Amit Shah will need luck to handle what comes next: Former RAW chief AS Dulat on Kashmir

shahid tantray for the caravan
Elections 2024
10 August, 2019

On 5 August, the union home minister Amit Shah announced in the Rajya Sabha that the Bharatiya Janata Party government had effectively nullified Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Shah tabled two bills in the upper house that necessitated revoking the special status guaranteed to the state. In addition to the bills—the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 and the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (2nd Amendment) Bill, 2019—Shah also brandished a presidential order, dated the same day, which extended all the provisions of the Constitution to the state, defanging Article 370. Both bills passed in the house.

Following Independence, Article 370 had formalised the terms of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to the Indian union—as stipulated in the Instrument of Accession. Among other things, Article 370 mandated that barring certain subjects—such as defence and foreign policy—the central government was required to seek the concurrence of the Jammu and Kashmir government before it could legislate in the state.

Yet, as the state has been under President’s Rule since December 2018, the centre circumvented this requirement—the presidential order allowed the governor to assent in lieu of the state legislature. Through the reorganisation bill, the government split the state into two union territories—Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir. That the centre acted in the absence of a state government and through an executive order also raised questions about the constitutional validity of its decisions.

On 6 August, Arshu John, an assistant editor at The Caravan, spoke to AS Dulat, the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing about the likely fallout in Jammu and Kashmir and the political context of the BJP’s decision. Dulat, who also served as a special director of the Intelligence Bureau, said that while he did not anticipate any upsurge in resistance on the ground, he did fear a rise in terror activity.

Arshu John: Could you comment on the effective nullification of Article 370 and the proposed bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir?
AS Dulat: It’s a sad and unfortunate thing because I do not think it was necessary. I was told that even the home minister Amit Shah said in parliament that this erosion [of Article 370] was already taking place; we are only completing the process. He is right there, that erosion was taking place. I have said it many times that 370 is nothing, it’s only a fig leaf. So, why do you want to remove that fig leaf? Why would you want to rub the Kashmiri nose further into the ground? Let it be, 370 is nothing.

Let me go back to 1947 and Kashmir’s accession to India. From the very beginning, the government of India’s policy and effort was to try and gradually mainstream Kashmir into the rest of the country. And I think the government has succeeded to a very large extent. If you think back to 1947 and 1953, and even 1975, when Sheikh [Abdullah, the former president of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference] had realised that you cannot fight Delhi and it’s best to make peace.

At the most, what the Kashmiris asked for was autonomy. The dialogue, the conversation was always about autonomy and the Kashmiri knew that he is not going to get that autonomy. What I am trying to say is that I think the Kashmiris had reconciled to the status quo. If that be so, that obviously implies that Delhi, at some stage, had not reconciled to the status quo and that is why we have now gone beyond the status quo.

Maybe this is the right thinking, time will tell. Like [the senior Congress leader] P Chidambaram said rightly, “The architects of what has happened today might one day regret what they have done, and I hope I am wrong.” I feel exactly the same way. But my apprehension really is—as someone who has dealt [with] and seen Kashmir and the subject of security and terror—that it might escalate. Terror might escalate. I do not think it will happen immediately, but in the time to come. I think the intelligence agencies have a job on their hands now, to keep a track of what might happen.

There is another point I want to make, that one of the tragedies of Kashmir in recent years has been a total lack of leadership. The leadership is either being selfish, or overestimated itself, or underestimated itself, but there is no leadership. In my book, there is only one leader in Kashmir, Dr Farooq Abdullah [the National Conference’s chairperson and a former chief minister of the state]. He understands Kashmir; he understands Delhi; he understands Pakistan; and he understands international relations. Mufti [Mohammad Sayeed, the former chief of the Peoples Democratic Party of Jammu and Kashmir and two-time chief minister] sahib, unfortunately, did not understand all that. He had been a union home minister, but he never understood Delhi.

AJ: One thing you have repeatedly said is how Article 370 was a hollow provision and a fig leaf. What do you think led the current government to dismantle it?
ASD: I think this is part of the BJP agenda. The strength with which the BJP came back this time, three months ago, it’s not all that surprising that it has happened. I think some of the fault here also lies with the Congress party, or with the opposition—because the opposition is so weak. Where is the Congress party? What happened? I happened to be in Calcutta on 19 January when [the West Bengal chief minister] Mamata Bannerjee organised a big thing in parade ground. It was an amazing show, a tremendous show of strength. Why did they all not stick together? Why were they not brought together? The responsibility for this lay with the Congress being the major opposition party.

AJ: Could you elaborate on what you think is the BJP’s agenda and to what end?
ASD: They had said that we will do away with 370, we will do away with Article 35A. To what end is something you have to ask the BJP. We could have taken it as a non-serious [issue] but obviously the BJP was serious about it and they carried it out very rapidly.

The thing that really struck me is, there has been a huge crisis developing in Kashmir—you could see it, everybody who watched Kashmir could see it. I do not know how many calls I was getting from Kashmir. I could sense that something is going to give. Where was the leadership? There was nobody to guide the people or to tell the people that do not worry, we are all one, we will all be together. It was only on the last day before the telephones went dead that we have the photograph [of politicians from Kashmir’s mainstream parties], and I think it is more a photo opportunity than anything else. What are politicians all about? Why did you not anticipate this?

AJ: What do you expect will happen now? With the communication blackout, we do not know what is happening on the ground, but what do you imagine was the response in Kashmir?
ASD: Nothing will happen in Kashmir. The Kashmiri, when he is under pressure, will just bury his head in the sand and lie low. That is normally how history has been in Kashmir. And then he will get up again—he does not give up.

AJ: In that case, do you think the deployment of forces was necessary on this scale?
ASD: This is a demonstration of might. They said there is a threat from Pakistan. Maybe the intelligence services have something on that? I do not know.

AJ: Is it to create a fear psychosis in Kashmir?
ASD: I cannot say. I am not in the position to comment on that.

AJ: Yet, the former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have been arrested. What do you think precipitated this response from the government?
ASD: I heard that they had been restrained in their homes, but if you say they have been arrested and taken somewhere else, possibly it is because both Omar and Mehbooba have been tweeting. Mehbooba said that this is the darkest day in the history of Kashmir and democracy, and Omar has said that this is only the beginning of our struggles—so, maybe to stop that.

AJ: On the other hand, politicians in Delhi, including the chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, have claimed that this move is going to bring about peace, development and stability. Do you think there is any truth to that?
ASD: I hope Kejriwal is right. God bless Kejriwal.

AJ: But what is your opinion?
ASD: We can all make statements, but please explain how will it happen, how will it play out, how will development improve because Delhi is in-charge? Let us take it that when there is Governor’s Rule or President’s Rule in Kashmir, it is taken as Delhi’s rule. Have we seen any advancement in the development or betterment of the state? I have not heard anything—if it is happening, it is very good. See, the implication is very clear. Now, not only do Articles 370 or 35A go [away] automatically once we make it a union territory, we are not going to tolerate any humbug. Kashmir will be ruled by Delhi.

AJ: Historically speaking, when Kashmir has been ruled by Delhi, how has that panned out?
ASD: Let me go back to 1990 to 1996. Some of that period was very bad and some of it was very good, but at the end of it, [the former prime minister] PV Narasimha Rao—and he was very wise, although he spoke very little—realised that this will not do without reviving the democratic process and moving forward. What was [the former prime minister] Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s idea? Exactly the same. He had two things he believed in—one is that this permanent confrontation with Pakistan must end, and the second is that in Kashmir, we need to move forward.

AJ: Since 2014 to now, have you observed any steps forward in Kashmir under the Modi government?
ASD: No. From time to time, this government says they are following Vajpayee but that is not true. Vajpayee, in fact, has become persona non grata in the party—nobody follows him anymore. Vajpayee’s legacy is over, sadly. You know, when Modiji came to power in 2014, among others, Mirwaiz [Umar Farooq, Kashmir’s head cleric] welcomed him, and he said that we are very happy and we hope that Modi will take Vajpayee’s agenda of peace. But the thinking has been slightly different.

AJ: If Vajpayee’s ideology was to move forward and Modi’s thinking has been different, do you see the Modi years as steps going backwards?
ASD: Time will tell, history will tell.

AJ: Five years have already passed.
ASD: I have always maintained one thing—that the great test of a prime minister comes at the time of crisis. Vajpayee had three serious crises—he had Kargil [war, in 1999], he had the attack on parliament [in 2001] and he had the hijacking of [Indian Airlines flight IC] 814 [in 1999]. All three were dealt with extremely calmly and effectively. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had a huge crisis—Mumbai [the terror attack that began on 26 November 2008] happened. People said India and Pakistan were close to going to war, but again, it was handled very maturely and calmly. Modiji has been lucky. There has been only one serious crisis and as luck would have it, it came at a time when he benefited from it—that was Pulwama.

AJ: During your years with Vajpayee, did you ever contemplate anything like the abrogation of 370?
ASD: No, those things were never talked about. At the party level, maybe these things were talked about, maybe they were talked about in Nagpur, maybe in the BJP, but in the government they were never talked about. I was not only with Vajpayee, but I dealt very closely with [his principal secretary and former National Security Advisor] Brajesh Mishra. If the politicians did not say anything, at least Brajesh would have mentioned it—but not at all.

AJ: If I could take you back to something we discussed earlier, you spoke about how there’s a lack of leadership.
ASD: In these last elections, considering that Kashmir is a most sensitive state with only six seats in parliament, I think if [the Congress leaders] Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi together had visited Srinagar, it would have made a huge impact. If there had been a proper alliance between the National Conference and the Congress, the Congress should have won both seats in Jammu.

AJ: What do you think that could have achieved?
ASD: It’s a question of leadership again, a question of how and what impacts Kashmir. I will add another thing to that. When the Congress was in the opposition, the youngsters and the separatists—Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz—they used to meet Sonia Gandhi and she used to receive them. It stopped once they came to power. When she was having an impact—why? Likewise, why did Rahul and Priyanka not go to Srinagar during elections or even afterwards when they saw things going wrong in Kashmir? Chidambaram had said, when he was demitting office, that he had done a lot of good work [in Kashmir] neutralised modules and this that, but he also said, “I must admit, we have also had luck.” Amit Shah will need Chidambaram’s luck and more.

AJ: Do you think a competent Kashmiri leadership could have prevented the BJP from effectively scrapping Article 370, or this was a foregone conclusion given their majority?
ASD: I think it is a combination of both.

AJ: And do you think competent leadership in the preceding years could have prevented it?
ASD: Yes, certainly. If Mufti sahib and Dr Farooq were together politically in Kashmir—even without being in one party—if they had politically remained together and thought we will remain together in the interest of Kashmir, not in the interest of our families or our parties; Kashmir would have been different.

AJ: What does the current state of affairs mean for the political dialogue in Kashmir?
ASD: There is no scope for talks anymore. Even in the best of times—I have been through it all—it was not easy for people to talk. Now who are you going to talk to? What are you going to talk?

AJ: What does the future hold for Kashmir?
ASD: Time will tell. Unless the Supreme Court has other ideas.

This interview has been edited and condensed.