What Ajit Doval did during Operation Black Thunder II

Operation Black Thunder II was witnessed and written about by scores of first-hand witnesses. Doval appears in only one eye-witness account, but features more prominently in more recent journalistic retellings. SWADESH TALWAR/INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
11 February, 2019

In “Undercover,” the cover story in the September 2017 issue of The Caravan, Praveen Donthi profiled the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. Donthi wrote in the profile that the NSA’s public persona—of a grand statesman and strategist—has been buoyed in great part by a media, “especially a cohort of national-security and defence correspondents ... that persistently repeats larger-than-life stories of Doval’s exploits from his IB days, even though these stories are typically unverified and sometimes unverifiable.” In the following extract from the profile, Donthi reports on accounts surrounding the NSA’s involvement in Operation Black Thunder II, when, in 1988, government and security forces descended upon the Golden Temple complex, in an effort to subdue Khalistani militants who had barricaded themselves inside. Doval was then the joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, or IB. Though he was mentioned in only one eyewitness account from the time, the NSA features prominently in recent journalistic tellings.

Towards the end of the 1980s, Doval was back across the border in Indian Punjab, to take on the Khalistani insurgency—India’s direst domestic security threat at the time. In 1988, his biographers say, he found himself at the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, after Khalistani militants barricaded themselves inside the temple complex. The memory of Operation Bluestar in 1984—when Indian forces stormed the complex to force militants out, at great cost to civilian life, the shrine itself, and relations between the government and the Sikh public—was still fresh. The government needed a better solution this time.

Under the command of KPS Gill, the director general of police for Punjab, government forces began a siege of the complex on 9 May, after militants set off a firefight. Snipers were positioned at high points around it, and water and electricity were cut off. The security forces started picking the rebels off. Trapped and demoralised, the rebels surrendered on 18 May, bringing Operation Black Thunder II, as it came to be known, to an end.

Gill, in response to criticism over the lack of independent observers during Operation Bluestar, invited hundreds of journalists to witness Black Thunder II. This, and the large presence of security and administrative officials throughout, meant that many accounts of the operation were published at the time and in later years. A few of these contain snippets on intelligence operations.

Maloy Krishna Dhar, who was part of IB operations in Punjab at the time and later a joint director of the organisation, described the siege in his 2005 book Open Secrets. He wrote that, in the run-up to the siege, “Certain reports received from intelligence moles lodged in the parikrama indicated arrival of fresh weapons and explosive devices.” Shekhar Gupta and the journalist Vipul Mudgal wrote for India Today, “On March 9 … officers were at the pickets watching every movement, counting heads, guns and identifying faces.”

In his 2002 book Operation Black Thunder: An Eyewitness Account of Terrorism in Punjab, Sarabjit Singh, the deputy commissioner of Amritsar in 1988, wrote, “On 13 May Nehchal Sandhu, Assistant Director, IB, posing as a press reporter, had talked on the telephone to the militants inside the Temple. According to him, the militants sounded dispirited. He, therefore, suggested to them that they should talk to the Deputy Commissioner on the phone for a way out.” The next day, Singh reported, the militants spoke to several senior officials, including Gill. Singh credited the operation’s success primarily to Gill, his fellow police officer Julio Ribeiro, and Ved Marwah, the chief of the National Security Guard, a special force under the home ministry that played a crucial role in the siege.

None of these accounts—including those written years later, when protecting the identities of the operatives involved was no longer essential—mentioned Doval. Around the time he became NSA, however, a crop of new articles described his daredevilry as the centrepiece of the siege.

In “Return of the Superspy,” a profile of the new NSA, the journalist Yatish Yadav wrote,

Sometime in 1988. Residents of Amritsar around the Golden Temple … and Khalistani militants spotted a rickshawpuller plying his trade. … The rickshaw puller convinced the militants that he was an ISI operative, who had been sent by his Pakistani masters to help the Khalistan cause. Two days before Operation Black Thunder, the rickshaw-puller entered the Golden Temple and returned with crucial information, including the actual strength and positions of the terrorists inside the shrine. He was none other than Ajit Doval undercover. When the final assault came, the young police officer was inside Harminder Sahib, streaming much needed information to security forces to carry out search-and-flush operations.

The journalist Praveen Swami, writing in February 2014, put forward an even more detailed account.

New Delhi ignored Mr. Penta’s threats: the bombs were duds, and the man Mr. Penta thought was an ISI officer would serve, decades later, as Director of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB).

The President of India later handed Mr. Doval a small silver disc, embossed with the great wheel of dharma and a lotus wreath, and the words Kirti Chakra.

Swami named Doval in the acknowledgements of his 2006 book India, Pakistan and the Secret Jihad.

Doval, writing a review of the book, alluded to his long association with the journalist. “Many years ago,” he wrote, “I had seen a researcher’s doggedness and an intellectual’s curiosity in the journalistic exterior of Swami—traits an intelligence professional normally frowns on! His craving to know beyond the obvious and finding a conceptual explanation for what exists, has only sharpened with the passage of time.”

The only eyewitness account of Doval’s presence at the siege came from Karan Kharb, a retired colonel who commanded a squadron of the National Security Guard during the siege. In an article published in June 2014, the month Doval became NSA, he wrote,

When Ajit Doval arrived there, not everyone knew him. Only a select few of us knew about this super cop’s incredible role in this operation. He gave us a first-hand account of all that was going on inside the Golden Temple Complex … In utter disregard to personal safety, he moved around all over the complex even as bullets were raining from all directions. Much later, we learnt that he had disguised himself as an agent of ISI.

Kharb confirmed these details when I met him, and added some others. “Even while we were firing, he would go inside and come out,” he said. Kharb also told me that he and Doval are friends.

The journalist Dinesh Kumar, who was inside the complex when the firing started on 9 May, told me, “I have very serious doubts that Doval was in the Golden Temple. The firing started about 1 pm. We exited the temple only at 7 pm. We were four journalists and five others, but all of them were with us and we knew them.” How Doval passed on intelligence if he was in fact inside the complex is also a mystery. An ability to freely move in and out of the complex during the siege would very likely have attracted suspicions. The only other option in those days before cell phones, Kumar pointed out, would have been to use a walkie-talkie—again a magnet for suspicion.

Satish Jacob, another journalist who witnessed the siege, told me, “I spent three days freely mixing with the sharpshooting NSG commandos perched on the rooftop of a hotel overlooking the holy tank in the Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder. I never noticed this super cop.” Jacob said Praveen Swami’s story of Doval’s exploits “may well be true, but sounds too good to be true.” Vipul Mudgal, also a reporter at the scene, said that “though this sort of claim is difficult to deny or confirm, I doubt it very, very much.”

A former IB official involved in the agency’s Punjab operations at the time told me, “There is a standard operational procedure that is laid down. Doval was the joint director at the time. The DIB”—the director of the IB—“controls everything. … No senior officer can think of going inside.” If a mole were needed, the official said, “A constable or a head constable would be used in such circumstances, or most probably someone related to the militants with some comfort level. We never send an outsider. No terrorist organisation will accept because I say I am from the ISI.”

By the early 1990s, Khalistani militancy was largely eliminated. The current consensus credits that success primarily to the local police under KPS Gill and Julio Ribeiro. Intelligence, including that from the IB, must have contributed to their work, and Doval must have had a hand in it—but to what degree is unclear. Kharb told me that Doval “was the overall in-charge for the covert operations in Punjab.” In 2011, Doval wrote an introduction to a book titled The Politics of Counterterrorism in India. There, he claimed a share of credit for the IB, saying that the work “successfully demolishes the commonly held view that Khalistani Militancy was defeated by force alone and underlines the seminal role of covert maneuvering by India’s Intelligence Bureau, which deftly exploited strategic mistakes made by the ISI.” Shekhar Gupta wrote in 2016, “I have often said, somewhat half-facetiously, that each A or B category Punjab militant killed or captured in the Operation Black Thunder phase (1989-90) should be marked ‘caught Doval, bowled Gill’. In the last phase, Mr Doval was more involved tracking Khalistan terrorists across the country, and did that with his usual panache.” The details of this work remain to be written about.

This is an excerpt from “Undercover,” Praveen Donthi’s profile of Ajit Doval in the September 2017 issue of The Caravan.