I |“INDIA’S JAMES BOND”
PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump addressed a joint press conference at the Rose Garden of the White House on the afternoon of 27 June. This followed the first meeting between the two leaders, and now each stood at a lectern with his prepared remarks. Trump addressed the audience first. “I’m proud to announce to the media, to the American people and to the Indian people, that Prime Minister Modi and I are world leaders in social media,” he said, drawing some laughter, before plunging into the usual diplomatic boilerplate. As Trump plodded on—“I look forward to working with you, Mister Prime Minister, to create jobs in our countries”—a gust of wind swept away some of Modi’s papers.
Ajit Doval sprang into action. From his seat in the front row—where he was seated alongside the Indian foreign secretary, the Indian ambassador to Washington and other high officials—the National Security Advisor rose faster than any of his fellows to gather the loose sheets from the lawn, bundle them together, and hand them back to his boss on the podium. Before he retreated, the compact 72-year-old, dressed as usual in a studiously nondescript suit and tie, also attentively replaced the cover on Modi’s glass of water—another victim of the wind. Modi later delivered his speech without incident.
The Press Trust of India issued a short dispatch describing the episode. This was soon published by a host of India’s major media outlets, each adding to it a dramatic headline: “How NSA Doval rescued PM Modi at White House event,” “When Ajit Doval saved Modi from embarrassment at White House,” and more in the same vein. These were passed around on social media—the NSA has several fan pages on Facebook and Twitter, with tens of thousands of followers between them. News channels broadcast footage of the scene. Before the day was done, Doval’s heroics had become a minor sensation.
AJIT DOVAL is India’s most powerful security bureaucrat. Appointed by and answerable only to the prime minister, he heads the National Security Council, an advisory body that includes the ministers of home, finance, defence and external affairs. A step lower down in the organisational hierarchy under the NSC is the Strategic Policy Group, which includes the secretaries of each of the ministries represented on the council, the heads of each branch of the armed forces, and the heads of India’s primary intelligence agencies—the Intelligence Bureau, or IB, and the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW. The National Security Advisor is responsible for planning and coordinating the government’s efforts in pursuit of a coherent strategy for India’s protection, domestically and internationally. He also acts as the main filter of security-related information and advice between government organs and the prime minister, particularly when it comes to intelligence. On top of that, as the chairperson of the executive council of the Nuclear Command Authority, he recommends action on the control of India’s nuclear arsenal to the NCA’s ultimate authority, a political council chaired by the prime minister.
Those are the official bounds of Doval’s power. The real bounds of it are unclear, especially given the cloak-and-dagger nature of his work, but many familiar with the inner mechanics of the government are convinced that these transcend the official limits. Doval is among the few to constantly have the ear of a prime minister who has centralised power more than any of his predecessors in decades. An analyst who has worked with the NSA told me he has immense influence over the home ministry, the defence ministry and the ministry of external affairs. A former member of the cabinet secretariat said that Doval bypasses the command structures of India’s intelligence agencies and deals directly with their operatives. He also said that Doval acts as one of Modi’s main diplomatic counsellors, rivalled only by the foreign secretary. A Bloomberg report in 2016 stated that “some consider Ajit Doval the most powerful person in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
Doval’s projected self-image spills beyond the formal constraints of the NSA position. Though he has shied away from public pronouncements since taking office, between 2005 and 2014, the time between his retirement from the IB and his appointment as the NSA, he aired sweeping theories on, and hard-line solutions for, some of India’s most complex domestic and international challenges. Many of the issues he held forth on—minority politics, for instance—fall beyond the usual purview of intelligence and national security. Breaking the omertà typical of even retired spies, he also proffered some astounding details of his 33-year career in the IB. The result was a popular persona of a grand statesman and strategist, a super-spy, the perfect man to handle a life-or-death crisis.
This persona 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. One common conceit, repeated often enough to have become cliche, is to call him “India’s James Bond.” Today, he has a higher profile in the media than any NSA had before him, and is far more prominent than any other bureaucrat in the government.
Doval’s critics say that the stories told of him give a partial picture of the man and the events he has had a hand in. His critics also argue that his time in the IB made him an operations man, trained in methods of espionage and tactics of suppression, but did not educate him in the kind of diplomatic and political strategising required in his current role, where prudent accommodation can be as important as subversion and intimidation. Doval’s hawkishness, they say, is a symptom of this limitation—an example, as the metaphor goes, of how when all a man has is a hammer, everything in his eyes looks like a nail.
The NSA’s record so far has been lacklustre. The situation in Kashmir is now more volatile than it has been in decades, with militancy once again on the rise. India’s relationship with many of its immediate neighbours is worse now than when Doval took office, in May 2014. Even from a narrowly tactical viewpoint, Doval’s leadership has raised concerns: the response to last year’s militant attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station, during which Doval directed operations, was called inept by numerous experts. None of this bodes well for India’s safety.
Doval’s political connections have contributed heavily to his career. During his IB years, he had close links to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the build-up to the 2014 general election, when he was in charge of an RSS-affiliated think tank, there were rumours of Doval aiding Modi’s campaign and weakening the incumbent government. The details of his contribution to that project are just beginning to come to light. He has shown an unquestioning loyalty to Modi—a disquieting trait, in some eyes, for someone tasked with informing the prime minister of difficult facts he might not want to hear. Doval’s actions and statements reveal an adherence to the belligerent Hindu nationalism of the RSS. That a man of such convictions has become the most popular NSA in Indian history reveals how a large part of the public has been inculcated with the same obsessions and prejudices. Studying how Doval sees the Indian state lays bare how the country’s present rulers and their supporters do too.
II | OPERATIONS
LITTLE IS KNOWN about Doval’s early years. He was born in 1945, into a Brahmin family in a village called Ghiri, in the hills of what is now Uttarakhand. His father was an officer in the Indian Army, and the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Congress leader HN Bahuguna was his mother’s cousin. Doval studied at Ajmer Military School in Rajasthan, and went on to earn a degree in economics from the University of Agra. He joined the Indian Police Service in 1968, as part of that year’s Kerala cadre. After a stint as a trainee in Kottayam, he was appointed the additional superintendent of police for Thalassery. Doval was there when the town witnessed infamous communal rioting, at the end of 1971 and beginning of 1972. According to Alexander Jacob, a former director general of police of Kerala, who in 1989 wrote a report on the violence, Doval played an important role in controlling the riots. By 1972, he had been moved to the IB, joining its operations wing. Before his retirement in 2005, he would rise, although briefly, to the directorship of the organisation.
Doval’s career in the IB coincided with several of independent India’s major internal security crises. He left his impress on many of them, even if not as deeply as popular accounts might suggest. A pattern that sometimes repeated itself wherever he appeared was the use of what some in intelligence circles call “out-of-the-box” methods, often a euphemism for extrajudicial means. Doval was not solely responsible for these methods—Indian intelligence services have readily resorted to them since long before he joined the IB. But these events and methods, in turn, left their mark on Doval.
The new recruit’s first IB assignment took him to Aizawl, where he served as the head of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau, the local unit of the IB, until 1977. According to KM Singh, his IPS batchmate and a former special director of the IB, Doval volunteered for the posting. It was a bold move. In 1966, rebellion flared in the surrounding hills, then still a part of Assam. The Mizo National Front, headed by a former army hawaldar named Laldenga, established a separatist insurgency. The government responded with immense violence. It turned the air force against its own citizens, ordering the bombardment of Aizawl. Government forces cleared Aizawl and other cities of the MNF, but the rebels continued guerilla warfare in the countryside. Entire villages were forcibly relocated in a bid to starve the rebels of recruits, hideouts and supplies. The intensity of the insurgency had waned by the time Doval arrived, but the area was still very volatile.
In 1974, six years into his career, Doval was decorated with the Police Medal, an award for distinguished service. He received the medal at an unusually young age—it was typically awarded to officers with more than a dozen years of service.
Doval did not stay in Aizawl long enough to witness the official end of the conflict, in 1986, with the signing of the Mizo Peace Accord, under which the government granted full statehood to Mizoram. According to some of his journalist biographers, however, the settlement was almost single-handedly his doing.
In a profile of Doval published just as he became the NSA, the journalist Nitin Gokhale wrote, “The Mizo Accord of July 1986 … was propelled largely by Mr Doval’s initiative.” Gokhale added, “As a mid-level Intelligence Bureau officer in the north-east, he infiltrated the underground Mizo National Front … weaned away half a dozen of its top commanders and all but broke the back of the MNF, forcing its leader Laldenga to sue for peace.”
In a piece titled “Ajit Doval, giant among spies, is the new National Security Adviser,” the journalist Saikat Datta, citing an undated conversation between Laldenga and unnamed “interviewers,” quoted the late MNF leader as saying, “I had seven military commanders under me. When Doval left, he took six of them with him and I had no choice but to come on board and negotiate a peace accord.”
This narrative has often been reproduced in the media, though there is sufficient evidence to complicate it. By the time Doval arrived in Aizawl, in 1972, circumstances had already turned against the MNF. In the late 1960s, to escape increasing repression, the rebels had developed bases across the international border with East Pakistan. Following Pakistan’s defeat in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and the resulting creation of Bangladesh, the rebels were expelled from that sanctuary and left stranded. The MNF made its first overtures of a settlement with India soon afterwards, but talks stalled. Vijendra Singh Jafa, the chief secretary of Assam at the time, later wrote that three of the MNF’s top leaders crossed into India at around this time to surrender under an amnesty. All of this came before Doval’s arrival.
In early 1972, India recognised Mizoram as a union territory, as a precursor to eventual statehood. This bolstered moderate factions inside the insurgency. Jafa wrote of another contributing factor in the rebels’ decline as well. In 1975, the serving inspector general of police for Mizoram was assassinated. His replacement was a retired army brigadier, GS Randhawa. “The new police chief adopted the strategy of impersonating the enemy” in order to hunt them down, Jafa wrote. “He achieved a remarkable degree of success, and is often credited with ‘breaking the backbone of insurgency’ in Mizoram.”
There was still work to do to seal the peace, and here Doval seemingly played his part well. Negotiations between the government and the rebels gathered momentum during his tenure. In 1975, Laldenga wrote to the prime minster, Indira Gandhi, expressing his interest in peace. After secret parleys in Delhi, the two sides drafted an agreement reiterating that Mizoram was an integral part of India.
VK Duggal, who was the district magistrate in Aizawl at the time, told me, “The approval and directions came from the prime minister, and the role was performed by the lieutenant governor and the IB. The IB did the underground negotiations. … Doval was the field man in Mizoram. He had good connections with the underground.”
Doval, in a newspaper interview in 2006, recalled inviting rebels into his home in Aizawl while keeping their real identities from his wife. “They were all heavily armed but I had given my word that they would be safe,” he said. “My wife cooked pork for them even though she was not used to cooking pork.”
The draft peace agreement needed official ratification, so in March 1976 the IB organised an emergency convention of the MNF in Calcutta. “Doval performed excellently in arranging for the hostile leaders to attend,” JFR Jacob, the chief of staff for the eastern army command at the time, wrote in his memoir. “There were protracted negotiations leading to a peace agreement that still stands. Doval was indeed the most outstanding IB officer I had the good fortune to work with.”
The 1976 agreement came under the prime ministerial tenure of Indira Gandhi. The Mizo Peace Accord, which cemented the peace, came a decade later, under Rajiv Gandhi, after much tortuous political manoeuvering along the way.
“All the strategies implemented by us were ultimately political decisions,” VK Duggal told me. “The political leadership had to take into consideration many factors. I can’t say that Doval had contributed more, but his contribution to implementing the strategies adopted at the time was more than substantial.”
A former IB officer and contemporary of Doval told me, “He became a drinking partner of Laldenga. He won Laldenga’s trust. … In these operations, it is seldom one man who is responsible, but sometimes one man is crucial. Largely, you can give him credit for Laldenga’s operation.” It was on the basis of this work, the former IB officer said, that Doval climbed up in his career. “The rest is all propaganda.”
“The MNF was a spent force, they had no fresh arms or recruits and were willing to make a compromise,” the human-rights lawyer Ravi Nair told me. “They desperately met everybody when they came to Delhi, including George Fernandes”—a prominent opposition leader at the time. Nair was serving as Fernandes’s political secretary at the time, and was consulted by Laldenga. He pointed to international developments that limited Laldenga’s choices: the creation of Bangladesh, the withdrawal of support from China after a shift in its foreign policy, the loss of sanctuaries in the Chin Hills of Burma. “All these things led to Laldenga’s compromise,” he said. “If the Intelligence agents start taking credit for the changes in geostrategic changes—hallelujah!”
DOVAL’S NEXT COUP, according to the popular biographies, came in Pakistan. The IB man arrived there at some point in the early 1980s, on a posting to the Indian high commission in Islamabad. Before that, he served a few years in Sikkim, again as the head of a Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau, at a time when India was consolidating its position in the territory, which was incorporated into the country in 1975.
Given the sensitivity of intelligence work, there is little verifiable information about Doval’s stint in Pakistan. But numerous journalists have put forward stories to fill the void—as has Doval himself.
“Doval was the man who dared to sneak deep into Pakistan at the risk of his life and remained in that country incognito for years, delivering virtually real time intelligence on Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear plant,” the journalist Rajeev Sharma wrote in 2014, in a piece titled “Why ex-IB chief Ajit Doval is the best NSA India could ever get.” The journalist Shishir Gupta wrote in 2012 that Doval “is said to have walked into Pakistani nuclear establishment at Kahuta during his six-year long posting in Islamabad in the 1980s.”
One security journalist told me that Doval managed to get inside a barbershop that served scientists from the nuclear facility, and collected samples of their hair. These, he said, were analysed to determine the grade of uranium the scientists were working with.
This level of detail on a sensitive operation, and on Doval’s role in it, seems remarkable when compared to the lack of agreement across available accounts of even the basics of Doval’s Pakistan posting—such as his official designation. It is also doubtful that Doval could have operated as a spy without the knowledge of his Pakistani counterparts—passing intelligence officers off as mid-ranking diplomats is an old trick in the business. A senior RAW officer told me that spying is impossible for anyone posted at the high commission in Pakistan because of “constant, bumper-to-bumper surveillance.”
In 2014, before he became NSA, Doval personally regaled an audience in Pune with another fragment of his Pakistan lore. He had just finished a lecture, and was taking questions. “Sir, I heard that you were in Pakistan for five years,” a young man began by saying. “Seven years,” Doval corrected him. The young man asked him to share some of his experiences from the time. “I will share a small anecdote with you, because somebody wrote about it in a newspaper a few years ago,” Doval replied in Hindi. Once, he said, he was passing by a mausoleum in Lahore, and, since he was living in the guise of a Muslim, decided to go in. He was noticed, and called over, by a man with a long white beard sitting in a corner. The man told him, “You are a Hindu.” Doval said that he was not. The man told Doval to follow him, took him down a few streets to a small room, and closed the door behind them. He insisted again that Doval was a Hindu, and Doval asked why he would say so. “Your ears are pierced,” the man replied. Doval relented, and said he was born a Hindu, and had had his ears pierced as a child, but later converted. The man refused to believe it, and advised Doval to get plastic surgery to cover up the piercings. Then he told Doval that he was a Hindu too, and that “these people” had killed his entire family. Now, he said, he was surviving as he could, and was happy to see “people like you.” Then he opened an almirah to reveal small idols of Shiva and Durga, which he continued to worship even as his neighbours looked at him as a respected Muslim.
This story made the rounds on Indian social media, and found its way into mainstream media as well. But to Pakistani ears, it rang untrue. One user on the Pakistani discussion forum Siasat reacted, “Hard to believe some one with such a hard core hindi accent can pass of as a Pakistani muslim for 7 years.”
“He was doing nothing covert in Pakistan,” a former official of the ministry of external affairs who was in Pakistan around the time told me. “He was deputed by the IB to look after the internal security of the high commission. The cover was information officer, I think.” According to a senior editor who has known him for many years, Doval had his family in Pakistan with him, and his son, Shaurya, attended school there.
The veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta wrote about Doval last year, “He was undercover only to the extent that his posting, if I recall correctly, was as head of commercial section. I do not believe there was so much commerce between India and Pakistan.” Doval, he said, was busy “keeping a close eye … on the subversion and separatist propaganda to which Sikh pilgrims visiting their holy places in Pakistan were exposed”—this was at the height of the Khalistan movement. “In an ugly and unfortunate incident, fully instigated and orchestrated by Pakistan intelligence, he was once attacked by a jatha at one of these pilgrimages.” The Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI—Pakistan’s main intelligence agency—is widely considered to have been involved in the Khalistani insurgency.
G Parthasarathy, who was the Indian consul in Karachi from 1982 to 1985 and later the country’s high commissioner to Pakistan, told me that he remembers Doval being designated the first secretary in Islamabad. “I must say he had a very sharp political sense,” Parthasarathy said. “He was the first chap to contact Nawaz Sharif, a young, upcoming politician in 1982,” in the position of finance minister for Pakistani Punjab. When the Indian cricket team reached Lahore while on a tour of Pakistan in 1982, Sharif welcomed them with a huge party at his home. This, Parthasarathy said, was facilitated by Doval.
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.
BETWEEN 1992 AND 1996, Doval was posted to the Indian embassy in London. Very little of what he did there has come to light. The accounts of his work in the Northeast, Pakistan and Punjab became public only much later in his career. His first appearance in the limelight came at the turn of the millennium.
On Christmas Eve in 1999, an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Delhi, designated IC 814, was commandeered by hijackers. The airplane landed in Amritsar, before flying on to Lahore, Dubai, and eventually to Kandahar.
In Delhi, a crisis-management team of top bureaucrats and ministers was convened under the watch of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On 27 December, an Indian delegation under Vivek Katju, a senior official from the ministry of external affairs, arrived in Kandahar with a team of negotiators. The team included two RAW officers, Nehchal Sandhu of the IB, and Doval.
Shortly after the crisis, an article in India Today by Harinder Baweja and Saba Naqvi Bhaumik narrated the negotiations. The Taliban posed as neutrals, but it was clear they really sided with the hijackers. “Confronted with this twin offensive, the negotiating team took on different roles. While Katju negotiated with the Taliban, Doval engaged the hijackers,” Baweja and Bhaumik wrote.
In exchange for the hostages, the hijackers demanded, among other things, the release of 36 Islamists held in Indian prisons and $200 million in cash. “Doval began with the request that the hijackers first release all the women and children,” Baweja and Bhaumik reported. “The idea was to gauge the commitment of the hijackers and to play on their human instincts.” It did not work. In a later interview, in 2006, Doval told Baweja, “They were on a fidayeen mission. … I have gone through all the hijackings this country has faced. One of the main tasks of a negotiator is to read the mind (of the person) and see that what is their frame of mind. So they started with that. I thought that after 36 hours they would start showing a certain amount of flexibility, but there was no change in that.”
In March 2000, Jaswant Singh, the minister of external affairs, told parliament that at one point the Taliban stepped in to tell the hijackers that their demands for money and the release of the body of a militant buried in India were un-Islamic. Singh claimed that these demands were then dropped.
On 30 December, according to the India Today report, the Taliban gave the negotiators and the hijackers an ultimatum. The hijackers agreed to settle for the release of three of the 36 Islamists they had originally named. Most important among them was Masood Azhar, who went on to found the extremist group Jaish-e-Mohammed.
The hostages were exchanged on the last day of the millennium, and the hijackers disappeared into Afghanistan. Jaswant Singh flew to Kandahar alongside the three Islamists. The journalist Seema Mustafa wrote in 2015 that unconfirmed reports at the time spoke of Singh having carried with him the ransom the hijackers had demanded—giving the lie to his later statement in parliament.
The entire episode was a disaster for the Indian political and security establishment. The opposition at the time denounced the government’s “abject surrender.” AS Dulat, then the head of RAW and a member of the government’s crisis-management team, termed it a “goof-up” in his book Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years. LK Advani, the hard-line home minister, threatened to resign in protest against the release of the three Islamists since he felt it made India look soft. Doval called the whole thing a “national intelligence failure” in a 2006 interview.
Mustafa wrote that the fiasco over the hijacking “was followed by a massive cover-up operation with all the players seeking to shift the blame.” All the officials involved went on to get promotions, she said, and “one of them is back in the harness today.”
Dulat, speaking on television in 2014, said, “In the IC 814 case, there was no scope for any elaboration. Our options were all closed. The only thing left was how to get the passengers on the plane back at the least price. That Doval-saab got it done. Not just Doval, there were others too. … It was a teamwork.”
While many others connected to the episode proved reluctant to discuss it in public afterwards, Doval returned to it again and again after his retirement. In an interview with the journalist Myra MacDonald, published in her 2016 book Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War, he said “we could have got the hijacking vacated” were it not for the hijackers receiving support from the ISI. His role in the episode is a constant feature in media accounts of his successes.
A MAJOR THEATRE of Doval’s work in the 1990s was Kashmir. India confronted a bloody insurgency in the valley through that decade, as thousands of young Kashmiri men crossed the Line of Control to receive training in Pakistan and returned as militants. Despite severe repression and a ballooning troop presence, by the middle of the decade the government was struggling to reassert control over the valley.
Doval played a part in a new strategy of containment. He “watched the Pakistanisation of the militancy from close-up, monitoring the growth of infiltration from over the LoC, designing some of the most far-reaching counter-measures to contain it, and working to expose Pakistan’s hand using pro-government renegades,” the British investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark wrote in The Meadow, their 2012 book on the kidnapping of six Western tourists by Kashmiri militants in the summer of 1995.
In a magazine interview in 2012, Levy said that Pakistan perpetrated the kidnapping, and that India recognised it “as a useful tool to expose its neighbour’s proclivity for destabilising Kashmir, at a time when the West was reticent to get involved, and perceived Kashmir as a soft human-rights issue.” They said “hardliners within Indian intelligence and the army” ran an operation to drag the situation out in order to “frame Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror,” and that “IB, RAW and the army all knew of the hostages’ whereabouts for almost the entire time they were in the Warwan Valley—some 10 or 11 weeks from mid July 1995.” When Al-Faran, the group behind the kidnapping, decided to give up, “renegades supported by some in the Valley’s intel and military establishment took over the hostages.” Of the six hostages, one escaped, one was decapitated, and four were never found and are presumed dead.
An expert on security in Kashmir who studied the kidnapping closely confirmed these details to me. He added that the intelligence officers who ran the operation included Doval and AS Dulat—Doval’s superior in the IB in the mid 1990s, before he was promoted to head RAW. The incident played out during a period of governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, the expert pointed out, and so the intelligence people largely had their way.
The expert told me of Doval’s “Zero Doubt Policy”—“a name his colleagues came up with, as he dreamed up pragmatic ideas, often thinking the unthinkable, presenting them in briefing settings without a flicker of an eye.” The term referred, the expert continued, to how Doval “appeared to entertain no doubts, ever.”
Public information on Doval’s work in Kashmir is sparse, but Indian journalists have put forward some details. Specifically, the standard biographies credit him with persuading Kuka Parrey, a folk-singer turned insurgent, to switch sides and found the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a counter-insurgent unit of turncoat militants. The unit came to be widely accused of rape, murder, blackmail, abductions and disappearances.
“Turning Parrey was a political victory as well,” the security analyst Bharat Karnad wrote in 2016, as it “enabled the Centre to subsequently hold the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir in 1996.” Kashmir had been under president’s rule since 1990. The election, accompanied by a massive deployment of Indian security forces given a free hand under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, returned Abdullah to power, and is considered to have been a major step in subduing the insurgency.
As Dulat recalled it in Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, the cultivation of Parrey and the creation of his unit was not the work of Doval and the IB alone. Abdullah “introduced to the Rashtriya Rifles a rural folk-singer named Kuka Parrey,” Dulat wrote, “who went on to lead a force of counter-insurgents … which was one of army’s successes.” Liaqat Ali Khan, who commanded the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen in south Kashmir, told me when I interviewed him in 2015 that it was EN Rammohan, the inspector general of the Border Security Force, who had introduced Parrey to the army.
According to Aasha Khosa, a veteran of Kashmir reporting, Doval and the army general Shantanu Chaudhary were instrumental in convincing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his home minister, LK Advani, to raise a Territorial Army battalion of former insurgents in Kashmir. This became part of a larger understanding. Khan and other members of the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen briefly joined the BJP in 1998. The following year, Khan told me, the government and all the security forces backed the formation of the Peoples Democratic Party, which advocated a high degree of autonomy for Kashmir within India in place of outright secession. Numerous former separatists joined the party. Ajit Doval, who was the IB’s point man in Kashmir, helped in the process. In 2002, the PDP won power in Jammu and Kashmir for the first time.
AFTER THE KARGIL WAR in the summer of 1999, an official report on the performance of Indian forces pointed to failures in intelligence operations. The government, under Vajpayee, set up a Multi Agency Centre to coordinate the efforts of various intelligence organisations. Doval, by then a special director of the IB, was chosen to lead it.
A RAW officer who knew Doval at this time told me, without further details, that the IB man “was very clear and determined in the manner in which he wanted to go about the setting up of the organisation.” Several people who have worked closely with Doval told me that he works very long hours and is highly competitive. A former RAW officer told me of a general impression within the organisation that Doval “used to try and divert our sources over to his side, telling them we are not good enough, and the sources would come and tell us. He wanted to one-up everybody else, and he was always miles ahead of us.”
“I used to wonder what drives him,” a senior IB official said. “Doval didn’t have monetary weakness. It was either fame or glory, always feeling that he is the best. He used to love telling people that he is the best.” The official recalled that when Doval was posted in London, he bypassed other officials to try and establish a direct line with British intelligence. The RAW officer stationed there alerted the British to the transgression, and complained to Indian authorities as well, although nothing came of it.
In early 2003, there were rumours that LK Advani wanted Doval to replace the serving director of the IB, whose tenure was only due to end in August the following year. Doval and Advani, with their shared hawkishness, had grown close by then. Advani, as the home minister between 1998 and 2004, was the man Doval had ultimately answered to over the last half decade.
Advani later wrote in his autobiography,
One day, early in my stint in the Home Ministry, Ajit Doval, a senior IB officer who had a great reputation as an “operations man” … came to me and said, “Sir, we have been able to bust an ISI module in Orissa’s Balasore district.” The details he mentioned to me were frightening. … In the years ahead, I would hear scores of such accounts of the ISI penetration in India … I told Doval, “I want the busting of these modules to become the IB’s topmost priority. The agency will get whatever support or resources it needs for this purpose.”
The rumours of Advani’s support for Doval’s promotion came with suggestions of political, and not purely professional, motivation. “The IB is expected to play a crucial role in the next couple of years in view of some crucial polls, including the general elections in April next year,” the journalist Josy Joseph wrote at the time. “Doval’s name is also doing the rounds for the RAW chief’s post, but his appointment could create much heartburn because the other contenders are senior to him.” Joseph reported that Doval’s elevation was also opposed by Brajesh Mishra, the serving NSA. The idea was set aside.
In June 2004—the month after a Congress-led alliance came to national power, toppling all predictions of a return for the incumbent Vajpayee regime—three Muslim men and a young woman named Ishrat Jahan were gunned down on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in a joint operation between Gujarat police and the Ahmedabad unit of the IB. Officials said that the four were operatives of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba out on a mission to assassinate Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of the state. They also said the four had been killed after a car chase. Many questioned this version of events.
A decade later, after an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, several of the officers involved were charged with the extrajudicial killing of the four victims in a staged encounter. They included Rajendra Kumar, the head of the Gujarat SIB at the time of the killings, and three other IB officers. In 2013, while the case was being built, Doval came out in vociferous defence of his former colleague, and offered a glimpse of his understanding of intelligence work in the process. “You cannot destroy the nation just because someone has been indiscreet,” he told an interviewer. “Otherwise the consequences will follow in many ways. The IB people will then draw their salary and sit idle. … If you are trying to find out anything, in any way, by any process through which you collect intelligence which does not fall within the ambit of the law, the IB guy will not do it.”
In a 2013 piece titled “Ishrat Jahan case: Intelligence won’t survive the investigation,” Praveen Swami recalled the story of Doval’s actions at the Golden Temple in 1988 and his subsequent decoration with the Kirti Chakra, India’s second-highest award for peacetime gallantry. Then he wrote, “He won that medal for unspeakable crimes. Like many former intelligence officials, Doval considers himself bound not to discuss past operations. I have his permission, though, to speculate that it may have involved the cold-blooded execution of a Pakistani intelligence officer, the illegal detention of terrorism suspects, torture, the smuggling of arms and explosives across India’s borders, and the use of false identities.”
Writing in 2014, Swami again returned to Doval’s actions in 1988, and added,
Now, as former Intelligence Bureau (IB) special director Rajinder Kumar faces trial for the extra-judicial execution of Mumbai college student Ishrat Jehan Raza and three others, Mr. Doval’s story tells us something important. The Ishrat case is just part of a culture of killing. That culture is, in turn, a symptom of a much larger dysfunction. For decades now, India’s government has dodged a serious debate what a viable legal framework for counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism might look like, how it is to be administered and who will make sure it isn’t abused. It has simply ignored hard questions of capacity-building and accountability.
After Vajpayee’s government fell to the Congress-led alliance in the 2004 general election, Doval, perceived to be close to Advani and the BJP, was at some risk of being passed over for the IB director’s job. But his seniority and record weighed in his favour, and Doval won allies in the new government too. The new NSA was JN Dixit. A former IB official told me that as soon as Dixit took the job, Doval “was on great terms with him. Like all ambitious people he knows how to move on.” In July 2004, with eight months to go before his superannuation, Doval became the director of the IB.
Dixit passed away in January 2005, and was replaced by MK Narayanan, who had twice been the IB director in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Doval was one of Narayanan’s protégés. “MK used to say ‘If I have to dangle a carrot I use Dulat, and if I have to wield the stick I use Doval,’” the former IB officer told me. Narayanan could have granted Doval an extension of service to allow him a full two-year term, but he did not. Doval retired in January 2005. Narayanan chose ESL Narasimhan, a batchmate of Doval’s, as his replacement, and allowed him a full tenure of two years.
III | THE CIVILIAN YEARS
DOVAL WAS ANYTHING but quiet in retirement.
In July 2005, officers from the Mumbai police branch travelled to Delhi on a mission to arrest Vicky Malhotra, an associate of the underworld boss Chhota Rajan, who was wanted on multiple counts of extortion and murder. Malhotra was apprehended in the centre of the city, in a car leaving a luxury hotel. To the officers’ surprise, Doval was in the vehicle with him.
The Times of India carried a front-page report titled “IB ex-chief’s gangster friend arrested.” It said that the “ex-IB chief made calls from his phone and was allowed to leave. … Malhotra later revealed to the police that he had come to Delhi on the official’s invitation. The two had breakfast in the hotel, after which the official took him in his car to drop him at some place. Malhotra is also said to have told the police Chhota Rajan knew about this meeting.”
What Doval was doing with Malhotra has never been made clear.
A former IB official told me that Doval, after his retirement, “tried for six months for the post of deputy NSA, but Narayanan didn’t give him that.” He said that Narayanan might have used the embarrassment with Malhotra as a reason for denying Doval a post-retirement appointment—something two other former IB officials told me as well. One of these former officials added that Doval never forgave Narayanan for that. The following year, Narayanan began getting bad press over the failure to prevent a spate of bomb attacks. For instance, after a series of blasts on Mumbai commuter trains in July 2006, the weekend edition of a leading English-language daily carried a story blaming Narayanan. It quoted an unnamed “retired intelligence chief.”
Frozen out by the Congress, Doval turned again to his old patrons in the BJP. The electoral defeat in 2004 precipitated a contest for the party leadership. The old guard, led by Advani, was gradually pushed aside by a new one. Doval chose to position himself behind the rising star, Narendra Modi.
Nitin Gokhale told me that Modi, then still the chief minister of Gujarat, invited Doval to set up a university in his state sometime around 2008. Raksha Shakti University opened the following year, and offers courses in “police science and internal security.” Doval is on its board of governors.
In 2009, the Vivekananda Kendra, founded by an RSS leader in the 1970s, set up a think tank named the Vivekananda International Foundation. Doval was appointed its founding director. According to the VIF website, he spoke at the inauguration of bringing “the intellectual community in consonance with the spirit of nationalism,” and of encouraging “young, talented research scholars to probe the depths of research in various genre of topics which are very vital to the national interests … so as to elevate India to her right place in the world.” That declaration notwithstanding, Doval went on to fill the organisation largely with retired security bureaucrats and diplomats. The VIF’s employees have also included the journalist Rajeev Sharma. Nitin Gokhale is currently one of its visiting fellows.
The VIF declares itself an “independent, non-partisan institution,” but its links with the RSS are an open secret. A political activist associated with the RSS told me the organisation is “emotionally linked with the Sangh Parivar.” He added that Swaminathan Gurumurthy, a leader of the RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, was a major force behind the VIF’s creation. Doval was a natural choice to lead it. “When Doval was in the IB, all of us were concerned about the cross-border terrorism,” the political activist told me. “Slowly, that bond of association found a structure. Familiarity of goal and thinking was always there.”
At around the time that the VIF was established, Doval’s son, Shaurya, returned to India after a career as an investment banker abroad. Soon he became a director of a think tank of his own—the India Foundation. His main partner in this was Ram Madhav, then a national spokesperson for the RSS. The organisation set to work behind the scenes in Delhi and elsewhere in support of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign.
In late 2010, the RSS was forced onto the defensive after one of its leaders, Indresh Kumar, was charged as a conspirator in the 2007 bombing of a Sufi shrine in Ajmer. The organisation responded with massive protests in defence of Kumar, and also of Pragya Singh and Aseemanand, two RSS-linked activists charged in relation to the Ajmer blast and two other bomb attacks between 2007 and 2008.
In April 2011, the VIF organised a two-day seminar on “black money.” The attendees included Doval and Gurumurthy, the god-man Baba Ramdev, the social activist Anna Hazare, the anti-corruption campaigner Arvind Kejriwal, the politician Subramanian Swamy, the retired police officer Kiran Bedi and the RSS pracharak KN Govindacharya. Soon afterwards, Hazare and Ramdev began much-publicised fasts against corruption, accusing the ruling government of having abetted it. These sparked a massive protest movement that proved disastrous for the government, and provided the BJP, the RSS’s electoral offspring, with a crucial platform for its successful 2014 election campaign. Kejriwal, Swamy, Bedi and Govindacharya were all among the movement’s leadership.
When questioned about links between the movement and the VIF, Doval told the Indian Express that “we had no role” in the agitation. But, he said, “Corruption and black money are draining India. We not at all feel defensive about talking about these issues.” Doval denied that the organisation was connected to the RSS.
Around this time, media reports mentioned that Doval was under IB surveillance. In an interview with Outlook, he said that he knew nothing about it, and that the IB “is only doing its duty if it’s watching me—it’s the eyes and ears of the government.” Asked of the Congress’s assertions that he was in cahoots with the BJP, he responded, How can I be in cahoots with the BJP? One can be in cahoots with the ISI or CIA. BJP is a mainstream party like the Congress or SP. … The level public discourse has sunk to is disturbing. Don’t forget I’m the highest decorated officer.”
In April 2011, a delegation led by a senior RSS leader from Punjab, set up by a former Congress MP from the state, met the editor of a leading newspaper, an old friend of Gurumurthy’s who had not been enthusiastic about the anti-corruption protests. Describing this meeting to me, the editor said that the delegation told him, “Look, the cases against Indresh-ji and others are reaching a conclusive point. You have to support us editorially with this agitation to push back.” When he refused, the editor said, “they started a whisper campaign to malign me.”
The editor described the anti-corruption protests as an operation run from the VIF. “Some of the senior bureaucrats from home ministry and intelligence officials were also clandestinely part of it,” he said. “Doval was leading it, and probably this was his most successful operation.”
DOVAL BECAME AN INCREASINGLY visible figure in retirement, particularly after joining the VIF. He delivered lectures, granted interviews and wrote op-eds, airing his views on India’s domestic and foreign policies. The media accounts of his old exploits proliferated alongside these, and many of these were republished on Doval’s personal blog. This is when his public persona and his hard-line views began to take popular root.
His attention to image helped. Several people who know Doval described him as someone who enjoys worldly pleasures—smoking, chewing paan masala, having friends and journalists over for drinks at his home. A former intelligence official told me he “has a huge house in the suburbs,” with large gardens and a drawing room with “photographs of him shaking hands with all prime ministers of the day.” A senior security journalist who has known him for a long time said that Doval “is highly conscious of what he is wearing, just the way he decked up his house.”
Many of Doval’s public statements echo the draconian majoritarianism of the BJP and the RSS, often in euphemistic security jargon. “India’s internal vulnerabilities are much higher than its external vulnerabilities,” he said in an interview in 2006 where he identified “infiltration of Bangladeshis”—the disputed notion, fanned by the BJP and the wider Sangh Parivar, of an ongoing invasion of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants—as “the biggest internal security problem.” He continued,
India has got all the fault lines—ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic and caste. The synthesis is on but there has yet to be amalgamation. … India’s internal vulnerability is also because of political factors. … To get the vote of a particular community I’ll need to accentuate their favours. If the minority or majority are not afraid of each other then there is no vote bank. So politicians have to give voters an imaginary or real perception of fear. The genius of politics lies in the exploitation of fears and the invention of new ones.
In an opinion piece published that same year, he wrote about the reservations of seats in education and government employment for disadvantaged social groups. “The reservation issue,” he said,
is an expression of anger and frustration in some of India’s bright youth against what they perceive as denial of justice and equality. … How many of us are brave enough to concede that what beleaguered Punjab, J&K, Northeast and now left-wing extremist areas was to some extent a consequence of divisive politics providing openings to our external adversaries? … From a security point of view the reservation issue, particularly the way it has been handled, militates against India’s interest. … It has to be substituted by the strategy of consolidation and integration of as many segments and interests groups as possible till one acquires the critical mass that gives legitimacy to rule.
In a speech at a BJP event in 2013, Doval said that the party is the only one that promotes an Indian identity over other identities. “We cannot base our nation-building on diversity. A nation can’t be strengthened on the basis of weakening the forces of unity and strengthening of the forces of diversity because we have a diverse culture.”
In an article published on the VIF website in 2011, Doval criticised liberal democracies for their tendency to treat “acts of violence (no matter how gruesome) as normal crimes, punishable through due process of law, and not as acts of war. This jurisprudence is heavily weighed in favour of the wrong doer and is practically inoperable against those who operate from foreign lands. Instruments of state, its laws, police, judicial systems and even militaries, find themselves grossly inadequate to prevent, protect and penalize the wrong doers.”
After his retirement, Doval came out strongly against the Congress-led government’s repeal, in 2004, of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. POTA, as it was known, had been passed by the Vajpayee government, and gave security agencies the discretion to identify and detain “terrorists.” In the 2011 article for the VIF website, he wrote that in India, “soft governance, political factor and corruption have further eaten into the vitals of state power. Political factor has started casting its ominous shadow, both over enactment of right laws and their enforcement with full political will. The withdrawal of Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), Centre’s reluctance to approve Special Acts against organized crimes in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh etc. are illustrative of politicization of internal security management.”
Doval also offered his views on the rule of law in defending intelligence and security officers charged with extrajudicial killings in Gujarat—in the Ishrat Jahan case from 2004, and also in the death of Sohrabuddin Sheikh while in the custody of Gujarat police the following year. Commenting on the prosecution of the latter case, Doval wrote in 2010, “There are many who feel that there is a higher rationale for such actions in compelling circumstances.” To support “their argument, that the rule of law is a means to an end and not an end in itself,” he cited an earlier Supreme Court judgment on “the doctrine that welfare of an individual must yield to that of the community.”
In a 2015 lecture, Doval said, “Individual morality cannot be inflicted on the larger interest of the society and the nation. … And, therefore, the nation will have to take recourse to all means which are necessary to protect itself not only for the present generation but for the coming generation.” He supplemented this with an example of his sacrifice in the service of the state. “I come from a family of Brahmins from Uttarakhand, and my family conventionally was a vegetarian family,” he said. “And I happened to be posted in the north-east for seven years, and then in Pakistan for seven years. … I didn’t like being a non-vegetarian. In any case, not that I didn’t take non-vegetarian food, but then I wasn’t very fond of it. But there was a time when I only took non-vegetarian food, nothing else. … When you come to the question of the larger societal values, it is selfless.”
Doval’s speeches are jumbled at full length, but offer plenty of shareable, fervent short-takes. There are hundreds of these on platforms such as YouTube. In one, taken from an address delivered at an event to mark “Universal Brotherhood Day” in 2010 and uploaded under the title “Ajit Doval on Muslims Mentality,” he says,
If India stopped preaching … universal brotherhood—we have done it too long, for too many centuries—and if we had been strong enough, probably there would have been a much greater peace. We provoked our enemies. … Weakness is the greatest provocation for violence. … Universal brotherhood will be butchered because you are weak. … Dharma will be conquered because you are weak.
This brand of nationalism, with Doval as with the RSS, comes with plenty of sabre-rattling at Pakistan. In a speech in 2014, later excerpted widely on YouTube, he said,
So how to tackle Pakistan? … You know, we engage an enemy in three modes. One is a defensive mode. … That is, if somebody comes here we will prevent him, we will defend this. One is the defensive-offensive. That is, to defend ourselves, we will go to the place from where the offence is coming. And third is the offensive mode, where you go outright. … We are working today only in the defensive mode. Now, when we come into the defensive-offense, then we start working on the vulnerabilities of Pakistan. … Pakistan’s vulnerability is many, many times higher than of India. Once they know that India has shifted its gear from the defensive mode to defensive-offense, they will find that it is unaffordable for them.
Doval ended the passage with one of his most quoted lines to date. Referring to the 2008 attacks on Mumbai and the ongoing separatist insurgency in Balochistan, he warned Pakistan, “You can do one Mumbai—you may lose Balochistan.”
All of this adds up to what is increasingly being called the “Doval doctrine.” The lawyer and political commentator AG Noorani, in an essay analysing Doval’s worldview in 2015, wrote, “The three themes of the Doval doctrine are irrelevance of morality, extremism freed from calculation or calibration, and reliance on military might.”
An officer who worked in the IB for over a decade told me that Doval “practically nurtures a feeling that Hindus have been suffering for almost thousand years. … He used to tell me that I have a typical leftist European view of secularism.” The officer described Doval as “a hundred-percent careerist with high efficiency.”
The IB has always had a strong right-wing lobby. Maloy Krishna Dhar, after his retirement as the organisation’s joint director, made a candid declaration of support for the RSS and the BJP in Open Secrets. Even against this backdrop, two former IB officers—one who served above Doval in the hierarchy, and one who served below him—expressed surprise at Doval’s public statements since his retirement. Both told me he had been “rational” when they worked together. “Once, after watching him speak on some terrorism-related issue on TV, I told myself ‘Ajit, what happened to you? We agreed on most issues,’” Doval’s former senior said. Doval’s former junior, who spent three decades in the IB, believed that his rabble-rousing was a calculated operational move, intended to “pin down” the Congress-led government.
An analyst who worked with Doval at VIF, however, said that Doval does not subscribe to the RSS’s ideology. “He just uses them,” he told me. “It’s convenient for him because there is an overlapping of ideas.” To back up his statement, he added, “Do you know non-vegetarian food is served at the conferences and seminars of the VIF?”
IV | DAYS WITH MODI
IN AN INTERVIEW in January 2014, when asked of his rumoured connections to the BJP, Doval responded, “I am not a member of any political party, have never been. I don’t think I’d like to accept any position in any government.”
After the BJP-led coalition won the general election a few months later, speculation about the NSA post settled on a handful of candidates: Kanwal Sibal, the former foreign secretary; Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s ambassador to the United States; Hardeep Singh Puri, formerly India’s representative to the United Nations; and Doval, acknowledged as the favourite.
A former IB chief told me that it came down to Doval and Puri, a friend of the soon-to-be cabinet minister Arun Jaitley. “Hardeep might have a better sense of humour and likes to laugh at himself,” he said. “I don’t think Doval likes to do that. Both have very strong lobbies in the newspapers too. If you are looking to impress and influence people, then Hardeep is the man. Doval is a doer.”
Doval assumed office in late May. Shishir Gupta, reporting the appointment, wrote, “Trusted by Sangh Parivar, finance minister Arun Jaitley and home minister Rajnath Singh, Doval has also worked behind the scenes for Modi and the BJP since his retirement from IB.” Swaminathan Gurumurthy tweeted that Doval “is the contemporary version of chatrapati shivaji and [Bhagat] Singh”—both beloved of Hindu nationalists.
Two other members of the VIF were appointed to serve under Modi too. The retired civil servant Nripendra Misra became the principal secretary, and PK Mishra, a principal secretary to Modi during his reign in Gujarat, became an additional principal secretary. Between them, the former VIF men now occupy three of the highest positions in the prime minister’s office.
Doval maintained a connection with the VIF. “At some point in 2014, one of the senior members at the VIF was being badly treated” by his peers in the BJP, a security analyst familiar with the think tank told me. “He kept complaining to Doval. And one fine day, Doval landed up at his office and sat there for an hour or so. ‘These guys watching you and troubling, they will get the message that you are close to the PMO,’ he told the person. The harassing did stop after that.” The episode reinforced Doval’s reputation for loyalty to those close to him. A former ambassador also told me that Doval is known as a “doston ka dost”—a true friend.
“In theory it has a hotline to the NSA,” a strategic analyst at a Delhi think tank told me of the VIF, adding that the organisation is a port of call for many foreign delegations.
Doval is only the fifth NSA in Indian history. The post, modelled on a parallel one in the United States, was created in 1998, under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The former diplomat Brajesh Mishra was the first to fill it, and remained in the position until 2004. While the NSA role combines defence, intelligence and diplomatic work, three of those to have held it have come from the diplomatic corps. Before Doval, MK Narayanan was the only intelligence officer to fill the NSA seat.
Narayanan was highly regarded as the director of the IB, but he did not distinguish himself as the NSA, particularly because of failures to prevent multiple high-profile terror attacks. Most of the people I spoke to agreed that Mishra set the standard for the position. He and Vajpayee were close friends, and Mishra also served as the prime minister’s principal secretary while he was NSA. “By combining the jobs of Principal Secretary and NSA, Brajesh was able to interact with the big powers and very effectively projected India’s image as a major power,” the strategic analyst K Subrahmanyam, who served as the head of a national security advisory board under Vajpayee, said in an interview in 2010. AS Dulat, who also served on Vajpayee’s staff, told a news channel in 2014 that Mishra had been “a perfect” choice, and that, “in a way, he was running the country under Atal-ji’s guidance.”
“Doval doesn’t have unlimited powers like Brajesh Mishra,” an analyst who worked with Doval at the VIF told me. “Modi abhors consensus and unilaterally decides everything. He wants yes-men. He doesn’t trust politicians, so he is closer to the bureaucrats. It’s a master-servant relationship with everybody. Doval is not exempted from this.”
An officer who worked with Doval in the IB told me, “He will go by his master’s voice. All of us bureaucrats are mercenaries. We work for various things like money, power and facilities.”
When, following one of his speeches in 2014, an audience member asked Doval what it takes to be a good follower, he responded, “Never try to compete or outdo your superior. Never give him a sense of insecurity.”
A senior journalist covering the prime minister’s office told me, “When Doval is with the PM, nobody can enter. Not even the principal secretary, Nripendra Misra. Not even a call can be transferred.” Media coverage has played up Modi and Doval’s closeness. Five months into the NSA’s tenure, Rajeev Sharma wrote, “Ever since his Gujarat days Modi has a penchant for trusting officials more rather than politicians and ministers. … Modi finds Doval to be a perfect person whom he can trust completely and who can carry out his covert strategic and even political missions perfectly well.”
The general consensus—among those in the government, think tanks and the media—is that Doval has a hold over the home ministry, defence ministry and the ministry of external affairs. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, has accepted a more limited role than his position traditionally accords. The defence ministry has lacked stable ministerial leadership, with two changes of minister already in Modi’s term. A high-ranking former cabinet bureaucrat told me that although “Sushma Swaraj is a competent person,” as the minister of external affairs she “has been made more or less a cipher.”
Doval’s sphere of influence is enhanced by his links to the VIF, and also to the India Foundation. In 2015, the Economic Times reported that the India Foundation hosts weekly “closed door sessions on high policy issues.” The organisation has arranged gatherings of foreign ambassadors, hosted foreign dignitaries, and helped organise events on Modi’s foreign visits, including his rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014. One bureaucrat I spoke to compared the foundation with the National Advisory Council of the previous government.
Shaurya Doval remains one of the India Foundation’s directors, even as he leads Indian operations for Gemini Financial Services, an investment fund chaired by a Saudi prince. The Economic Times report called him “an increasingly influential player in shaping Modi Sarkar’s policy thinking.” Ram Madhav, also an India Foundation director, is now the BJP’s national general secretary. On the list of directors alongside Shaurya and Madhav are the cabinet minister Suresh Prabhu, the ministers of state Nirmala Sitharaman, Jayant Sinha and MJ Akbar, and other heavyweights linked to the BJP and the RSS.
When I visited the India Foundation’s address on Delhi’s prestigious Hailey Road in July, I did not find a nameplate on the door. A former official of the ministry of external affairs who is familiar with the foundation told me it is opaque about its finances. The organisation mentions income from subscriptions to its publications, the former official said, “but nobody knows about the India Foundation journals to fetch them so much funding. … I haven’t seen any evidence of good research yet. What they have is the ability to organise big events.” When I put this to Ram Madhav, he responded that the organisation has nothing to hide, and is funded “through sponsorships of corporates for the events.”
The former cabinet bureaucrat said that the NSA has become the dwarpal, or gatekeeper, to the prime minister. “The heads of intelligence agencies earlier had access to the PM,” he said. “After the creation of NSA, access to the PM, which is important, has been curtailed.” This, he continued, has been “more so under Doval. The NSA should be objective and not get into the nitty-gritty. What happened with MK is also happening with Doval. They will directly call up the person who has to do the job or deliver, bypassing their chiefs.”
Ravi Nair, the human-rights lawyer, told me, “Doval is extremely challenged when it comes to democratic behavior. He is a product of the lack of institutional accountability.”
Some argue that Doval’s style is an advantage. Rajeev Sharma wrote in 2014, “while Rajnath Singh is the supreme boss of the IB, Doval continues to have direct and real-time access to IB and its reports. In many ways, Doval is the first NSA who has unbridled access to all dozen-odd Indian intelligence agencies—civil as well as military. He talks to chiefs of IB, RAW and MI”—military intelligence—“ten times a day.”
“There is much more synergy among various intelligence agencies, defence forces and central armed police forces,” Nitin Gokhale told me. “There is much more coordination at the top. … If you are a critic, you may call it centralisation of power. But the truth is, you have an NSA who has been an operative. He commands more respect from security forces. You can call it fear. But the results are good.”
Doval’s power on questions of internal security is undisputed. But his influence on other aspects of Modi’s domestic policy might not be as great as media characterisations suggest. This July, the magazine Bureaucracy Today, popular among government administrators, conducted a survey to ask “Who is the most powerful bureaucrat in the Modi regime?” Over 80 percent of the 16,000 respondents—12,000 of them government employees—picked PK Mishra, Modi’s additional principal secretary. Less than a tenth of them picked Doval.
On foreign policy, a defining factor in Doval’s reach has been the equation between him and the foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. As the ambassador to China and then the United States, Jaishankar received Modi on several official trips, including his first visit to the United States as prime minister. Modi removed the incumbent foreign secretary to make room for Jaishankar in January 2015, and granted him a year-long extension on his two-year term early this year. Numerous people familiar with the ministry of external affairs told me that Modi’s great confidence in Jaishankar makes him the most powerful foreign secretary in a long time. Some of Doval’s detractors told me Jaishankar might replace him as the NSA if Modi is re-elected in 2019.
Doval, who holds the rank of a minister of state, is officially a superior of Jaishankar’s, a ministry secretary. But while Doval is Modi’s NSA, “it is his lack of foreign policy experience and his inability to move beyond the ‘tactical’ that had created a void which Jaishankar will now fill,” the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan wrote at the time of the foreign secretary’s appointment. In government circles, Doval has been nicknamed the daroga, or station-house officer, of South Block—the premises of the ministry of external affairs and the prime minister’s office. Another nickname making the rounds is “National Security Advisor (Pakistan)”—an insinuation that Doval’s understanding of other countries is non-existent.
There have been occasional suggestions of friction between the NSA and the foreign secretary in the jostle for influence. However, a former official of the ministry of external affairs who knows Jaishankar well said that these were overblown. He summarised Jaishankar’s approach to his work as “You tell me a desired solution, I will try to find a way to get there.” That, he continued, allowed the foreign secretary and the NSA to establish “a good modus vivendi.”
But the former official did cite one point on which the two have differed. The government, he said, has started to directly sponsor think tanks, and Doval and Jaishankar disagreed on which ones should qualify for funds. “Doval and MJ Akbar believe only right-wing think tanks like the VIF and India Foundation should get the funding,” the former official said. “The foreign secretary thinks there should be a wide array. … But there is a broad agreement that the think tanks need to be cultivated.”
The journalist Uday Mahurkar, who is considered close to Modi, pointed to a division of turf between Doval and Jaishankar in a recent book on the prime minister’s administration. “The roadmap for Modi’s global initiatives was prepared by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar,” he wrote, “with the national security focus coming from Ajit Doval in the case of countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood, particularly Pakistan.”
I approached Doval’s office in the third week of August to ask for an interview. A member of his staff called to say the NSA was very busy and would not be able to speak to me.
THE NSA’S FIRST VISIBLE ACTION came in October 2014, when two suspected Islamist militants died in an accidental explosion in a house in Bardhaman, West Bengal. Police arrived to find a large quantity of explosives. Doval headed to Bardhaman under the full glare of the media, arriving at the blast site on a helicopter. Television channels showed him in a dark blue suit and dark glasses, surveying the scene from atop a nearby building.
Doval then met with the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress. The building where the blast occurred had also housed the party’s local office. Media reports stated that the NSA expressed displeasure at a terror network apparently having come up without the knowledge of the state government. The BJP, looking for an advantage ahead of an upcoming state election and fending off attacks by Banerjee on a national level, accused Banerjee of going soft on terrorism. The incident made Doval perhaps the first NSA to wade so openly into domestic politics.
In early 2016, the Modi government faced a major political crisis following the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad. Vemula had been suspended after a complaint from the campus chapter of the RSS’s student wing, which was forwarded to the government by a BJP leader. As accusations of casteism escalated into nationwide protests, the Times of India published a story headlined “Ajit Doval gets report saying Rohith Vemula was not a dalit.” Its author, the journalist Bharti Jain, is best known for covering security. She wrote, “A secret intelligence report has claimed that both the grandmother and mother of Rohith Vemula … have declared the family’s caste as Vaddera, which is a backward caste and not part of the ‘Dalit’ fold.” This controversial claim was used to shield the university’s vice chancellor and senior BJP and government figures from charges under the stringent Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Later that year, in April, Doval addressed the judges of the Supreme Court in a closed-door session. According to media reports, he listed threats to the country, and said that all the pillars of democracy need to work in tandem to improve internal and external security.
But Doval’s strongest and most contentious influences on domestic policy have come, unsurprisingly, in the area of security. Some of these relate to the handling of personnel. There has been much speculation about his role in the allegedly preferential treatment given to officers from his home state: among them the army chief, Bipin Rawat, promoted late last year; the RAW chief, Anil Dhasmana; AK Bhatt, the director general of military operations; and Alok Joshi, the head of the National Technical Research Organisation.
The most important testing ground of Doval’s policies has been Kashmir. In Doval’s time as NSA, security in the valley has deteriorated rapidly. In early 2015, the BJP formed a coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir with the Peoples Democratic Party, which Doval had helped form in the 1990s. The following year, the valley exploded in protest after security forces killed the militant leader Burhan Wani. Police and paramilitary personnel responded with shocking brutality, leaving about a hundred civilians dead and hundreds more blinded by pellet guns. The government imposed a weeks-long curfew and a media blackout. There was virtually no attempt to address the discontent through political means. The deaths of militants since then have been met with massive funeral processions, and reports indicate that a growing number of young Kashmiris are resorting to arms.
Doval offered a glimpse of his thinking on Kashmir in 2010, after over a hundred people were killed in protests that followed the extrajudicial killing of three Kashmiri civilians by security personnel who claimed that they were militants. “Don’t overreact. Don’t give in. Don’t follow appeasement,” Doval said in a speech. There was no political question to be solved, he added, after the Indian parliament’s 1994 resolution on Kashmir, which stated that “Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India and any attempts to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted by all necessary means.”
“Even at the heights of militancy in the 1990s I have not seen the restlessness that is visible now at the funerals of militants,” a senior police officer who served in Kashmir told me. “Now militants have become saviours. You put pressure from outside, they feel under siege and they get united. If you allow freedom, internal differences prop up. In our time they used to fight among themselves.” The officer criticised the current government for treating everything as only a law-and-order problem. “Militants? Fire at them. Stone pelters? Fire at them.”
“Stone-pelters are put in the same jails as militants and hardliners and they become radicalised inside,” a former special director of the IB said. “When we don’t talk to anybody, Pakistan benefits. We are providing more and more space to Pakistan.”
MK Narayanan, the former NSA and Doval’s one-time mentor, wrote in an article last year that treating the new turmoil “as an extension of the earlier spells of unrest could be highly simplistic,” and that “no meaningful attempt has been made to understand what is happening beneath the surface.” In his assessment, “India has decisively won the battle against the foreign-based militants and terror outfits from Pakistan, but it now confronts a far graver problem of winning over the youth of Kashmir before an entire generation gets detached from India, a most frightening prospect.”
A specialist on security in Kashmir spoke of what he termed the “Doval Paradox.” He said that the harsh approach to counter-insurgency in the 1990s, including the use of ex-insurgents as militias, helped the government to regain control, but the fact that Kashmir is still far from peaceful calls for a reassessment of what such tactics actually achieved. “The renegades did a lot of the heavy lifting that the Jammu and Kashmir police refused to do,” the specialist said, but soon the renegades broke free of government control too. Their brutality and lawlessness “galvanised opposition to them and to India.” Renegade leaders were killed, and their strongholds fell into the hands of insurgents or pro-independence forces.
Doval, the specialist continued, lacks the refinement to see how the blowback from using proxy forces can be “far more profound than the success the operation initially engendered.” As an example, he pointed to how US-supported mujahideen from the Afghan–Soviet War later fuelled the rise of Islamist terrorism. Doval, he said, “is a shark and with that comes the knowledge that he will eat the enemy, but also his own,” he continued. “He will create terror but may not increase the peace.”
“A lot of killings were done by the renegades in Punjab and Kashmir, and political processes got delayed,” a security analyst who has followed Doval’s career told me. “Every fake encounter creates more militants and eventually undermines democracy in a big way.”
A senior police officer who served in Kashmir argued that the hard-line approach in the valley is part of a strategy to cement the BJP’s nationalist base elsewhere in India. “The only difference between the approach of Congress and the BJP in Kashmir is that the Congress never thought Kashmir could be used for political purposes outside Kashmir,” he said.
Besides the popular uprising in the valley, a big test of Doval’s leadership has come via a series of attacks on military and security installations in Kashmir and near the India–Pakistan border. One of the most prominent incidents occurred when militants attacked Pathankot Air Force Station, in northern Punjab, before dawn on 2 January 2016. Intelligence received the previous day had raised the alarm about an attack in the area, yet the attackers penetrated the base without detection or challenge. According to the defence analyst and former colonel Ajai Shukla, the NSA had ordered precautions on 1 January to protect potential targets, but initially only asked for about 50 army troops to be moved to the base. “Intent on directly controlling what he anticipated would be a walk in the park,” Shukla wrote in an article a few days after the attack, “and without anticipating that there might be more than one group of terrorists, Mr Doval led with his trump card—he ordered 150-160 National Security Guard (NSG) troopers to be flown down immediately from New Delhi. The army was placed on the side-lines.”
Another defence analyst, Rahul Bedi, wrote, “In what appeared to be an obvious desire to control the operation, Mr Doval ignored the presence of some 50,000 army troops in the Pathankot region, possibly the highest such concentration in the country.”
The initial attack left numerous defence personnel dead. A counter-operation through the day eliminated four attackers. By evening, the episode was deemed successfully closed.
Shishir Gupta tweeted, “Ajit Doval take a bow. Superb counter action, moved NSG on Fri brilliant synergy with PP & agencies.” Numerous other security journalists tweeted congratulations of their own. They were joined by the home minister, Rajnath Singh, and by Manohar Parrikar, then the defence minister. Modi tweeted, “In Pathankot today, our security forces once again demonstrated their valour. I salute their sacrifice.”
The next day, remaining militants launched fresh attacks, and there were more casualties. After sweep operations over several days, the last attacker was reported killed on 5 January. The reported death toll was seven Indian personnel, and six militants.
In a newspaper piece analysing the incident, the retired general HS Panag wrote of a string of lapses. “No lead agency was earmarked and no commander for command and control was specified” in the early stages. Although the top army officer in the area would have been the most sensible choice of commander, he wrote, command was eventually assumed by the NSG. After the initial fighting, “the area was not combed properly … The NSG is not trained to comb a large area and additional army troops had to be brought in.” Panag concluded, “The NSA must refrain from micromanaging operations in military domains. Broad directives can be given but detailed planning should be left to the armed forces.”
Ajai Shukla wrote, “Ajit Doval’s inept handling has transformed what should have been a short, intelligence-driven, counter-terrorist operation into something that increasingly seems like a debacle.”
“Just a whiff of a live operation, and he is back in the field, at least in his mind,” Shekhar Gupta wrote. “That is why the immediate decision to send the NSG to Pathankot. But there is a difference between classical intelligence or counter-terror operation and dealing with a larger threat to a place as sensitive and sprawling as an air force base. … This left Mr Doval no deniability as he was widely seen to be controlling the operation.”
Another major militant attack followed in September, and left 18 soldiers dead at an army camp in the town of Uri, in Kashmir. Eleven days after it, the army announced that it had inflicted heavy casualties in “surgical strikes” at several militant bases across the Line of Control. Such raids had occurred before, but had never been publicly flaunted. Now the media hailed Modi for the action. Defence journalists credited Doval with planning it.
Sober scrutiny came from elsewhere. Some analysts questioned the worth of bringing public one-upmanship into an already difficult conflict. The journalist Myra MacDonald noted in Defeat is an Orphan, “The cross-LOC raids were a tactical rather than strategic success, since the old rules stood.” Such raids were unlikely to make Pakistan “abandon its strategy of supporting some jihadis while fighting others. … Inside the Kashmir valley, India still needed to find the political means of addressing Kashmiri resentment.”
IN ITS ELECTION MANIFESTO for 2014, the BJP declared that the Congress-led government had “failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. India and its neighbours have drifted apart. Instead of clarity, we see confusion. The absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today.”
Modi invited the heads of state of all the South Asian countries to his swearing in. They all came, including Nawaz Sharif, then the Pakistani prime minister. The idea was reported to have come from Doval. Modi’s supporters lauded the statesmanlike gesture, and pundits dared hope for better India–Pakistan ties.
It was in vain. A few instances of cross-border fire served as a reminder of the tense status quo. Pakistan’s high commissioner to India met with leaders of the Hurriyat, a Kashmiri separatist coalition. The Indian government and media berated Pakistan, and India called off bilateral talks scheduled for August.
Doval was not shy with his opinion of dialogue with Pakistan before he became the NSA. In 2013, he spearheaded a call by a group of former diplomatic, military and intelligence officials for the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to cancel a planned meeting with Sharif at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Instead, they demanded the creation of measures “that will impose a cost on Pakistan.”
In December 2015, on the way home from a foreign tour, Modi landed in Lahore to drop in on celebrations of Sharif’s birthday and his granddaughter’s wedding. Reuters reported, “A close aide to Modi said the visit was a spontaneous decision by the prime minister and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and that it should not be seen as a sudden shift in India’s position.”
G Parthasarathy, the former diplomat, told me that when Modi came to power, the impression was that Doval would be very tough. “So he decided to reach out to Pakistan,” he said. “He had to do that to show that the stereotype of a hardliner is wrong.” But Modi’s supporters in the RSS and the larger constellation of the Sangh Parivar would not have it. “There was much indignation,” a political activist associated with the RSS told me.
Some analysts, going by past experience, predicted a “spoiler” attack in reaction to Modi’s visit by elements opposed to peace between the two countries. The Pathankot attack came just days later. Pakistan denounced it; Modi blamed it only on “enemies of humanity.”
The Pew Research Centre conducted a survey in the following months on the Indian public’s perception of Modi. The prime minister got high marks on everything except his dealings with Pakistan. The survey report noted that the “disapproval is shared among supporters of all parties, including Modi’s own BJP.”
Modi changed tack. He has since said that Pakistan “bombs its own citizens using fighter planes,” and that the “time has come that Pakistan shall have to answer to the world for the atrocities committed by it against people in Balochistan and PoK”—Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In his 2016 Independence Day speech, he made a reference to Balochistan again. The media dubbed it a “diplomatic strike.”
The Modi government had already made a significant move on Balochistan the previous year. In October 2015, a representative of the separatist Balochistan Liberation Organisation called a press conference in Delhi to read out a statement from the group’s leader, who was in exile in London. Pakistan protested against the BLO representative’s presence in the Indian capital. A report in The Hindu had Indian officials confirming “that both PoK and Balochistan will be used more and more when India faces allegations from Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir.” The BLO representative told the reporters he had been in India since 2009, and that “he feels safe in Delhi and has the support of a section of the BJP.”
Uday Mahurkar, in his book on the Modi administration, wrote that the prime minister’s “diplomatic strike in relation to Balochistan … was taken after careful thought and a lot of groundwork and planning by his national security advisor, Ajit Doval. As it turned out, the move not only left Pakistan dumbstruck but has also baffled China. The reason: it is directed as much against Pakistan as against China in the context of the 3000-km-long economic corridor that China is building from the Gwadar port on the Makran coast in Balochistan to the Xinjiang province in China.”
It is unclear if this “strike” served any purpose other than provoking both of India’s largest neighbours. Pakistan and China’s collaboration on the planned economic corridor has continued unfazed. India’s main geopolitical riposte to it has been to start negotiations with Iran about developing a port in Chabahar, just across the Iran–Pakistan border from Gwadar, to rival the China-backed port. That project is still very far from fruition.
Indian policy on Pakistan under Modi has suffered for a lack of consistency. The government’s often contradictory moves have seemed motivated by the need of the hour rather than a coherent long-term strategy. In part, this could have to do with fluctuations in the division of responsibility.
A veteran diplomatic correspondent said that “initially, Modi trusted Jaishankar with Pakistan and Doval with China.” The correspondent pointed out the irony in this—Jaishankar is the better versed on China, having served as ambassador there, and Doval the better versed on Pakistan. “Doval was the special envoy to China. Jaishankar was sent on a visit to SAARC capitals, a thinly veiled cover for fresh talks with Pakistan, in March 2015. But by the end of 2015, when Modi’s approach to Pakistan had changed, Doval met the Pakistan NSA in Bangkok … and became the face of India’s Pakistan policy once again.”
Inconsistency has been a hallmark in the relationship with Nepal, too. Modi headed to Kathmandu in August 2014, a few months into his tenure as prime minister. There, he promised to increase development cooperation, and to put the “neighbourhood first.” But the goodwill this earned was soon squandered.
In September 2015, Nepal was on the verge of adopting a new constitution to cap an arduous transition away from civil war. But anger over some of its provisions had sparked protests, especially in the Madhes region along the southern border, and scores of demonstrators had died in the preceding months. India, long a supporter of the new charter’s creation, had issued notes of concern regarding the discontent, but nothing that had been interpreted in Kathmandu as suggesting a major change in the Indian stance. Two days before the constitution was to be signed, Jaishankar landed in Kathmandu to lobby for a postponement so that the concerns of people in the Madhes could be addressed.
Many Nepalis read this as India meddling in their affairs—a long-standing sore point. “It wasn’t just that the message that Jaishankar brought was ill-timed and inappropriate,” the Nepali journalist Ameet Dhakal wrote, “the brute way of its delivery was equally damning.” Dhakal likened Jaishankar’s demeanour to that of the British viceroy George Nathanial Curzon.
“As matters reached a head,” the journalist Jyoti Malhotra wrote, “Doval, who has been ‘handling’ Nepal at this time, was forced to cede ground to foreign secretary S Jaishankar.” An analyst familiar with the ministry of external affairs told me Doval had been reluctant to go to Kathmandu to deliver the message himself, and had left the job to Jaishankar.
The constitution was adopted as scheduled, with India and Nepal feeling mutually snubbed. The countries’ relationship has remained strained since. The signing of the constitution was soon followed by a devastating blockade of the two countries’ border as India and a new Nepali government clashed over suggested amendments to the document, and over increased Chinese investment in Nepal. As anger against India multiplied, China’s popularity shot up.
India’s recent dealings with Sri Lanka, like those with Nepal, also suggest a tendency towards blunt reactions to any cooperation between China and the smaller South Asian states.
In October 2014, Doval visited Colombo. The incumbent government there, under Mahinda Rajapaksa, had actively courted China, to India’s distaste. Now, with an election due in a few months, Doval met with opposition leaders ahead of a meeting with Rajapaksa. In December, Rajapaksa’s government expelled the RAW station chief in Colombo—accusing him, it later emerged, of aiding the opposition. The following month, Rajapaksa lost the election to Maithripala Sirisena, a last-minute defector to the opposition from his own party.
The consensus in Sri Lanka was that Doval had plotted to oust Rajapaksa, motivated largely by his antipathy towards China. This March, the New Indian Express reported comments by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s brother and defence secretary, at a media event in Colombo. “Gotabaya said that China has been a bee in the bonnet for Doval since his early days in the intelligence service,” the report said. It also stated Gotabaya’s view that while Doval’s predecessor, Shivshankar Menon, “looked at things as a diplomat, Doval looked at them as an ‘intelligence man.’”
The new Sri Lankan government has continued to collaborate with China. Shivshankar Menon, in his 2016 memoir, wrote that it “would be unreasonable to expect exclusivity. For Sri Lanka, as for India’s other smaller neighbors, using China to get India to pay attention and invest in the relationship and using India to get Chinese investment and support is a productive strategy, empirically proven in the past. For India not to recognize and deal with this fact of international life would be foolish.”
India’s relationship with Myanmar witnessed another foreign-relations blunder. In June 2015, a rebel group based across the India–Myanmar border attacked Indian forces in Manipur. India retaliated with a cross-border raid on the rebels’ camps. The action was reportedly sanctioned by the Myanmar government on the condition that it be kept secret. But when government ministers in Delhi began boasting of it, Myanmar, facing an apparent affront to its sovereignty, denied that the action had taken place. After another cross-border raid, in September, Myanmar protested the intrusion.
Doval’s main examination as a diplomat on the global stage has been his handling of China. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, visited India in September 2014, stirring hopes of progress on long-standing disputes over the two countries’ border. When the time came to talk, Modi appointed Doval his special envoy on the issue over Jaishankar. A former official at the ministry of external affairs and a former RAW officer told me that Doval specifically asked for the job.
A round of talks in 2015 yielded little substance. Another round followed in mid April 2016. Prior to this, China had blocked Indian efforts at the UN to have Masood Azhar—released by India to end the IC 814 hijacking, suspected of orchestrating the Pathankot attack and now living in Pakistan—internationally recognised as a terrorist. Doval raised this issue with his Chinese counterpart.
Days later, India granted a visa for Dolkun Isa, an exiled leader of the Uighur ethnic group wanted by China, to attend a conference in Dharamshala. China pointed out that Isa was listed as a wanted fugitive by Interpol, and reminded India of its resulting obligations. The ministry of external affairs cancelled the visa.
“Dolkun Isa episode is a self-inflicted humiliation. Mercifully, wiser heads prevailed, not prickly & immature new warriors of our diplomacy,” Shekhar Gupta tweeted. A veteran diplomatic correspondent told me that the impetuous issuance of Isa’s visa and its later withdrawal showed a disharmony between Jaishankar’s and Doval’s approaches.
Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international relations, wrote, “It is unclear how India expects putting Masood Azhar on a UN terror list will stop his depredations … the amount of diplomatic effort that India expends on these ventures is much too disproportionate to any likely benefits.”
In August 2016, The Telegraph reported, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has handed foreign secretary S. Jaishankar charge of India’s diplomacy with China and Pakistan, ending the near-complete control that national security adviser Ajit Doval held over New Delhi’s two toughest relationships. … Jaishankar will from now on hold regular talks with his Chinese counterpart … to manage a tricky bilateral relationship threatened by a series of spats in recent months.”
“Doval’s wings have been clipped on China because Jaishankar has been roped in,” an analyst who worked with Doval at the VIF told me. “Because the things are far more complicated, it requires delicate diplomacy. With Pakistan there is mostly terrorism.”
But Doval remained Modi’s special envoy for border talks. This June, China attempted to extend a road into Doklam, an area that it claims at the trijunction of the Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese borders. India, in keeping with existing treaty agreements with Bhutan and its own strategic calculations, defended the Bhutanese claim. Indian soldiers entered the territory to confront Chinese troops, and a standoff ensued. Just before Doval visited China during the incident, the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese government, carried an editorial titled “Doval visit won’t sway China over border standoff,” which said the NSA “is believed to be one of the main schemers behind the current border standoff.” After months of stalemate, in late August both sides agreed to disengage.
A flurry of articles put the resolution down to Doval taking a tough stand. In a piece titled “How Doval and team navigated the Doklam stand-off,” Zee News reported, “As diplomatic talks progressed, it was clear New Delhi was negotiating from a position of strength with Army Chief Bipin Rawat ‘extremely confident of ensuring maximum damage.’”
Meanwhile, R Prasannan, a veteran journalist on defence and foreign affairs, wrote,
Clearly, Modi had been led up the mountain path by his strategic managers. First, they failed to read the Chinese mind, which had been made up to slight India. The Chinese had notified their intent to build a road to Doklam, but our diplomats did nothing to dissuade them. When the Chinese came in, India used the military first and diplomacy last. It should have been the other way around. … Throughout the crisis, Bhutan didn’t utter a word. After it was diffused, there was just a “phew” statement. No “Thank You, India”. Pray, why the silence?
During the standoff, Tsering Shakya, a historian of the Himalayan region, wrote, “The Indian media’s sabre-rattling on defending Bhutan from Chinese encroachment may be good for arousing nationalistic sentiment but does not find echoes in Bhutan. While the Bhutanese don’t fear invasion from the north, an increasing Indian presence will surely undermine its sovereignty.”
“There has been no progress absolutely” on India–China relations, a senior diplomatic correspondent told me. After the initial meetings between India and China after Modi took power, “Doval didn’t seem to have any ideas to take the second step forward. The relationship never really took off. Doval’s whole emphasis seemed to be on border management. Three years later it is dead. The problems are as alive as in 2014.”
“Doval is a policeman, with a very law-and-order approach, and doesn’t look at the long-term point of view,” the correspondent said. Jaishankar, reportedly with the greater say on China now, “looks at things like a diplomat.” But, the correspondent told me, “Doval and Jaishankar are both hardliners in terms of not letting traditional forms and historical factors affect their interests. They share their worldview openly, and it makes Modi comfortable. … The diplomats of other countries in our neighbourhood, including China, don’t really have any respect for Doval and Jaishankar as they are seen not as diplomats with a vision but as apparatchiks.”
V | A POLICEMAN’S WAR
IN HIS PUBLIC STATEMENTS, Doval has returned repeatedly to the concept of fourth-generation warfare. He wrote about it as early as in 2006, and spoke publicly about it as late as in 2015. The concept builds upon the traditional understanding of war as a violent conflict between states, to describe, in its most simplified form, warfare where at least one of the parties is an armed non-state actor. It can be applied, for instance, to many militant insurgencies and the battle against transnational, decentralised extremist networks. One of its recurring preoccupations is an “invisible,” often internal, enemy.
“The subversive and violent groups disguise themselves as crusaders of disaffected or alienated sections of the society and indulge in violence and other unlawful activities,” Doval wrote in 2012. “Actions taken by the government to protect law abiding citizens or to enforce rule of law will be portrayed as persecution and oppression further eroding government’s legitimacy.”
Speaking at the national police academy in Hyderabad in 2015, he said, “This war can’t be won by armies. This is the war of policemen. If you win, the country wins.”
Doval’s close associates in power seem to have imbibed some of this thinking. Advani referred to the “invisible enemy” in his autobiography. Modi told a conference of military commanders in 2014, “Beyond the immediate, we are facing a future where security challenges will be less predictable, situations will evolve and change swiftly, and technological changes will make responses more difficult to keep pace with. The threats may be known, but the enemy may be invisible.”
“This suits Doval because he is so comfortable in this skin, because terrorism is his domain of expertise,” Pravin Sawhney, the editor of the defence magazine Force, told me. But, he said, “If the Indian army starts parroting this line then they don’t have to prepare for conventional warfare. How can terrorism be your invisible threat when you have two clear military lines”—one each with China and Pakistan, with the former increasingly aiding the other. “Your biggest threat is China, China, China.”
G Parthasarathy, the former diplomat, agreed that India’s current foreign-policy focus is misplaced. “We are too obsessed with Pakistan,” he said. “It is only an instrument of Chinese containment of India. Under its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, the strategic containment of India in the Indian Ocean is the primary goal of China.”
“You can’t have a great powerful country which can’t manage its own internal security,” Doval said in 2015 at the police academy. There have been multiple internal security crises on his watch. Just this July, militants killed seven people on the pilgrimage route to the Amarnath Temple in Kashmir. The government faced criticism from across party lines for not acting on prior intelligence about the attack. In August, supporters of the god-man Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, angered by his conviction for rape, rampaged across parts of Haryana, Punjab and the national capital region. More than 30 people were left dead.
“Comprehensive national security is not just about borders but in its broad terms includes military security; economic security; energy, food and water and health security; and social cohesion and harmony,” the BJP’s election manifesto declared. Yet cow-protection vigilantes have been allowed free rein, and have taken several lives since 2014.
The BJP’s manifesto also talked about revamping India’s intelligence operations and freeing them of political interference. There have been no large reforms yet. Doval has long backed the creation of a national counter-terrorism centre to better consolidate and analyse relevant intelligence. The move was mooted by the previous government, but stalled after numerous states, including Gujarat under Modi, declared it an encroachment on their own intelligence operations. The idea was revived last year, three years into Doval’s time as NSA, but is far from realisation.
“The NSA has to be scrupulously neutral but Doval is favouring the rightist approach of the ruling party,” EN Rammohan, the former head of the Border Security Force, said in a newspaper interview this May. “He cannot keep quiet when the party takes the wrong approach while handling security issues. When the party does something which is violating the Constitution, the NSA should stand up and point out that this is wrong.” Doval, Rammohan said, “is a brilliant officer but he is behaving like a sycophant to the BJP.” This might be his legacy.
Doval responded to the interview request submitted to his office on 18 August with a phone call to Praveen Donthi on 1 September, after the September 2017 issue, in which this story appeared, had been closed. In a seven-minute conversation, Doval said, “As far as the policies of national security are concerned, that is the government’s policy and Ajit Doval is only a part of the machine. You should be able to study this thing as the performance of the government. … Don’t over-credit me with something. … I am associated in shaping it to some extent. I am also associated with executing it. But I am not the only one. There is the army chief, there is the navy chief, there are intelligence chiefs, there is the ISRO, there is the DRDO, there is the foreign secretary. There is everybody around. I am part of the team. Maybe I lead the team, but I am part of the team. … Media might be right, the media may not be very right. I do whatever I know or whether I can do, I do my part.”
1. The print version of this story erroneously described Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014 as his first foreign trip as prime minister.
2. Due to an editorial oversight, the following lines did not appear in this story in the print issue:
Modi tweeted, “In Pathankot today, our security forces once again demonstrated their valour. I salute their sacrifice.”
The next day, remaining militants launched fresh attacks, and there were more casualties.
This has been corrected online.
The Caravan regrets the errors.