Take a big cauldron, put two sworn enemies – one an ex Indian RAW chief and the other a ISI chief - add some shimmering spices of Kashmir, Afghanistan, Punjab and Baluchistan conflicts and crank up the heat. What do you think you'll get after a while? A volcanic eruption?
If you read The Spy Chronicles – RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace a compendium of conversations between India's ex-RAW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat and Pakistan's ex-ISI chief General Asad Durrani moderated and later edited by journalist Aditya Sinha, you'll find disbelief in that pot.
In this book, the deadly recipe seems to have created Walk in the Woods moments – two arch enemies not only talk peace while honestly admitting mistakes their countries made, but also find workable solutions for cooperation and prosperity in the region.
The big mystery in the 'spy thriller' is this: how did venom turned nectar, what made two warmongering spooks spook up and turn peaceniks or as Dulat himself writes in his preface: "....there will be people who will say how did these swines get so chummy...After all we have each been a part of licensed skullduggery on either side."
To unravel this enigma, we need to, as Aditya Sinha writes, go, "to the heart of the India-Pakistan relationship; a deep dive into the Deep State if you will".
A veteran soldier of the 1965 and 1971 war, General Durrani, who later headed Inter Service Intelligence – ISI, has been a known hawk against India during his working days. And though Dulat may sound like a dove in this and his previous book on Kashmir, one shouldn't forget he's a career spy, spending his life first in the Intelligence Bureau and then in Research and Analysis Wing, RAW.
A hint of the hawk and dove parroting lines of peace is found in the very first line of the preface by Asad Durrani: "I was born an Indian – There was no Pakistan then." Dulat seems to philosophise their motivation when he says, "There are normally more than two sides to most stories. Truth is a kaleidoscope."
And the many moving mosaics provided by this kaleidoscope are sights to behold.
A background for this unusual camaraderie was lent by providence. In May 2015, Dulat – through long retired – used some of his old contacts to rescue Durrani's son who was detained at Mumbai airport for a silly mistake.
But if you thought this would take the edge off from the interaction between two old enemies, you're wrong.
When Durrani says, “India is not just status quo but a strictly status quo power. It will do everything to preserve that and not even move in a direction from which it may benefit…", Dulat counters by saying: "If the status quo helps anyone, it helps Pakistan."
But Durrani has reasons for his observation, "...(for India) improving relations with Pakistan, even if not limited to Kashmir, meant peace but also meant compromises on certain policies, because it’s a give and take. Therefore, the saying: the price for peace is at times higher than the price of conflict. Conflict is manageable, there will be occasional firing across the border, and people may die. But the price of peace may entail accepting old division of Kashmir or arrangement with Pakistan, changing the former Indus Water Treaty, etc. That might trigger other dynamics."
Asked by Sinha about the future of this status quo, Durrani replied, "Twenty years from now, chances are we'll have a different type of stability...On the other hand, if I look back, 20 years ago we had these same problems: Kashmir, India-Pakistan friction, Afghanistan...Status quo means a stability of a particular kind. The more we change, the more we remain the same."
Sums up perfectly the India Pakistan relationship of the last 71 years, doesn't it?
'Kashmir not a military problem'
Despite their obvious differences in personalities and worldview, the ex-spymasters operate from a space of mutual respect. When Durrani talks about India's role in the bifurcation of Pakistan in 1971, Dulat does not remind him of the brutality of the Pakistani forces that led to it, just as Durrani does not rub salt by talking about the violence of the Indian state when Dulat talks of Kashmir.
Dulat hints at the reason for his change of heart thus, "I must admit that back in my IB years...I'd say, Pakistan is screwing us in Kashmir, how is people-to-people contact going to help? But since then, one has seen a lot. One has experienced a lot."
This way, Dulat also takes us to the root of the Indo-Pakistan problem – lack of interaction between its people. Citizens of both countries, when they visit the other, return with fond memories of exciting interaction and kindnesses from strangers after they reveal they belong to the 'enemy' nation (as this writer can himself attest from his Lahore visit). We see first-hand how there are more common things that unite us than those that divide and that our enmity is as manufactured as the one between the two hands of one body.
But how do we treat our own countrymen? Indians calls Kashmir its integral part. Yet the same Indian looks at a Kashmiri living in his midst with suspicion. Instead of compassion, he hounds him, mobs and beats him. Why does it then surprise us that the Kashmiri wants every semblance of India out of their midst and would use any means to do so, be it the gun or the stone?
Dulat says, "I've believed that if the Kashmiri is happier, the fallback position you (Pakistan) provide would diminish and hopefully over a period of time, disappear. If the Kashmiri is happy, then why does he need Pakistan? He needs it when he's in trouble?"
A year before the current conflict in Kashmir brewed, Dulat found the reason for the same, "Once Mehbooba became CM....the RSS-types spoke of special camps for sainiks and for the Pandits, etc., and every now and then dropped hints that Article 370 was unnecessary. The Kashmiri felt that he was being taken for granted, and that in his own land, he might be reduced to a minority. Then where does he go? That is the real fear. It has never been as conspicuous as now.”
"We forget that Kashmir is not a military problem," Dulat says and adds, "India has its team, Pakistan its team, and the Kashmiris are in between."
Durrani, meanwhile, articulates why the two nations might not want peace in Kashmir. He says if things were to quieten down, Kashmir is likely to move towards independence and, "Pakistan and India will both have less influence and powerful Westerners will take over Kashmir."
But is this reason enough to keep Kashmir as the tennis ball that both Indian and Pakistan beat to beyond endurance point with their political racket?
Dulat and Durrani’s honesty may be disconcerting for a reader not used to the same from the establishment. Hence one can be forgiven for wondering if this book is the case of "Sau chuhe khake billi haj ko chali" (After eating 100 mice, the cat goes on a pilgrimage). Even if it is the case, why did the cat kill the 100 mice and what wisdom did it find in its pilgrimage?
Perhaps the answer lies in their culture. Both A S Dulat and A Durrani, besides sharing the 'A' and 'D' in their names, are Punjabis. They are like brothers from another motherland but with the same culture. It is evident because they finish each other's thoughts through the book.
Talking about resolution to Kashmir Durrani says, "Everyone must remember the conventional wisdom: you don't always get what you want. Take whatever you can get. You never have to say it's over… you take it, improve your position and after a decent interval of five, eight or ten years you come back and ask."
To this Dulat concurs, "Call it the semifinal or quarterfinal; and who knows what may happen."
Dulat seems like a fan-boy of ex-PM A B Vajpayee and believes he did more than anyone else for Indo-Pak relations. It is expected because Dulat served under him. What is unexpected is Durrani’s soft heart towards Vajpayee despite knowing his right-wing RSS background. Durrani says: "He had the good of the region at heart...he said, we never know what USA was up to in this region. For a man of few words, this single sentence was enough. Some didn’t get it, on either side, that cozying up to the US has never been a good idea."
Half a book later, Durrani seems to add to this when he says: “...Henry Kissinger's most quoted statement: being enemies with the US is dangerous, being friends is fatal. It's been proven in cases like Musharraf, Saddam, Mubarak, Shah of Iran and it will continue. Even with Europeans, at times."
It is interesting that two people with such different viewpoints, ex-enemies with dissimilar approaches to everything from war to peace, could reach similar conclusions at the end of their lives. It's like one river bifurcating, travelling separately a long distance but finally merging. Perhaps India and Pakistan could be like that.
Narendra Modi's Pakistan policy
Talking about the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi, both begin optimistically. Dulat says, "As surprising as it may sound, Modi did more in his first two years for India-Pakistan relations than his predecessor. It's a different, instinctive diplomacy in which the foreign office has little role. It fully flows out of the PMO and so happens easily...He had the imagination to invite Mian Saheb (Nawaz Sharif) for his swearing-in".
Later however, Dulat says, "Unfortunately, despite everybody's intentions, the relationship has reached a dead end fast...The politics is too mixed up, unlike with Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee, who kept it in the background....Every Prime Minister is political but we don't have to make it so crude."
Sinha's question, "What is Modi's Pakistan policy?" leads Dulat to reply, "Frankly I don't know. There is no Pakistan policy.” Durrani retorts, "(NSA Ajit) Doval is his Pakistan policy."
Durrani says, “I’ve not been impressed by his (Modi) antics. What did he mean crash landing after giving Pakistan an earful in Afghanistan...I prefer someone like Vajpayee who did not deliver but his approach was right. A person who manages the relationship well will not keep you on tenterhooks."
What is interesting and ironic is that Durrani believes Pakistan can do better business with a 'BJP Hindu government". He explains, it is "...because hardliners can take hard decisions...The Vajpayee government gave us the impression that a Muslim-baiter in power in India would not necessarily be a bad thing. This party may be able to take decisions the Congress was unable to."
In this context, one must not forget that it is in Congress' rule that Kashmir went from good to bad to downright unmanageable that it is today.
Does this mean PM Modi could have solved Kashmir? Durrani doesn't think so, "Modi is a showman. He likes theatrics... He has no intention of doing good for the region; his only thought is of creating an impact back home." Dulat adds, "Modi's guys are obsessed with elections and move from election to election."
A political Surgical Strike
One of the biggest hints Durrani gives for his change of heart is when he says, “People like us during our career believed in the muscular approach, kinetic use, nuclear bomb, etc. Once free, one can say we know the price. We know what we've done. Continuing is pointless.” Dulat agrees, “That’s the thing. We know the price.”
Durrani adds, “We have exchanged not only words, but also other assets. Having done that, we do not have any desire to continue doing something for the sake of it. That's why we believe in taking a calmer view.”
Durrani however is not calm when he targets people who make statements like 'Terror and talks don't go together' or 'You don’t talk to terrorists'. He says, "You actually talk all the time to terrorists. For the (spy) agency of any sensible country, these are the most important people to talk to."
When Dulat says, "Militancy in Kashmir….The tap can be turned off whenever Pakistan wants… Kashmiri boys cannot come and go with impunity if you don’t want them to,” Durrani throws a googly.
While accepting that the “State can influence events” he advises against it. His logic is that if Pakistan does not, “engage with the Haqqanis’ or the Kashmiris' resistance, others from within the country would, and the borders allow these groups to be beyond one's control.” He thinks it would be catastrophic even from India's perspective if Pakistan were to lose leverage on Kashmir.
There are honest admissions from Dulat's side as well, like when he says, "Terrorism has become a part of Kashmir's landscape. The moment things get better, something goes wrong. In a lot of cases, we are to blame." About Gujarat he says, "What Muslims went through in Gujarat was bound to have repercussions. Yes, some boys did go across to Pakistan," adding later, “The Indian Muslim is a cool Muslim: he is rational, moderate and not interested in getting involved in nonsense. They would rather stay out of this mess. Yet radicalism is growing, perhaps as a result of our muscular policy."
Talking about muscular policy against 'terrorists' Durrani says: "Our region has produced more terrorists because we call them terrorists…There are ethnic dissidents and political dissidents, but all of them are lumped together as 'terrorists'. The only definition of terrorist is now the militant… if I (the state) don’t like you, I call you a terrorist and do whatever I like with you….It is a problem because when everyone is a terrorist, you treat them with the same hammer. One size fits all. So talking from a position of strength turned out to be a fallacy."
Durrani also has wise words about India's much publicised surgical strikes. "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's why for some it's a genuine surgical strike, for others a political surgical strike and for yet others a fake surgical strike. In all cases it serves a strategic purpose."
Like Valmiki – the hunter turned dacoit turned sage - Durrani has wise words about war. "It at least is easier to start a war – any bloody fool can do it – than making and keeping peace that needed everyone who could throw a spanner in the works to come and remain on-board."
Wise words from a veteran soldier of two wars.
'Structures have screwed us'
Though the whole books surprises the reader, what shocks the most is the last section. "Looking ahead". Here, the two offer suggestions for building confidence between the two countries. They range from sensible to downright whacky. Dulat is all about confidence building measures - which incidentally Durrani also talks about earlier - while Durrani favours durable structures for a long-term breakthrough.
Durrani suggests things like a back channel between the spy agencies hidden from the public gaze, and rather than just one confidant each of both PMs, he prefers creating a team headed by someone considered suitable by the major political parties, foreign office and military. This team would play the mediator every time something went wrong between the two countries so that catastrophe could be avoided.
Dulat on the other hand suggests simpler means like people to people visits, increasing flights between the two countries, encouraging cultural, arts, literary, sports meets, cricket, soft borders, focus on Kashmir etc.
Durrani says: “Like a military man I have given a structured answer” to which Dulat counters, “Structures have screwed us, Sir.” But Durrani responds, “Simply saying we should do this-that has not helped… the way is in a concrete construct and a mock-up.”
But it is Dulat who is whacky when he says the Pakistan PM can be a “regular guest in Delhi. When the weather is good, he should be having lunch with Modiji at Hyderabad House” and “It’s often forgotten that our Muslim population is what, second in the world? So why shouldn't India be a member of the OIC?”
Durrani sticks to his “away from the limelight” “council of wise-men” who are “patient, discreet and know the art of sounding out the right ear at the right moment.”
He was expecting his name to crop up in case such a list was created. However, the fallout of the book has been an interrogation against him by the Pakistani army who has also barred him from flying abroad. Perhaps someone ought to remind the general what George Orwell said: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” And as both Dulat and Durrani know, the reward of a revolution, especially one towards peace and justice, is mostly the loss of one's head.
There are many things in the book that can offend the Pakistani patriot (as it can offend the Indian). But the end of the book could be one of them.
Both rubbish RSS' crude 'Akhand Bharat' program. But they have a different and unique solution, which many might argue is Akhand Bharat by another name. Durrani says, “Right now it's impossible to create a coalition or a union like the European Union, whose relevance is itself in doubt, but at some stage we can think of a commoncurrencyor laws applicable to when we develop the new South Asian Union: a Confederation of South Asia. We can do it at least as well as the Europeans have. If not, we can be content that some of our disputes are sorting out.
"Durrani walks into a storm next when he says, "Delhi as the capital of a Union. Armed forces integrated. Reduction of forces numbers by ratio. In a hundred years, most of the demands of an Akhand Bharat may have been met.”
Defending this philosophically, Durrani says, “Borders are drawn, redrawn and re-redrawn. If you're trying to make peace, then at times peace will come if you agree to redraw borders. My point is why aren’t people even ready to discuss it, academically or theoretically? Today we do that and tomorrow it may become a reality”.
Victims of spin
Perhaps Durrani gives the best hint for his transformation in the second last page of the book, “Ever since my retirement I’ve been exposed to what people outside said, and how it differed from information I was privy to. I reflected on it. Sometimes it was very different and at time the variance was due to a deliberate twist or spin.”
And that is true of almost all of us in both the countries. We, the citizens of India and Pakistan, have been had for over 70 years by a lack of exposure, misinformation, deliberately restricted information and worst of all: 'deliberate twist or spin' given by leaders.
Yet, the very existence of this book begs to ask us, if two people who’ve spent all their lives hating the other’s country can cook up peace instead of lava in the cauldron despite dangerous, hateful spices thrown in, is it really that tough for the rest of us?
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a writer based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)