India’s National Security Adviser may be playing the diplomat with China, but it is his muscular approach to threats that makes him effective
IN THE WORLD of spymasters, it is said, like cats, the smartest among them have nine lives: in the first three lives, they play; for the next three, they stray; and for the last three, they stay. Former spy and current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, now 72, too, has multiple lives, some built on myths and others that are real. People who have known him for long aver such distinctions are par for the course for most intelligence—or ‘intel’—operatives, but add that such dualities tend to get blurred on closer examination, as in the case of the Pauri Garhwal-born, Kerala cadre Indian Police Service officer of the 1968 batch. He cut his teeth in the grime and dust of the turbulent Northeast of the 1970s, and got the better of several risky assignments in secessionism-ravaged Punjab of the 1980s, apart from Myanmar and Pakistan where he played pivotal roles to safeguard national interests and often escaped death by a whisker.
After many a covert success, venturing into dangerous terrain, cracking open complex cases as a sleuth and getting even perfidious men to serve Indian purposes, Doval has finally come to stay—as the man the leadership turns to on matters of the nation’s security. Unlike his predecessors who were mostly career diplomats, he brings a vast breadth of field knowledge to the coveted office, championing a hard-nosed approach in dealing with enemies and friends, and in doing so, departs from the conventional rules of conflict-related engagement. Alongside plaudits, he has earned criticism as well—largely for straying from decades-old axioms that guided Indian diplomacy and over his disregard for soft methods of conflict management. The set of rules the fifth National Security Adviser (NSA) has put forth are often called the Doval Doctrine, which has come to stand for a fear-evoking, no-mercy policy towards terrorists and the deployment of a hard line vis-a-vis neighbours with expansionist tendencies.
Despite attracting controversy and the barbs of human-rights activists, the NSA is reputedly not given to entertaining much doubt over what needs to be done. After all, he has disfavoured the adoption of a moralistic posture in fighting secessionists or those waging a war on India. Numbers tell the story of his determination to chase his goals: in the past six months, around 130 terrorists have been eliminated by security forces in the Kashmir Valley. Breaking norms has been the hallmark of this new strategy where the forces are instructed not to give in to any political pressure. In the trouble-torn Valley where Pakistan-trained militants have been leading a long-drawn battle for full autonomy, especially since the late 1980s, it has meant that the separatist Hurriyat Conference is denied all legitimacy of popular representation and its members raided to expose their foreign links and financial sources. The hot pursuit of both local and foreign terrorists has gone hand-in-hand with stern measures against stone-pelters to rein in a resurgence of militancy after the July 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in South Kashmir. The support of Jammu & Kashmir’s local police has been enlisted, even as the ruling dispensation at the Centre has got an otherwise reluctant Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti—whose Peoples Democratic Party is in alliance with the BJP in the state—to publicly endorse these new tactics that are showing signs of paying off.
Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary and the ruling party’s point-person for J&K, says that steps are being taken to address ‘the general’ alienation among people in the Valley. “Overall,” he says, “our strategy has started yielding results.” He emphasises that in winning back public support, the Centre needs the help of the state government. Incidentally, a paradigm shift in the Union’s policy towards Kashmir was to treat foreign and local terrorists on par. “Earlier, a softer line was adopted while dealing with local terrorists. But it was decided that there should be no difference in the approach towards any terrorist,” Madhav notes. In a recent encounter with security forces, Yaseen Itoo, a senior Hizbul Mujahideen commander who was involved in stoking unrest following Wani’s death, was among three terrorists killed. Earlier this month, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s (LeT’s) chief commander Abu Dujana was gunned down in Pulwama. According to a rough estimate, the average life of a militant after appearing on the forces’ radar was six months to two years earlier. Now, the figure has fallen to four-twelve weeks.
Ahead of his visit to China for talks on resolving the Doklam dispute, Doval had attracted attention in state-run Chinese media as the symbol of Delhi’s aggressive stance on border conflicts and was described as India’s ‘main schemer’
While the killing of Wani sparked protests and violence in the Valley, that of Dujana, who belonged to Gilgit in Baltistan of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), did not provoke similar protests. Dujana, one of the most wanted terrorists with an ‘A++’ label on him, had entered Kashmir six years ago and was one of the top recruiters for militants in South Kashmir. Among the other high-value terrorists eliminated in encounters were Hizbul Mujahideen’s Sajad Ahmed Gilkar and Sabzar Ahmed Bhatt, who had succeeded Wani, and LeT’s Bashir Lashkar and Junaid Mattoo. While the Lashkar masterminded the killing of six policemen in June, Gilkar was involved in the lynching of Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammad Ayub Pandith the same month.
Officials in the Valley state that Doval wanted to send an unambiguous message to insurgents: that secession from India would be unachievable. He also wants the halo around Hurriyat Conference leaders to disappear. Last month, the National Investigating Agency arrested seven Hurriyat members, one in Delhi and six in Srinagar. Another step was to choke the flow of funds to separatists. However, on the flip side, these strong measures have brought together moderates and hardliners, narrowing the differences between Islamist liberals and pro-secessionist forces. As a result, hartals called by the Hurriyat have also been observed in the Muslim-dominated areas of Jammu—Pir Panjal and Chenab— and Shia-dominated Kargil, to the alarm of many.
“What sets Doval apart from his predecessors in the post of NSA, clearly, is that he has his ear to the ground much more than any, by force of habit,” says a former officer of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) who has known him for decades, referring especially to his stints in Pakistan and Punjab. While a few earlier NSAs have been hailed as visionaries in the field of diplomacy, he has no qualms about his down-to-earth philosophy of being a hands- on security-in-chief of the country. Doval believes in ‘defensive offence’ towards India’s enemies, the fervour of which is evident in this laconic warning he once issued them: “If you do another Mumbai, you will lose Balochistan.” His stance is in line with that of the nationalist coalition in power at the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has advocated a combative policy proportionate to India’s military strength. The country has for long been seen as punching below its weight by international military analysts. The change in disposition was recently echoed by Army Chief Bipin Rawat, who defended the use of a local Kashmiri as a human shield by Major Leetul Gogoi in Badgam this April. A video showing a man tied to the bonnet of a jeep had sparked outrage among opposition parties, human-rights activists and Kashmiri groups; the man had reportedly braved a 1,000-strong mob during elections to walk to a polling station in a PDP stronghold. Election Commission officials said that Major Gogoi’s action, aimed at creating a safe passage, had saved their lives as well as those of Army personnel and he achieved this without firing a single bullet or using pellet guns.
Doval’s stance is in line with that of the nationalist coalition in power at the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has advocated a combative policy proportionate to India’s military strength
Perhaps the most dramatic example of India’s strategy shift was the Army’s midnight surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) last September, ten days after a terrorist attack on a brigade headquarters at J&K’s Uri in which 19 soldiers died. The cross-LoC operation was closely monitored by Doval, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and then Chief of Army Staff Dalbir Singh.
AS A YOUNG intelligence officer, Doval’s behaviour seems to have bordered on the reckless. Stationed in Pakistan for seven years, he used to frequent mosques to offer prayers and win friends to collect information that often turned out crucial to Indian security. On one such occasion, he was approached by an elderly man in the get-up of a Muslim scholar who asked him if he was Hindu. When he denied any links with Hinduism and India, the gentleman took him to a secluded spot and disclosed that he too was a Hindu, saying that Doval’s pierced ear was a giveaway. Doval later said he regretted not being able to help the aged Pakistani who he learnt had taken on an Islamic guise after losing his entire family. As an Indian operative, Doval got surgery done on his ear and stayed on in that country to keep his superiors abreast of Pakistan’s covert terror designs on India.
Doval’s daredevilry, albeit done with due care, at the height of militancy in Punjab also has admirers. Disguising himself as a rickshaw-puller in Amritsar, he had sneaked into the Golden Temple before Operation Black Thunder in 1988 and convinced militants that he was an ISI agent there to help them. Later, he is said to have engineered infighting within the forces backing Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. All the while, he was busy passing on crucial information to the Intelligence Bureau. He was later awarded the country’s second highest peacetime gallantry award, the Kirti Chakra, becoming the first police officer to receive it.
In the past few weeks since India has upped the ante against China following skirmishes on the border near Sikkim, in the Doklam region, state-run media in that country have described Doval as India’s ‘main schemer’. Ahead of his visit to China for talks on resolving the dispute, he had attracted attention in the Chinese media as the symbol of Delhi’s aggressive stance on border conflicts.
Aggressive, he is.
The pursuit of local and foreign terrorists has gone hand-in-hand with stern measures against stone-pelters in Kashmir to rein in a resurgence of militancy after the July 2016 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani
In late June, reports emerged that China had encroached upon Bhutanese territory in a region known as Doklam. Located close to the trijunction of the three countries, China attempted to build a road in the territory that was under dispute between China and Bhutan. In violation of the spirit of a number of talks with Bhutan, China wanted to ‘change facts on the ground’ in Doklam much as it had done from 1957 onwards in the Aksai Chin region of J&K.
Doval was well aware that this posed a tricky problem for India. On one hand, this was not a bilateral dispute between Delhi and Beijing; it involved the territory of a third country. On the other hand, if China managed to build a road in that region, it would inch close to a thin sliver of territory that connected India’s Northeastern states with the rest of the country. In the end, India, thanks to its new security priorities, has managed to ‘contain’ the situation without backing off from its objective: not letting Chinese forces onto territory that is of vital importance to India. In this, a combination of guile and a military stand seems to have worked. India has not buckled under a Chinese strategy that seeks to create a wedge with Bhutan and scare India into submission. Chinese rhetoric—not only in its voluble media but also by its diplomats in India—has been bellicose. India, in contrast, has maintained a dignified stand, emphasising the importance of diplomacy.
From Kashmir to Doklam, India’s new resolve was for all to see, in contrast to the preceding decades which exposed the limitations—and diminishing returns—of an approach that made buying and ‘beseeching’ peace more or less the same thing. One can draw a line from the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 and the continual disturbances in Kashmir from 2010 onwards that showed the weakness of old policies. While Pakistan nearly managed to de-link peace talks from terror in India, repeated Chinese incursions—nearly 280 in 2008 alone— were either sought to be downplayed or portrayed as errors on account of badly demarcated borders.
The Doval Doctrine, in contrast, is marked by strategic consistency and clarity on thwarting threats to India. In all three instances where India has faced security challenges of late, this approach has begun to deliver results.
Lieutenant General RK Sawhney, Dean, Centre for Defence Studies at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), who has known Doval as an IB operative, says that the current NSA has broken the old mould of intelligence officers. “If he had to work on countering jihadis, he researches what makes a jihadi, its genesis. He reads and goes into details that normally intelligence people do not bother with,” he says. Doval was founder-director of VIF, which was set up in 2009, four years after he retired as Director of the IB. As head of the Bureau’s operations wing for over a decade, Doval was also chairman of the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and the Joint Task Force on Intelligence (JTFI).
Many of his colleagues at VIF recall how the diminutive Doval braved the sweltering heat of June and oversaw the construction of the Foundation’s granite and sandstone building in the heart of the capital. Sawhney says he is agile and physically fit enough to do many things people of his age can’t. During their visit to the Great Wall of China, Doval surprised everyone with the spring in his step, remembers Sawhney. Describing the retired IPS man as a “family man and wonderful friend”, Sawhney says Doval always found time for his friends despite a hectic schedule. When Sawhney had to undergo a bypass surgery, Doval arrived just before he was taken to the operation theatre.
Disguising himself as a rickshaw-puller, Doval sneaked into the Golden Temple before Operation Black Thunder and convinced militants that he was an ISI agent there to help them, all the while passing on crucial information to the Intelligence Bureau
Spiritually inclined, Doval can quote scriptures, has a Master’s degree in economics, and is a frugal eater. He is also a good listener. “He would hear and discuss matters before taking a decision. But, once a decision was taken, he would be unwavering in the task of implementing it. That makes him one of the finest NSAs,” says Sawhney. Others who have known him but do not want to be named say he has broken away from traditional thinking on strategic affairs and believes in an upfront approach. One of them says Doval is “very, very nationalistic”, which suits the BJP-led Government well. The imprint of Doval’s strategic vision, expressed in his articles and speeches before he was appointed NSA in 2014, is particularly clear on the Centre’s policy on terror in J&K. In 2011, in a paper titled ‘Internal Security: Need for Course Correction’, Doval wrote, ‘The 26/11 terrorist action at Mumbai depicted a new order of lethality in Pakistan’s unabated covert offensive against India. For almost three decades, India has passively accepted such provocations. It has failed to retaliate in a proactive manner that could raise costs for Pakistan and compel it to roll back its anti-India terrorist infrastructure. India ceded the strategic and tactical initiative to Pakistan some three decades ago and needs a course correction before it poses an existentialist threat.’
It was Doval, who is fluent in Urdu and has an impressive knowledge of Islam, who spearheaded the task of reviving India’s intelligence network in Kashmir around the mid-1990s. Until then, IB operations had been withdrawn for nearly four years after the JKLF and ISI targeted four IB officers. In that phase, Indian operations had to be carried out without intelligence inputs. Within a few years of Doval taking up the task of getting intel-gathering back on track there, Doval persuaded militants such as Kuka Parray and others to become counter-insurgents and go after anti- India terrorists, paving the way for state elections in 1996.
Doval was one of the three key negotiators after terrorists hijacked an Indian plane in 1999 to Kandahar. At that time, Brajesh Mishra was the NSA and Doval’s boss. He had been involved in talks to free several hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft from 1971 to 1999. Doval had also played a crucial role in the Northeast during the Mizo National Front (MNF) insurgency and had won over six of Laldenga’s seven commanders to cease their anti-national activities. He had spent a long time in disguise with the Mizo National Army in Burma and in Chinese-occupied areas. He had also spent six years in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. Later, he was posted to the Indian High Commission in London.
As late as 2014, it was he who negotiated with powerful men in Iraq to bring home 46 nurses and other Indians stranded in the war-ravaged country. Doval flew to Baghdad to lead that mission at a time when the evacuation of Indian citizens appeared almost impossible. According to reports back then, the biggest hurdle was lack of intelligence on groups that held ground control in places like Tikrit and Mosul, even as ISIS was on a rampage of destruction in various parts of the region. While on his secret mission to Iraq, Doval was able to establish contact with the Iraqi government and secure the release of Indians trapped in the country. In another security challenge the following year, he organised the hot pursuit of NSCN(K) rebels into Myanmar, a bold operation that left 40 of them dead.
Doval, who was mentioned in a 2005 Wikileaks cable for his reported involvement in an Indian bid to nab the fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim from Pakistan, deserves praise for giving Indian security operations an efficacy the country has longed for. The use of force where necessary, calibrated by taking into consideration risks and returns, has been noticed by those hostile to the country, thus posing a deterrent. This marks a break from the last quarter century’s approach, mostly under Congress-led coalitions and other weak governments, which worked well only with those neighbours that India has not had a war with. Bangladesh is the only case where this has led to dividends. Over a period, New Delhi has been able to get hold of ‘wanted’ terrorists of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) who had taken refuge in that country. This worked because India found credible interlocutors to work with in Dhaka. In the case of China and Pakistan, this framework yields nothing.
For all his efforts, Doval has been termed a ‘hawk’ by several columnists and military analysts. He has also come under criticism for pushing a certain kind of ‘Hindutva narrative’ in his foreign policy. His statements on Pakistan and China have been picked up by critics to point out that effective negotiators do not use such language and that his policy prescriptions smack of an ‘irrelevance of morality’.
According military aggression higher priority in India’s set of options may have earned Doval enemies, but has earned the country respect.