How Ajit Doval showed all attributes of a spymaster right at the start of his career. An Extract
I first met Ajit Doval a little over three decades ago, in the parking lot of the IB office in North Block. He was very young then and three years junior to me, but equally bright, and under the aegis of M.K. Narayanan, he was rising star. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I do remember Ajit telling me enthusiastically of what a privilege it was to work with a boss like Narayanan. Hero worship aside, what struck me—and has stayed with me since—is the ambition that lies behind such a declaration.
His focus, even then, was on the chief. It was natural, of course, and it was important in a field such as ours. If you are on the right side of the chief, you stand a much better chance. That’s not to say that I was ever on Narayanan’s wrong side, but I don’t think anyone was as much on his right side as Ajit Doval in those days. He had the determination to go places.
Ajit’s legendary career is a well-known one, although it didn’t really take off until he was sent to the Northeast, to Mizoram, where he served as the head of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB), the local unit of the IB. Doval arrived in Aizawl in 1972. It was a tricky time to be in the Northeast.
Half a decade earlier, in 1966, rebellion had broken out across the hills, then still a part of Assam. The Mizo National Front (MNF), headed by Laldenga, a former army havaldar, established a separatist insurgency. By the time Doval arrived in the region, the violence had waned, though the atmosphere was still palpably tense and the tide was turning against the MNF.
Following the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the MNF rebels were left without a place to seek refuge. There was no option, it seemed, but to seek a settlement with India. As is so often the case, this was easier said than done, with talks floundering time and again.
Matters had been complicated by the recognition of Mizoram as a union territory in 1972, and the corresponding emergence of factions within the Front. But talks persisted secretly, between Laldenga and Indira Gandhi. Indeed, when the IB organized an emergency convention of the MNF in Calcutta in March 1976, it was said (certainly by J.F.R. Jacob, the chief of Staff for the Eastern Army Command, in his memoir) that Doval had paved the way for the hostile leaders to attend. The resulting agreement that came about in 1976 was the foundation for the Mizo Peace Accord that was signed a decade later, under Rajiv Gandhi, after which full statehood was granted to Mizoram.
In Praveen Donthi’s remarkable profile of Doval for Caravan, he quotes V.K. Duggal, the district magistrate in Aizawl in the 1970s, as saying: ‘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.’ In yet another profile for NDTV, journalist Nitin Gokhale wrote about Doval’s brilliance in infiltrating the underground MNF, weaning away half a dozen of its commanders and thus breaking the back of the insurgency where it stood. The whole operation was an astounding success, proving Doval’s merit as a true intelligence officer. He was already showing signs of being willing to do the unconventional in order to succeed, a maxim I myself subscribe to.
Many years later, in 2006, I appreciatively read an interview given by Ajit to The Times of India in which he narrates how he invited a band of armed men to the Doval homestead in Aizawl. Doval told his wife, Anu, that they were all part of the same operation. In reality, these boys were the commanders of Laldenga’s MNF. ‘They were all heavily armed, but I had given my word that they would be safe. My wife cooked pork for them, even though she was not used to cooking pork,’ Doval said with a chuckle in the interview. When Anu realized just whom she had been cooking for, years later, she was understandably quite miffed! As anecdotes go, it is a gem, speaking volumes of Doval’s ability to break away from protocol, if the situation calls for it.
In this sense, our styles are similar. I, too, have no hesitation in dispensing with convention, if it gets me the results I need. I have often had boys—from separatists to locals—coming over to my house in Delhi, to have some tea and share some information. In places that are as troubled as Kashmir and the Northeast are, convention has very little place or, at times, necessity. So, I give him full marks because in the same way that I didn’t go according to the book, neither did Ajit Doval. He went, truth be told, much more his own way than I did.
Ajit’s career continued to rise after his success in the Northeast. Next came report of his time in Islamabad, where he was posted to the Indian high commission. The cover story for his post varies, depending on whom you read—from ‘information officer’ (according to Donthi) to ‘head of the commercial section’ at a time when there wasn’t that much commerce between India and Pakistan (according to Shekhar Gupta). But G. Parthasarathy, the Indian consul in Karachi from 1982 to 1985, remembers a young man with an astute sense of political acumen. Doval was, according to Parthasarathy, the first man to contact Nawaz Sharif, then a young and rising politician himself. When the Indian cricket team reached Lahore on a tour of Pakistan in 1982, Sharif welcomed them with a huge party at his residence. That party, says Parthasarathy, was facilitated by Doval.
A LIFE IN THE SHADOWS: A MEMOIR
Harper Collins, 255 Pages, Rs 699