When former chiefs of the RAW and the ISI write a book together, swapping reminiscences of the days that are no more, and deliver a diagnosis of the present, it arouses enough curiosity for a dedicated plunge through 33 chapters of the work. They set out a tale of two conjoined twins, confessing that among spooks there is a trust deficit. Dulat and Durrani met at the “Chayo Phraya dialogues” at Bangkok, a strategic security initiative organised by the Jinnah Institute as part of Track II diplomacy.
Dulat mentions how, in a tricky situation, he once helped General Durrani, which helped build the trust bridge between the two. General Durrani’s son, who had been visiting Kochi on business, was not being allowed to fly out of Mumbai due to some visa restrictions on Pakistani passport holders. A few phone calls by the former RAW chief to IB contacts sorted out the misunderstanding, and forged a relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation. The conversations between the two professionals are packed with significant details and rare nuggets of insight into the operations of both clandestine agencies. It is a revealing look into the internal politics of both the RAW and the ISI, but also how the two agencies view each other. Unfortunately, the style of writing is insipid and uninspiring, which makes getting to these valuable insights an arduous task.
The first few chapters begin with the two retired spymasters reflecting on their respective careers, with the general tone that retirement is the beginning and not the end of life. The second set of chapters goes into details about the roles of the two intelligence agencies in forming public policy for their respective countries, and for each other’s countries. It makes for a fascinating account of how a healthy system of cooperation between the intelligence agencies and the government can help or hinder the formulation of domestic and foreign policies that benefit the public.
The contrasts between the ISI and RAW are most apparent here, as well as a slight nod to the ‘Deep State’ conspiracy theorists. Dulat says he enjoyed professional and operational independence when he took over as RAW chief, with the cabinet secretary assuring him that he was there “only to provide administrative assistance”. Clearly, there were no generals with agendas breathing down his neck. However, the politicians were there on both sides, as a necessary service condition. Dulat, recalling a dialogue with General Ehsan at LSE, narrates how in 2013 RAW passed on intelligence to the ISI that prevented an attempt on General Musharraf’s life, but offers no other details.
The book is full of tantalising anecdotes such as this, which pique curiosity, but are ultimately abandoned or not elaborated further, as the conversation breezes onto other matters. The subject matter is dense, and requires in-depth understanding of the socio-political history of south Asia, lacking which the reader might be adrift in an ocean of jargon and references to military and political campaigns that are never quite adequately explained by the author. The notes section is disappointingly meager and barely adequate to the task of providing sufficient background.
What comes across in the conversation is the warmth of their friendship. Both have faith in people-to-people contacts. They share a passion for cricket, the Punjabi language and a common north Indian culture. They agree that it takes only 35 minutes to travel from Lahore to Delhi — a classic case of so near yet so far. Dulat’s breadth of experience with Kashmir is well recognised, and his dialogue with General Durrani about this sensitive issue forms the meat of the book, with the duo discussing Musharraf’s ‘four point initiatives’ and India’s lackluster response to them, how the “back channels only soft pedaled” and how Pakistan views Kashmir as unreliable territory.
“It can change, as it did after the killing of Burhan Wani, but there is a weariness setting in. The Kashmiri wants peace, the stone pelting could go on indefinitely”. India feels Pakistan needs to set its own house in order in Baluchistan before blaming India for Kashmir. Within Pakistan, there are fault lines between Punjabis, Pakhtuns and Muhajirs, militants, extremists, hardliners and fundamentalists, while the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India has been a global concern since at least the Clinton administration. As they say, “There is distrust on both sides”.
The conversation moves quickly to an overview of the highlights of relations between the neighbouring countries, including Vajpayee’s visit to the Minar–E-Pakistan, the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, Modi’s unexpected visit, and the idea of Akhand Bharat. Across this broad canvas is the constant shadowy figure of the intelligence agencies. Durrani comments that “Late General Hamid Gul was to Pakistan what Ajit Doval is to India.”
Considering the complexity of the issues involved, some of the solutions the book proposes are banal, and some are downright hilarious. Beyond people-to-people dialogue, it suggests a ‘sorority of spooks’ and that the State Bank of Pakistan be allowed to open banks in India, clearly unaware that the SBP is not the counterpart of the SBI, but of the RBI. Initially the book is pleasant and discursive, but it soon meanders and loses the plot; a missed opportunity to properly chronicle what might be the start of a groundbreaking collaboration. As Dulat says in the introduction, “the truth is a kaleidoscope”. If only this one had better craftsmanship, it might have made for better viewing.
Deepali Pant Joshi is former executive director, RBI