The brain behind India’s strategic shift
Aasha Khosa | November 2, 2016 | New Delhi
Should the Indians be worried about Afghanistan’s future? National security advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval offers a perspective on this.
In 2001 then US president George W Bush had launched an all-out ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in Afghanistan against the ruling Taliban, which had turned the ancient country into a sanctuary for global terrorists like Osama bin Laden. Bush had then dialled New Delhi and Islamabad. He needed India, the biggest player in the region, to be on his side in Afghanistan. However, for Islamabad, the US had a different set of tasks. As former president Pervez Musharraf admitted in his book, ‘In the line of Fire: A Memoir’, then US secretary of state Richard Armitage had told his counterpart that unless Pakistan took a decisive action against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the country will be bombed so furiously that it would go back to the stone age. A shocked Islamabad had grudgingly obliged the US, but it continued its covert policy of cultivating terrorists like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Ismail Khan in Afghanistan as its strategic assets. The ISI paid and protected the warlords-turned-terrorists and used them for attacking the US-led forces in Afghanistan. The smart Americans always knew about the Pakistani plan and yet continued to supply arms and pumping aid of $10 billion to it.
One day, finally the US said it would pull out its troops from Afghanistan; and called a meeting of stakeholder nations to work out the transition of the war-torn country’s security into Afghan hands. One stakeholder was kept out: India – the fifth largest donor to the global funds for Afghanistan and a major player in building infrastructure for Kabul and training its army, police and other officials for running the government in Kabul.
As part of his campaign to educate people about risks to India’s security, Doval explained it further to a packed house in Delhi that like a spoilt child, Pakistan had insisted on India’s exclusion and the US had agreed. In fact the US had allowed Islamabad to deal with Afghanistan as it liked. However, behind this obsequiousness was a tacit agreement it had arrived at with Islamabad. Pakistan, as per the agreement, had agreed to ensure that terrorists operating from its soil and its ‘assets’ in Afghanistan would not target America and the West. Doval said in this situation the Al Qaedas and the Talibans would be left to focus on India and especially Kashmir.
....One is the defensive mode that you see all the chowkidars and chaprasis outside… that is if somebody comes here we will defend this. Second is defensive-offence in which we will defend ourselves; we will go to the place from where the offence is coming. Third is offensive… in which you go all-out to hit. Nuclear threshold is a difficulty in defensive mode; not in defensive-offence. While we are working today only in the defensive mode, when we come into defensive-offence we start working on vulnerabilities of Pakistan – it can be economical, it can be internal security, their isolation internationally; it can be of exposing their terrorist activities… it can be defeating their policies in Afghanistan, it can be making them difficult to manage the internal political balance… but when you change the engagement from defensive mode because in the defensive mode you throw hundred stones on me I stop ninety but still ten hurt me and I can never win. Because either I lose or there is a stalemate. You start war at your time, you throw a stone when you want, you have peace when you want, you have talks when you want. If we are in a defensive-offence we will see where the balance of equilibrium is. Pakistan’s vulnerability is many times higher than India’s. Once they know that India has shifted its gears from defensive mode to defensive-offence mode, they will find it’s unaffordable for them. You can do one Mumbai you may lose Balochistan. There is no nuclear war involved.
Verbatim, from an undated speech at Sastra University, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu.
The audience are all ears for Doval. He says, this time in a raised voice, that India has to stop living with the pretence of being a peace-loving nation and not taking on the enemies upfront. “You never defeat an enemy that you can’t identify,” he said. To make his point, he invoked Lord Krishna’s message in the Bhagavad Gita to his friend Arjuna. “Even the God has ordained us to fight a war. He told Arjuna, never mind even if it means taking up arms against his close relatives in order to make way for righteousness to prevail. Krishna had told Arjuna that he must not think of the pros and cons of a war since the conflict is about ‘dharma’.”
The hall resonated with thunderous applause.
In fact, long before he was handpicked by prime minister Narendra Modi as India’s fifth NSA and was to emerge as one of the most influential figures in the government, for nine years Doval was busy in changing the perceptions of public on national security and nation-building. The 71-year-old career spy hung up his boots as the head of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in January 2005 and took to giving discourses in universities, think tanks, professional bodies and social clubs. His speeches have today become a rage on the internet.
To his admirers, spy Doval is a living legend; a hero with unmatched courage and sharp thinking on India’s security and strategic interests. His critics envy his qualities of head and heart yet can’t find fault with him. “I have to admit that he is an A-class intelligence officer and knows his job very well,” remarks former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief AS Dulat, who as his senior has been following Doval’s work and career for 47 years. “Though he has been a bit of a loner, but, I guess that comes with the kind of work he was doing.”
Dulat says Doval’s success as NSA is also because of the fact that he and PM Modi think alike on matters of national security. People who have known Doval closely can clearly see his signature on Modi’s key foreign policy decisions. Be it Modi’s invite to the SAARC leaders for his swearing-in ceremony or the army’s surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads in PoK, these are vignettes from Doval’s dream of India as a strong nation and not the one mired in inertia and content with its global image as a soft state. A senior minister in the Modi government said that the PM’s strong presence in the social media is also part of this makeover plan. “Why should India always look like a soft state where [actor] Shah Rukh Khan has more followers on social media than the prime minister?” he told Governance Now. “This has changed now,” he said referring to the PM’s huge fan following on the social media.
Doval, on his part, has had no political leanings. His peers say that senior BJP leader LK Advani had taken instant liking for Doval’s ideas. This was when Doval, as the head of Operations, IB, was reporting to Advani, then home minister. The two struck a rapport and this, incidentally, took Doval closer to the saffron party. In fact, the BJP’s white paper on the black money stashed abroad that became a major issue in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was based on Doval’s research. After his retirement from the government job, in 2009 he set up the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think tank with ideological affinity with the BJP. He stepped down as the director of VIF when he was named the NSA in 2014. His colleagues in VIF say that he put his heart and soul in shaping the ‘right’ think tank as a result of which it has been placed at number 20 in a global ranking of the ‘think tanks to watch for’ prepared by the University of Pennsylvania. It has also listed VIF at number 40 in its list of ‘best NGOs with political affiliations’ (2015).
So far Doval has not courted controversy except when media chose to question the rise of his son, Shaurya Doval, an investment banker, as one of the key policymakers of the Modi government. Shaurya, in his forties, is the co-founder of the RSS-BJP-backed think tank India Foundation, which is believed to be giving key policy inputs to the government.
Doval is the second Indian police service (IPS) officer to hold this position – the first was MK Narayanan, who became NSA after the sudden death of incumbent JN Dixit. Generally the job is considered reserved for the members of the Indian Foreign Service (IFS). No wonder, a lot of retired diplomats and other veterans openly criticised Doval for the Pathankot attack, blaming him for all that had allegedly gone wrong in combating the Pakistani terrorists who had sneaked into the cantonment. “He is one of the finest intelligence officers in the country and tailor-made for this job, but then he has to understand that the national security of a nation is a bigger responsibility and can’t be run like an operation room of an intelligence agency,” says Dulat.
Doval calls the shots in security and foreign matters in the Modi government. No major decision is taken without the NSA’s input and knowledge. Sources say many ministries report to him on a regular basis. Unlike his predecessors, Doval has not confined his office to an appendage of the prime minister’s office (PMO) in South Block: he has a separate office in the Patel Bhawan in Lutyen’s Delhi. At any key event like the BRICS or BIMSTEC meet, Doval can be seen seated along with senior ministers like Sushma Swaraj and Rajnath Singh. He enjoys perks and position of a cabinet minister.
It took a while for the rest to accept the fact that this NSA is different; he not only has the desired exposure to foreign service but also the alacrity of a spy. They realised this only after the surgical strikes. KM Singh, a former IB chief and Doval’s batchmate, says, “For IFS officers, it’s mandatory to have done a stint in a neighbouring country and another in a developed country – Doval has both and, in fact, his double tenure in Islamabad was the most challenging one. Therefore, the criticism is unwanted.” Besides, he says, Doval has hands-on experience of dealing with all the major internal insurgencies like those in Punjab, Mizoram and Kashmir, and thus has a broader perspective of the security scenario. People who have visited the NSA’s home and office say he is a voracious reader, and many of them add that he owns one of the best private libraries in town.
Sajjad Lone, a minister in the J&K government, has said that the only time he has to prepare ahead of a meeting is when the other side is Doval. As IB chief, Doval had prompted Lone and many other Kashmiri youngsters to join the political mainstream.
In 2009, Doval set up the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think tank with ideological affinity with the BJP
When he was asked at a public function how he maintained the agility of his mind, Doval shared a tip. He said the human brain is like a sponge; the more you keep its pores unclogged and away from the muck, the more it will absorb the right things. “Don’t waste your mind on petty jealousies and thinking about what others are thinking. Keep your mind free for things that matter the most. The rest of the time you remain relaxed and enjoy life.”
His close friend and colleague KM Singh says, “Ajit does not think small.” For this reason, he says, Doval is often misunderstood as an unhelpful and asocial person. “Yes, he does not believe in social life and is a workaholic.”
Doval was recently asked about the sweeping powers he enjoys that, at times, seem to infringe upon those of some political leaders. A former civil servant had asked the NSA, at the Lalit Doshi Foundation Memorial Lecture in Mumbai in August 2015, how he could dare to call the Pakistani high commissioner and reprimand him for unprovoked firing on the line of control in Kashmir while traditionally it’s the prerogative of the external affairs minister. His reply left everyone speechless.
He said, “It has nothing to do with conflict of values; it has something to do with what you consider as urgent. When at Ufa [in Russia, where Modi and Nawaz Sharif met] it was agreed that there will be no border firing and then the Pakistanis started firing [on LoC]. So it was absolutely necessary to tell them without any loss of time that you stop it, otherwise we will retaliate and we will retaliate with effect…when there is an immediacy you don’t go into who should be talking to whom…”
He explained it further, “There is nothing like only the PMO dictates the terms or calls the shots. It’s completely wrong…It’s all a teamwork and we all work as a very, very well-knit team. Sometimes there is a conflict between what is important and what is immediate… but when there is convergence between what is important and what is immediate and yet you go through a bureaucratic procedure then you don’t deserve to be in a place you are… Here it’s both important and immediate, so lead it from the front.”
Who is Ajit Kumar Doval? Except for the few details which are bound to be in public domain in case of any civil servant, not much is known about the super spy. Till his retirement from the government job, Doval’s persona was that of a typical undercover agent. Digging into his life to know about the man was challenging as most of those who spoke say there was no life beyond work for him. “For most of us, the priorities in life are our family, social life and work in that order. In his case it’s just upside down,” says a batchmate of the 1968 IPS officer of Kerala cadre. “His personality differs from most of us; he is a total workaholic,” he adds.
An acquaintance of Doval from Kashmir quips, “Apart from work, he is a regular guy; loves all good things of life, especially the pan masala.”
Son of an engineering officer in the army, Doval was born in a small village of Ghiri Banelsyun in what is today Uttarakhand. His father was one of the earliest to have left the village for a career. Today, Ghiri Banelsyun is nearly deserted as most of its original residents have shifted to towns and cities for better livelihood. An Uttrakhand officer said Doval visited the village a few months back and the people there urged him to do something to reverse the migration from the hills.
Doval has a separate office in the Patel Bhawan in Lutyen’s Delhi
Doval’s first posting was as additional superintendent of police (ASP) of Kottayam in 1968. Kerala in those days was known for political agitations that would turn violent with predictable regularity. Doval, however, was able to break one in Kottayam by simply working on the minds of the agitators. So, when in 1972, he was one of the three IPS officers chosen for induction into the IB under the ‘earmarking’ scheme, which was discontinued in 1977 by the Janata Party government, the Kerala government refused to relieve him. The other two peers to be selected were ESL Narasimhan, who became governor of Andhra Pradesh, and KM Singh, former special director IB and former member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
“This was unusual because generally the states never hold on to the officers like this. But in his case, the IB had to work hard to get him out of Kerala,” recalls Singh.
In his new role, Doval volunteered to go to Mizoram, which was then slipping into chaos. Mizo rebels led by Laldenga had pulled down the Indian flag and declared freedom for the Mizo people, who then lived in Assam. The army, for the first time, had used aerial bombing to contain insurgency in Mizoram. “We thought he was mad,” recalls a former colleague. The young Doval had no qualms in leaving his wife and two sons in Delhi and proceed to Aizawl, where he spent five years, mostly as an undercover agent. “There would be no word from him to us and his family for months,” says a family friend.
Mizoram saw Doval’s first signature assignment. He disguised himself as a rebel and went close to the Mizo National Army (MNA), a lethal extremist group which operated out of Burma and (today’s) Bangladesh. Lt. Gen JFR Jacob, a hero of the 1971 war who as a young army officer was posted in Mizoram, had recalled his encounter with the young Doval. Delivering a lecture on extremism, Gen Jacob said, “We had actually taken him [Doval] as one of the MNA guys and were about to eliminate him. We, in the army, thought of him as a deadly and fearless militant of the MNA till, one day, I was told that he is one of us.”
However, Doval has rarely spoken of his Mizoram experience in public.
Soon Laldenga found that someone had pulled the rug from under his feet as six of his seven top commanders had rebelled against him. He had lost control over his army which was scattered over Burma and what was then East Pakistan. Laldenga was in West Pakistan then. Doval’s magic was working. Pushed to the corner Laldenga’s men soon gave up arms on the Indo-Bangladesh border in a formal ceremony. It was followed by weeks of public celebrations in Aizawl where common Mizos welcomed Laldenga who had signed a peace deal with Delhi in 1972. The Mizo army got converted into Mizo National Front and ever since, Mizoram has remained the most peaceful state in the northeast.
PM Narendra Modi being given a presentation on counter-terrorist and combing operation by the defence forces, at Pathankot Airbase in January. NSA Ajit Doval is seen along with army chief General Dalbir Singh and air chief Marshal Arup Raha.
Doval earned a police medal for his extraordinary courage. In fact, the Rajiv Gandhi government had to bend rules according to which the recipient of police medal should have completed 14 years of service. Doval had been in job for seven years then.
Doval’s next posting was in Delhi. But given his penchant for risk, he was soon posted to Islamabad as first secretary, commerce, in the Indian high commission. Of course, back then, there was hardly any commerce taking place between the two neighbours for him to take care of. Doval, in fact, had gone there as an undercover agent. He often speaks of two incidents in Pakistan when he was almost caught. Once, an old man with a flowing white beard approached him in a mosque in Lahore. He asked him if he was a Hindu. Doval denied it but as the old man, who looked every inch a devout Muslim, insisted, he had to admit the truth. The old man told him that his pierced ears had given away his identity. (Doval has explained the old custom in his native place of piercing the ears of boys – something that is never done among Muslims.) The old man advised him to fix his ears to remain incognito. Later the old man took Doval to his home where he showed him idols of Hindu gods which he used to worship secretly. He was a Pakistani Hindu disguised as a Muslim to escape persecution.
The second instance that Doval has spoken about is his visit to the ‘mujras’ in Lahore. On one such evening, a fellow visitor alerted him about his artificial moustache peeling off from his skin!
Doval became indispensable for the high commission and he served a second term in Islamabad. “Again, this is unusual. Nobody is given more than one term in Islamabad, which is considered a difficult posting,” a peer says.
Doval’s best was yet to come. In 1988, a cleric-turned-ideologue named Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale of Babbar Khalsa was dreaming of carving an independent State of Khalistan out of Punjab. He had taken control of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The earlier army operation against extremists – Operation Blue Star – had gone horribly wrong. Extensive damage to the sanctum sanctorum of the holiest of the Sikh shrines – Harmandir Sahib – had hurt the psyche of the community and spawned more insurgency. This time, the government was working with caution. Doval was in the middle of the planning for the final operation that was named Black Thunder. He parked himself outside the Golden Temple as a cobbler for three months from where he kept surveillance on the visitors and inmates. Closer to the date of the operation, he went inside the temple posing as an ISI agent. Fearless as he is, Doval went straight to the gun-toting militants and assured them about the supply of arms and Pakistan’s help while he was making a headcount of the extremists and taking mental notes of their location. His inputs helped police and army to plan a meticulous strategy for ‘surgical strikes’ against the band of terrorists without entering the temple. Some of the terrorists were shot dead by sharp shooters from a distance; the rest came out like rats out of holes and surrendered. The image of terrorists coming out with their hands raised for surrender, shown live on television, changed public perceptions on Punjab terrorists. This was the beginning of the end of the Khalistan movement.
Thereafter, Doval became the first non-military man to receive the Kirti Chakra, the highest peace-time award for valour for his valuable contribution to Operation Black Thunder.
People who have worked with him say that besides being a fearless person, Doval has an uncanny habit of speaking the truth always – so much unlike a spy. “I asked him once how he manages with so much truthfulness,” says an operative who has known him since the operations in the heydays of insurgency in Kashmir where he was posted as the joint director of IB. “He told me there are two benefits of being truthful – one, your contact may not believe you and he would keep thinking that you are lying to him and his state of mind will give you an upper hand in negotiating with him. The second is that when he discovers that you had actually spoken the truth, he would have more faith in you and things will become easier.”
He was also witness to Doval’s meeting with a top Kashmiri terrorist who carried a reward of '5 lakh on his head. “He told me once that this terrorist had wanted to meet him [Doval].” With the help of former militants who were working with the army, the terrorist came to meet Doval in his office, located in the foothills of Zabarwan on Srinagar’s Gupkar Road. “I was waiting outside when the said militant was brought in a bulletproof car to Doval’s office. The two remained closeted for half an hour. Later, I asked him how he allowed the dreaded terrorist to come to his office without being subjected to body search. In reply, Doval smiled. He had told the terrorist that police was looking for him and would surely want to bump him off for the reward he carried on his head. Therefore, he told the terrorist, he must surrender immediately. Sadly, he was killed in an encounter by police within two days.”
Contrary to media reports, Doval had no direct role in making counter-terrorists like Kukka Parray a force to reckon with against the Pakistan-backed Hizbul Mujahideen. Liyaqat Khan, a former counter-insurgent who had once cooperated with the security forces and made Anantnag and large swathes of south Kashmir free of Hizbul’s dominance, says Doval would always advise him to join a political party. “Kukka Parray and Abdul Majid Bandey [the Congress legislator from Bandipore] were successful but I somehow could not make it.” Doval had wanted to incorporate Kashmiri youth into the mainstream by giving them stakes in India’s future. Liyaqat, who like many others is left in the lurch by the successive elected governments of J&K, says it was Doval and Lt. Gen Shantanu Choudhary who had successfully canvassed for raising a battalion of the Territorial Army for the surrendered militants. “They were visionaries, for they could see that once an elected government returns in Kashmir, our contribution to containing pro-Pakistan forces will be forgotten,” says Liyaqat. The two officers were instrumental in taking the counter-insurgents to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then home minister LK Advani. Finally, the government had decided to raise a battalion of the former insurgents in Kashmir. “That time, the pro-Pakistanis made a big propaganda against this. I got influenced and did not join the army. But 25 percent of my boys are today part of this battalion and proud soldiers,” he says.
From the operational side, Doval had helped various security forces and agencies achieve a level of coordination to maximise their gains against Kashmiri terrorists. However, handing over terrorist Masood Azhar and others to Taliban at Kandahar to get 190 passengers of the hijacked IC 814 released was the lowest moment of his career, though he had played a key role in negotiations for the swap.
“He is the best intelligence officer and the best man for operations,” says Dulat who has written a book on Vajpayee’s handling of Kashmir. “I would say Vajpayee-Brajesh Mishra was the best combination and Modi-Doval is a greater combination.”
After the army’s surgical strikes in PoK in September, his reputation has travelled to Pakistan, where he is giving jitters to the security establishment. Media debates and commentators are asking the Sharif government to replace diplomat-turned-NSA Sartaj Aziz with someone matching Doval’s stature and mind power. The Doval scare has bitten the establishment as well as opinion makers in Pakistan. Many have come to favour making peace with India by rounding up terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and Azhar Masood. Many are warning Sharif against Doval’s strategy of choking Pakistan on all fronts – diplomatic, trade and internal security – to deter Pakistan from sending terrorists to India. He’s real, they are crying.
(The article appears as cover story in the November 1-15, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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