mean that’s how the Kashmiri feels. That’s how the Kashmiri thinks. What’s the big deal? But in Bengal or in South India there’s a lot more empathy for the Kashmiris. There’s a lot more sensitivity and feeling for the Kashmiri. This is a Delhi problem, or a North Indian problem, I would say.
KT: In fact, you say something else about the way Kashmiris view Delhi, and I presume when you say Delhi you mean the government rather than just the people of Delhi. You write, “the local Kashmiri has always had mixed feelings, coated with distrust, about Delhi. Time and again, Delhi has misunderstood, not followed through on promises, or simply let them down. Time and again, the Kashmiri has been left betrayed.” Are they justified in feeling betrayed?
ASD: I think they have good reason to feel betrayed. Yes, yes, yes. Let me take you back to where it actually all starts and this is part of the narrative that you’ll hear all the time in Kashmir. It goes back to Sheikh Abdullah’s arrest in August 1953, and, you know, there was a foreign secretary, the last one that Jawaharlal Nehru had, who continued as foreign secretary in Shastri’s time, YD Gundevia. In his memoir, I think it’s called Outside the Archives, Gundevia says, “Democracy died the day Sheikh was arrested. Democracy in Kashmir died the day Sheikh was arrested.” And another person B.N. Mullik in his book on Kashmir, you know, he wrote…
KT: He’s a former head of IB.
ASD: Yeah, who wrote three books on the Nehru years. He says when he went to Madras after the Sheikh’s arrest and he met Rajaji – C. Rajagopalachari. Rajaji said to him, “Why did we need to slam the door on the Sheikh? Now you’ll never have peace in Kashmir.”
KT: Is that why the Kashmiris feel let down and betrayed? Is that the point you’re making?
ASD: It always goes back to that, but there is one other watershed moment or a point I’d like to make here, and that is the dismissal of Farooq Abdullah in 1984. I think that was another disaster.
KT: Jagmohan dismissing him at midnight and appointing his brother-in-law in his place with Congress support?
ASD: That’s right, this is very interesting because as Sheikh’s health began to fail, I think it was 1980-81, people in Delhi were worried. “After Sheikh what?”, like “After Nehru what?”, and Mrs Gandhi, after thinking it over, realised that Farooq would be the best bet. And she went and told Sheikh sahab as his health was failing, “You should announce Farooq as your successor.” And the Sheikh did so. I think it was October 1981 and yet Mrs Gandhi got very upset and very angry with Farooq because in the 1983 elections he refused to join hands with the Congress.
KT: And also, he was holding opposition conclaves, one of which was in Srinagar.
ASD: That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
KT: So these are the two turning points.
ASD: It was very petty and if you remember.
KT: But let’s not get lost in the details.
ASD: B.K. Nehru refused to do it. So the hatchet man had to be sent from Delhi and Jagmohan dismissed him.
KT: And you’re saying these are the two turning points.
ASD: These are two important points I think.
KT: Now let’s come to what you say about Kashmir. you say…
ASD: And when I talk about 1984, sorry to interrupt you, but when I talk about 1984, I think in some ways it also led to 1988, 1989. Everybody talks about the rigging in the 1987 elections, but I think it was Farooq’s dismissal which also began to encourage Pakistan that now was the right time to interfere in Kashmir.
KT: Okay, let’s now come to this point of what you write about Kashmiriyat. You say “there is constant stonewalling and backtracking, which has led to a change in Kashmiriyat on the ground”. And of that, you say, “I think there can be no doubt”. What is the change in Kashmiriyat that happened? And I take it it’s a change for the worse?
ASD: It is a change for the worse. Now, this is a complex sort of thing you know, stonewalling and backtracking. This has been a part of Delhi’s way of dealing with Kashmir. But the interesting thing here is, and people forget, that Sheikh Abdullah in his autobiography, The Blazing Chinar, devoted a whole chapter to the Kashmiri Pandits. And he says, “They are our stars in the firmament of Kashmir.” And people also forget that the Sheikh himself was a second or third-generation convert. And therefore, among the Jama’atis and those who are inclined towards Pakistan, who today say that Sheikh made a mistake in 1947, at that time also there were some Jama’atis who would say that Sheikh is a Kashmiri Pandit and so is Pandit Nehru. That is why they have joined together.
KT: But explain…
ASD: Now, I come to Kashmiriyat. Well you know when I say a change of Kashmiriyat on the ground, let me just give you a simple quote. There is a Kashmiri Pandit and a renowned trade union leader who came to meet me when I was writing this book, and I asked him, “Is Kashmiriyat dead? Is it finished?” He said, “No, it’s wounded and it’s our duty to revive it.” Kashmiriyat basically meant that there is no difference between the Pandit and the Mussalmaan and they live together.
KT: What’s the change now?
ASD: The change actually began…
KT: But what is the change?
ASD: The change is that the Kashmiri Pandit doesn’t feel as secure as he used to be, and yet there are Pandits who have stayed on, who see no difference.
KT: Okay. Now you say after August 2019, that’s when Article 370 was abrogated, the nightmare in the Kashmiri mind has changed. Previously, they used to look for assurances of stability and yearn for Indo-Pakistan peace. Now you say, and I’m quoting you, “It’s no longer a dream of Azadi, no longer even a dream to go to Pakistan. It is the nightmare of being reduced to a minority in their own land.”
ASD: You see, you mentioned, India-Pakistan peace or engagement, this gives relief in the Kashmiri mind. “Now if India and Pakistan are all right then, we are going to be all right. We won’t be targeted, or we’ll be forgotten for the time being, because they are at peace.” And this is being said by all the Kashmiri leaders. You know from Sheikh to Farooq to Mehbooba, that India and Pakistan must engage, must remain engaged, otherwise, there will not be peace in Kashmir. But here the question really is that so much has changed, and now what the Kashmiri really craves is peace more than anything else.
KT: But you say now the real fear is they’re going to be reduced…
ASD: That’s what I’m saying. He craves peace, he wants peace, he wants out, and his real fear is that gradually, one day, the Kashmiri might be reduced to a minority in his own land, in his own country. That’s the way he perceives it and we do from time to time, unfortunately, add fuel to the fire by talking of demographic changes.
KT: This is the last thing that we should be doing, because it worries them.
ASD: Absolutely, Why do it? It was the same way. Why remove 370? There was nothing in 370. And incidentally bringing about a demographic change is not so easy where you have 95% of the population or 98% now is Muslim. How will you change it? And every time you try and change it…
KT: But these arguments.
ASD: These killings which are happening now sir, these killings which are happening. These targeted killings which happen from time to time are out of that same fear of demographic change.
KT: But this fear is one that is stoked by the Modi government’s talk of demographic change. The Modi government’s talk about giving votes to people who are not permanent residents of the Valley.
ASD: That’s right. That is what I’m saying. That’s right.
KT: Is this what you mean when you say we ourselves might be defeating not only Kashmiriyat but more vitally the idea of India in Kashmir? Is that what you’re suggesting?
ASD: The Kashmiri now feels, or particularly, since 2019 and what’s been happening there, that there is no expectation left from Delhi, and it’s a sad story. It’s a very sad story. And talking of kids going to school, who used to take great pride in carrying these paper national flags and singing the national anthem on Independence Day, on Republic Day. It doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s become an issue. “Why do we need to carry these flags?”
KT: But you’re suggesting that it’s our policies that are responsible for the fact that they’re distancing themselves.
ASD: I’ll tell you what is happening and how it has happened, because, in the Kashmiri mind, there is no expectation left. We are finished. The India that we knew doesn’t exist. In fact, when 2019 also happened one of the questions that the Kashmiris asked, they said, “We’ve always had problems with Delhi, but why have the people of India turned against us?” This is new. So in that way, the same way, we are defeating the idea of India and that is why Mehbooba says from time to time that there’ll be nobody left to hoist the national flag.
KT: Is the position retrievable, or is it becoming increasingly irretrievable?
ASD: It is retrievable. It has always been retrievable sir.
KT: But there has to be a government willing to retrieve it?
ASD: Nothing is irretrievable in Kashmir.
KT: Nothing is irretrievable in Kashmir?
ASD: No, no, no, no. Nothing is irretrievable in Kashmir. There are people who say, including Yashwant Sinha, that we’ve lost the Valley forever. I don’t go along with that.
KT: But is the onus on the government to take the first step?
ASD: Of course it is. It always is.
KT: And it’s not being taken.
ASD: No, it’s not being taken.
KT: So then will it become irretrievable?
ASD: No, it won’t. It will still be retrievable.
KT: But it will fester?
ASD: Now, just yesterday, again, I don’t think there was any need for it, but Farooq made a point. He said we should have contested the panchayat elections. It was a big mistake, we should have contested the panchayat elections in 2018. And Omar has been saying that he will not contest elections until statehood is given back to Kashmir. And yesterday, Farooq looked at his son and said we will contest every election in the future. So it’s always retrievable if you understand Kashmir, if you try and understand Kashmir, the problem is we don’t want to. We don’t try and we think we know everything.
KT: And you blame us for it?
ASD: I blame, yes, us for it.
KT: Is us the people or is it the Government of India?
ASD: It’s the Government of India.
KT: This government more than others?
ASD: Well, let me answer this like this. I don’t want to put the blame on any particular person, but what Mr Amit Shah goes and says in Kashmir is not as welcome as what Shinde Sahab used to say.
KT: What did Amit Shah say that’s unwelcome?
ASD: Well he said we are willing to talk to the Kashmiri youth, but we won’t talk to Pakistan. Now that doesn’t go down well in Kashmir. What is the need to say that? Like the Kashmiris would once say that, “If we are prepared,” I’m talking about the separatists, “If we are prepared to talk to Delhi why rub it in that it must be within the Constitution? If your Deputy Prime Minister or the Home Minister of India is talking to us, obviously it is going to be within the Constitution. Why do you, why do you want to rub these things into us?” So why go to Srinagar, say it in Delhi, that we don’t want to talk to Pakistan, we won’t talk to Pakistan.
KT: In other words, this government needs to learn how to talk to Kashmiris and what to say.
ASD: And to be much more sensitive about Kashmir.
KT: That sensitivity is missing in the Modi government?
ASD: Absolutely it is missing today. Unfortunately, it is missing and the Kashmiri still remembers Vajpayee’s “insaaniyat, kashmiriyat, and jamuriyat”, and he keeps repeating that. But it is the same party, but (now) it’s of a different time and a different view as well.
KT: That’s the big difference between Vajpayee and Modi.
ASD: That’s right.
KT: The lack of sensitivity.
ASD: The lack of sensitivity, yes you know.
KT: Let me interrupt. Behind the lack of sensitivity, is their animosity to Kashmiris and Muslims? Do they sense that?
ASD: I don’t think the Kashmiri feels that so much, at least he doesn’t say so openly.
On V.C. Shukla and Arjun Singh’s ‘operation’ for Rajiv Gandhi
KT: Okay. In the limited time left to us, I want to come to a third issue. You reveal in your book that in the late 1980s, Arjun Singh and V.C. Shukla, who were at the time leading Congressmen and everyone thought extremely loyal and supportive of Rajiv Gandhi, went and met Giani Zail Singh, who was President, to encourage him to form his own party. Giani didn’t take them seriously. He didn’t trust them. But the point you’re making is that V.C. Shukla and Arjun Singh were clearly plotting against Rajiv Gandhi.
ASD: No they were not. This is spy versus spy. I think they went there as spies of Rajiv Gandhi to check out Giani and Giani was too smart for them, because at about the same time or a little after that, I happened to be in Delhi. I was posted in Bhopal those days, and I had come to Delhi for a meeting and I found that the establishment in Delhi was quite panic-stricken. There was real fear and apprehension and I couldn’t understand where it was coming from. The fear was that the President was going to dismiss the Prime Minister of India. And so I thought let me go and meet the President. I mean, I knew him quite well and I had met him just a month or so earlier in Gwalior. And so I went to meet Giani Ji, and this is a story that he told me that you know yeah…
KT: That V.C. Shukla and Arjun Singh had come to ask him to form a party but, as you say, they weren’t plotting against Rajiv Gandhi, they were acting as Rajiv’s spies to check out whether Giani actually intended to form a party?
ASD: Yeah, so Giani Ji said to me that, you know V.C. Shukla came to me, Arjun Singh came to me, and said, “Giani Ji, form a party, a new party. We will join you.” And he said, “You are from Madhya Pradesh, you are in Bhopal. Tell me do you, would you trust these gentlemen?” So I didn’t know what to say and I started laughing and we laughed together and that was it.
KT: You also say in your book that Buta Singh, who was Home Minister, went to meet Giani Ji to check whether Giani Ji was actually going to form a party. So I presume this was a second stage operation after V.C. Shukla and Arjun Singh. And Buta Singh ended up laying his turban at Giani Ji’s feet. Giani told you that story himself. Tell us, tell the audience.
ASD: Yeah that’s, you know, this was a couple of days later, because I was going back to Bhopal. So I just thought let me go and say goodbye to Giani Ji. I said I might not get another opportunity. So I asked for a meeting and he called me at eight in the morning, and I went to Rashtrapati Bhavan. I was summoned up to his bedroom, which never normally happened, and there was Giani Ji standing against the mirror and tying his turban and he said, “Ki khabar le aaye?” He used to always think that, you know, since I was from the intelligence, I would be, I’d have some news for him.
When I said nothing, he said, “Well I’ll give you some news – your Home Minister came to see me just now and he said, “Giani Ji, I’m told you’re forming a new party.” So Giani said, ”I said to him, well if I’m forming a new party, you should join me.” And he said, “That’s the time that Buta Singh took off his turban and put it at my feet.” Buta said, “Forgive whatever has happened, a lot has gone wrong, but I mean Rajiv is like your son. So forget about whatever. Please forgive him.” And Giani said, ”You shameless bastard. Why did you have to put your turban at my feet?”
So that’s the story.
KT: Now, you also have some very interesting things to reveal about Arjun Singh from the time when he was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. You were Deputy Director of the Intelligence Bureau…
ASD: Yeah, yeah…
KT: When the 1984 Sikh killings happened, you went to meet Arjun Singh and you advised him to meet with the Sikhs of Bhopal and allay their concerns fears and apprehensions, and he flatly refused to do so, and you add he wanted the Sikhs to feel insecure.
ASD: That’s right. I think that’s the way the Congress was at that time, all over the country. They wanted the Sikhs to feel insecure and actually Madhya Pradesh was one of the better states, you know. There were some problems in Indore and Sagar and Jabalpur, but Bhopal was all right. We didn’t have any major incident in Bhopal.
KT: But Arjun Singh was determined not to talk to the Sikhs.
ASD: There was insecurity among the Sikhs. So a group of them came to meet me, and they said that you know, “We are apprehensive. We don’t know what’s going to happen, considering what’s happening all over the place,” and they said to me, they said, some of them had guns, you know, owned guns, and they said, ”We have just come to warn you that if we are attacked, we’ll go on to our rooftops and we’ll bring down a few people before we are killed.” So I was a bit disturbed, if not alarmed and I went to see Arjun Singh, and I suggested to him – I said, “The Sikhs feel very insecure here. Why don’t you just meet them?” and he said, “No no there’s no problem here right now. When there’s a problem, we’ll see here.” He wasn’t prepared to meet them, that’s right.
KT: But your conclusion, and I’m virtually quoting you, he wanted the Sikhs to feel insecure.
ASD: That’s what I said at the outset, I mean that’s the way the Congress was at that time, you know.
On Prince Charles
KT: Okay, now we’re coming to the end of this interview and I want you to at this moment relate three of the magnificent and glorious anecdotes that your book has. The first is to do with Prince Charles, as he then was. In 1980, he visited India. He was Prince of Wales at the time. You were his security liaison officer. Indira Gandhi, who was Prime Minister, invited him to lunch, but clearly the lunch didn’t go well, because you say when Prince Charles emerged from lunch, he looked as if he’d been caned. What happened?
ASD: You said glorious anecdotes, let me say that I spent 12 glorious days with the Prince of Wales. We were both young then. He must have been 32. I think I may have been 38, 39, and, yes, Delhi didn’t go off well like you said. And the reason for it was that lunch at Mrs. Gandhi’s place. Now Mrs. Gandhi did, what I thought, was the right thing. She didn’t invite anybody. Even the High Commissioner was not invited. John Thompson and I were making rounds of the Prime Minister’s house waiting for the Prince of Wales to come out.
She had just kept it to the family. So there was Mrs Gandhi, Rajiv, Sonia and Maneka, and the Prince of Wales. Now obviously whatever conversation took place, took place between the youngsters. and Mrs. Gandhi didn’t probably talk or engage with them.
KT: And this unnerved Charles?
ASD: Yeah. So when he came out, and as I said John Thompson and I were together, and he said to the Prince of Wales. He said, “Your Highness, how did the lunch go?” He said, ”Don’t ask. I’ve met people all over the world but this woman freezes you.” So he had been unnerved here. So it didn’t start well, but otherwise, the visit went off extremely well.
On Margaret Thatcher
KT: Now, the other two anecdotes are about Margaret Thatcher who visited India as Prime Minister, and, once again, you were her security liaison officer.
ASD: That’s right.
KT: And this time it’s the way she treated her British Security Officer a gentleman called Gordon Cawthorne that hugely impressed you. On the first occasion, she discovered that he was planning to spend a night in the cold to guard her. Relate exactly how she responded to that.
ASD: Yeah this was, you know, during the retreat in Goa and it was a little chilly and during dinner Cawthorne said to me, ”Will you be spending the night with me?” I said, “Spending the night with you where?” He said, “You know, I’m going to be sitting outside.” Mrs. Thatcher was allotted one of the cottages at the top of the hill and there was security all around, the BSF was there to guard those cottages. And he said, ”I’m going to be sitting outside the cottage, and will you join me?” I said, “No I’m not required to.” I said, “Gordon I don’t think you need to be there. There’s enough security.” So he said, “You don’t know the kind of threat that Mrs. Thatcher faces.” You know this is soon after the attack…
KT: In Brighton…
ASD: Brighton, the IRA. So he really feared for her. So I walked them up to the cottage, and there was Mrs Thatcher, there was Dennis, and there was Gordon, and myself. And when we got there, before I could say good night to Mrs. Thatcher, she turned around and said, “Gordon are you serious about spending the night here?” He said, “Yes madam.” So she said, “Just hold on.” So she went in and brought out one of her husband’s sweaters and said, “This is Dennis’s sweater. I think it’ll keep you warm if you’re going to sit”, I mean,” Spend the night outside here.” I thought it was incredible. Again, I couldn’t imagine, you know, our Prime, any of our Prime Ministers, doing something like this.
Margaret Thatcher With Indira Gandhi pic.twitter.com/cBaeBYsN6o
— indianhistorypics (@IndiaHistorypic) July 5, 2022
KT: We had a woman prime minister at the time, Indira Gandhi. You couldn’t imagine her doing this to her security guard.
ASD: I’ll come to Mrs Gandhi later, but here let me say that Mrs Gandhi, incidentally, now that you mention Mrs Gandhi, was very good to her staff.
ASD: Except I don’t think she would offer anybody’s sweater to somebody. She wouldn’t let anybody get so familiar. But Mrs. Gandhi actually was very good to people who worked with her. In fact one of them, one of her security officers as you know, B.L. Joshi became Governor, later on.
KT: Quite right.
ASD: And there was, there used to be a valet who was there. I’m told, he looked like a boxer. You know, Nathuram and he was an institution and he was there, I’m told, since Pandit Ji’s times. And Mrs. Gandhi used to really indulge him. He used to get away with murder.
KT: Let’s come back to Mrs Thatcher, because there’s a second story about Gordon Cawthorne and Mrs Thatcher that I want you to tell us. You were escorting Mrs Thatcher to a banquet at Hyderabad House. When the car got stuck in traffic, she looked out the window and she saw Gordon Cawthorne jogging alongside. Finish that story for me. What happened next?
ASD: You see, normally there used to be four in the car. Mr and Mrs Thatcher at the back, the driver and me in front, and Mr Cawthorne used to follow in the escort. Now because of the jam here, Cawthorne got concerned, and he came out of the escort, and came to see that his Prime Minister was safe and sound. So when she saw him, she turned, she said to me, “Mr Dulat, do you think we could accommodate him in the car?” I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t deny Margaret Thatcher. So I said, “Okay Madam.” So I opened my door and she said, ”No no no no, I didn’t mean to inconvenience you. He’ll sit with us, at the back with us,” and she opened her door and got him in. So, like I said, Mrs Gandhi was very good, but I can’t imagine her ever getting a security officer to sit next to her.
KT: Let me read what you write. “I hadn’t ever seen anything like it.”
ASD: That’s right.
KT: “The Prime Minister of Britain was willing to squeeze three into a back seat, rather than inconveniencing her security officer.” That security officer being you.
ASD: That’s right.
KT: So who sat in the middle, Mrs Thatcher or was it Gordon Cawthorne?
ASD: Mrs Thatcher.
KT: Mrs Thatcher, as Prime Minister of Britain, sat in the middle, squeezed between her husband and a security officer, because she didn’t want you to be similarly squeezed in the front seat.
ASD: That’s right. That’s right. Incredible isn’t it?
KT: It’s absolutely incredible, and the amazing thing is not just that it’s incredible, but it shows the Iron Lady as a very caring boss.
ASD: Both these Iron Ladies were caring people.
KT: But Mrs. Gandhi would never have allowed herself to be squeezed in the back seat so that you did not run on the side.
ASD: No no no, but she could be just as gracious and just as charming. At that same retreat, that I mentioned earlier, at dinner she surprised everybody. She appeared at the dinner in a lungi and a colorful blouse on top, and went around asking all the guests whether they had enough to eat, and they were enjoying themselves or not. Now, this is Mrs. Gandhi.
KT: I don’t want to belittle Mrs. Gandhi, but that is something you expect a hostess to do at a dinner.
ASD: Yeah, but I don’t think many people were used to seeing her in a lungi. I had never seen her in a lungi.
KT: It’s a little different, forgive me, to Mrs. Thatcher squeezing into the back seat to give her security officer…
ASD: Right, I agree.
KT: Or giving the security officer her husband’s sweater.
ASD: I agree with you. I agree with you.
KT: So in your eyes, Mrs. Thatcher is a special person.
ASD: Yeah there’s something about the Brits that is special. I mean maybe we’ve been brought up, at that time, at that age, or whatever it is, but I do think there is something special there.
KT: Mr. Dulat, thank you very much for a very engaging discussion about your book and I’ll hold it up for the audience once again. Here it is. A Life in the Shadows – and there’s a lot more in that book than we’ve been able to discuss, so I encourage you to buy it.