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Indian Spy Masters Speak

By Malladi Rama Rao

1. Title: Spy Chronicles, Raw, ISI And the Illusion of Peace
Authors: A S Daulat, Asad Durrani & Aditya Sinha
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 312. Price: Rs. 799/-

2. Title: The Unending Game, A Former R&AW chief’s
Insights into Espionage
Author: Vikram Sood
Publisher: Penguin, Viking
Pages; 282 Price: Rs. 599/-

Books by Indian spymasters are very rare. So two books by two retired espionage chiefs in the same calendar year is no more than a bonus for students of contemporary history. Both do not set the Yamuna on fire. There are no damning revelations since A S Daulat and Vikram Sood are not cut in the mode of their CIA counterparts, who take delight in washing dirty linen post-retirement. Nonetheless, both offer good fodder for thought with their insights into a wide range of issues that include Pakistani bomb and the India-Pakistan relations in which Kashmir has come to play a major role.

Sood’s ‘The Unending Game’ is a solo-effort unlike Daulat’s ‘Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace’, which was a collaboration with Asad Durrani, a former ISI chief. This book addresses all categories – the believers and the skeptics but is not meant exclusively for intelligence professionals. It is not a personal memoir, nor is it about R&AW for which Sood worked after his transition from the Indian Postal Service. Instead, it seeks to familiarise the reader with the intricacies of espionage and intelligence collection. The reader is transported to the classroom to learn about basics like the definition of intelligence and how spies work. And the book falls by the way-side.

While on ‘The Asian Playing Fields’, Vikram Sood does not tell us beyond the mundane. He writes: “In Pakistan’s case, the ISI is part of the force that drives the country’s foreign policy and determines strategic priorities. In India, the R&AW remains a service provider to the policymakers. The ISI has a high profile in Pakistan than R&AW has in India”.

Indira Gandhi created R&AW in 1968 while Major General Walter Joseph Cawthrone, an Australian with the Pakistan Army helped set up the ISI in 1948. There can be no objective comparison between the ISI and any other intelligence agency operating in a democratic environment, more so after ISI has morphed into a special force that recruits, trains, and equips and sends out jihadis into Afghanistan and Kashmir. As senior CFR fellow Daniel Markey says, ISI is part of Pakistan’s entrenched, unelected and opaque deep state. Some right-wing leaders nurtured by ISI are part of the deep state as the Americans have realized after Raymond Davis episode in 2011.

What about China? First under Deng Xiaoping and now under Xi Jinping, China, in order to keep pace with its global ambitions, has spurred its intelligence activities. This new player on the global scene has drawn lessons from the US strength, which also is its Achilles heel – reliance on technology and information systems in warfare. So it has gone in for systematic ability to hack and steal and to hunt in the US for denied technologies.

What about China vis-à-vis India? Says Sood: “The Chinese have interfered in India’s north-east in the past but this interest has been declining in recent years. Their new found interest in Arunachal Pradesh could, of course, lead to renewed meddling in the region”. In his assessment, India will have to make matching efforts in cyber warfare and cybersecurity and R&AW will have to strengthen HUMINT (field network) capacities in China and use all other non-diplomatic means to collect intelligence. This advisory ignores his own reality check that it is difficult to find agents in China who are of Indian ethnicity. There is hardly any non-diplomatic cover available as there are very few Indian companies operating in China. Moreover, the Chinese ensure that Indians have no access to the Tibetans in Tibet.

Sood has devoted a long chapter on ‘State of Surveillance’. In another chapter, he elaborated on the triangle between the terrorist, the criminal, and the spy. Both chapters are a must read. The book deals with the dilemma the debate about privacy and freedom has generated in these days of heightened security concerns and stepped up surveillance since “terrorism has become cheap and unremittingly lethal”. It also examines in detail the new dangers the social media has thrown up in the wake of the exposure of Cambridge Analytica’s tryst with the American Presidential election.

Today we are living in a world where the buzz word is instant. Information is exchanged in microseconds. And it increases security risks as India has learned the hard way. Jammat-ud- Dawa (JuD) and its ideological mentor, Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) have a huge presence on the Internet and social media and have ushered in the age of Digital Jihad. Even the ISI is said to be spreading its network into India’s cities beyond Kashmir for recruitment of spies and jihadi outfits. This naturally makes the task of Indian counter-intelligence not merely difficult but very difficult indeed.

Chandraswamy pops up suddenly in the Sood narrative, and his games to prop up Rajiv Gandhi, Chandrasekhar and P V Narasimha Rao (in that order) make interesting reading. Surprisingly, the author throws up no new light and what he says is mostly in the public domain. There can be no denying his assessment however that Chandraswami died mostly unsung and possibly unmourned. Also, his lament that the R&AW did not get the attention it deserved during Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, and the Rao regimes. It was a lost decade for the R&AW which had as many as nine heads in succession. Amarjit Singh Dulat headed the outfit for two years after this decade. His stint 1999-2000 coincided with the Vajpayee years.

Dulat’s book with Durrani is devised in the form of extensive dialogues on relations between India and Pakistan with journalist Aditya Sinha acting as a moderator. When Dulat mooted the idea of writing a joint book, Durrani laughed it off saying, “Nobody will believe it even if it was written as fiction.” The project finally took off in 2016 thanks to the trust the two men had developed in each other in their post-retirement years, and the joint papers they had written on a couple of Track IIs, on intelligence cooperation and Kashmir.

They met in Istanbul, Bangkok, and Kathmandu and discussed topics like Kashmir and a missed opportunity for peace, Hafiz Saeed and 26/11, Kulbhushan Jadhav, “surgical strikes”, and how violence undermines the attempts of the two countries at negotiations, besides the “deal” for Osama bin Laden and US -Russia factor in the India-Pakistan relations. Their 312-page book is the first of its kind wherein the spymasters of the rival agencies worked together on the same assignment.

Daulat and Durrani have spoken quite frankly, without spelling any secrets, of course, on leading public figures, military personalities, as well as the spy service personnel on both sides. Expectedly, Vajpayee comes in for very positive appraisal while Modi, the Bhuttos, Zardari, and Sharif get a negative rating.

On the September 9 surgical strikes, Durrani’s take reflects the establishment view. He dubbed the surgical strike as “a modified hot pursuit”. And went on to bluntly puncture the Indian balloon thus: “In military terms, a surgical strike would normally be something like dropping special services 200 km behind enemy lines to carry out a spectacular attack against a sensitive target: a nuclear installation, a GHQ; or Osama bin Laden. Shelling across the LoC, and a raid a couple of hundred meters inside enemy territory to kill a few goats would not exactly meet the criteria. But then the bigger purpose – a political one – could be fulfilled. That is why for some it’s a genuine surgical strike, for others a political surgical strike, and for yet others a fake surgical strike”.

Durrani’s take on yet another subject is no less interesting. When Daulat said, “I would love to meet Maharaja Amarinder Singh in Lahore. He would think he’s following Maharaja Ranjit Singh,” he asked tongue in cheek: “Who will accompany him as Maharani?”

The short point is that Durrani remained true to his moorings in his interaction with his Indian counterpart. Yet he has been hauled up by the Pakistani media and political class and has been barred from leaving the country till the GHQ completes an inquiry into the charge that he had violated the army code of conduct with the comments he had made in the book.

From what is in public domain, Durrani can be said to have already invited the wrath of the Deep State by his comments on a host of issues that matter for the establishment. He angered the powers that be with his confession that he had spent as the ISI chief millions of military dollars to influence the outcome of 1990 elections. The book controversy offered the opening for proceeding against the 77-year old, who was known as FireFox during his army days.

(This review first appeared in Power Politics magazine)