“The high khaki class in Pakistan and India are cousins, which makes the spy war in some ways a family dispute.” The throwaway sentence in the Acknowledgements section of Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, is what defines and bedevils this ambitious book. The two authors have a reputation to protect, boasting an enviable record of investigative work, dealing with Kashmir, Pakistan and India, that has won them global acclaim and awards.
The 340-page book plays to the established strengths of the authors – a racy and gripping narrative, dramatic action, strong and powerful characters, access to powerful people on record, and a “fly on the wall” view to the reader. It is a three-part book, where the first part skims over the backstory between 1968 and 2000.
From 1968 to Davinder Singh
The authors choose 1968 because on 21 September that year, the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW was founded by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Its motto: “Justice protected, protects,” which seems more suited to a security agency providing cover to judges in court. The first part ends with the Kandahar hijacking episode, where India’s current NSA (then Additional Director in the Intelligence Bureau) Ajit Doval, the authors say, “would never forget being outplayed and losing traction with a government in Delhi that chose flight rather than fight”.
That government was headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee. After the “colossal intelligence failure” of hijacking, the book claims that a moratorium on RAW hot actions in Pakistan was lifted as India successfully launched an information war to build a narrative of Rawalpindi being the prime manipulator of regional terror.
In the second part, the book focuses on the period after the 9/11 bombings and traverses the decision-making in Pakistan to go with the US against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the events in Kashmir, and the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. It is now forgotten that Davinder Singh, the J&K Police officer dismissed from service in May without an enquiry in “the interest of the security of the state” after he was caught with an armed militant in his car, was deeply involved in the Parliament attack.
The book notes that “no court that sat for the Parliament attacks examined Davinder Singh’s role, and if they had, they might have been made aware that he was already being monitored by the security services that not only doubted his honesty but also questioned his patriotism”. In a tactic witnessed regularly to evade tough judgements, the authors dismiss this critical issue with a “Davinder Singh somehow wriggled free” without attempting to dig any further.
The communal card
The rest of the second part deals mostly with Pakistan and Kashmir during the Musharraf era: the Ilyas Kashmiri saga, Major Abdul Rehman Hashim Syed or “Pasha”, Daniel Pearl’s murder, Koka Parray’s killing, and assassination attempt on Musharraf. The 26/11 attacks on Mumbai are next, something the authors have gone through in their earlier book. Packed with too much detail, but scarcely any new revelations, the tale is taken forward through the eyes of a Pakistani intelligence operative called Major Iftikhar and a now-retired woman RAW officer, Monisha.
When it comes to 2010-11, Monisha, now based in the US, makes the revelation that “officials and activists allied to the religious right were becoming sectarian and politicised, in a mirror of forces that were corroding Pakistan”. The authors note that “an as yet unknown number of police officers, spies, and soldiers began to elevate their Hindu values over those of the secular Indian republic. They began to brazenly promote a Hindu land, whose neighbour was an Islamic one, to where India’s Muslim should go…”.
The book talks about communalisation of certain sections of RAW, as regional police chiefs were informed by IB in 2011 in a private meeting that “at least 16 bombing conspiracies had been linked to suspected Hindu militants, and that new intelligence detachments would have to be created to probe the far right-wing threat in India, just as Israel was doing with its home-grown Jewish right-wing chauvinists”.
Instead of frontally exploring the rise of Hindu militancy, the book in its characteristic manner ducks it by stating, “when the BJP was swept into government in 2014, and Ajit Doval was elevated to the job of National Security Adviser, the painful soul-searching was curtailed”. If only it was as harmless as soul-searching.
The Kashmir story
The final part deals with the events during the Narendra Modi regime, where the officials quoted on record are Doval and senior officials in his team. Pakistani officials are either those who have retired or unnamed, which is certain to raise eyebrows of any discerning reader.
This part covers young Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani’s killing, in which the authors contend – with little proof to substantiate their assertion – that Doval allowed Wani to be built into a larger-than-life Kashmiri hero. That he survived for so long, and that his death in 2016 broke the morale of the Kashmiri people – eventually paving the way for abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir – was all part of Doval’s grand design is a far-fetched proposition.
The authors appear to have overlooked the fact that there was a general election in between, and Article 370 was preceded by the announcement of the CAA and followed by the foundation-laying ceremony of the temple at Ayodhya, the other core issues of the Sangh Parivar.
This part also covers the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase, but doesn’t mention that it took place days after PM Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Nawaz Sharif’s residence, or that a Pakistani investigation team, including an ISI official, was invited by Doval to visit the Indian airbase. The 2016 “Surgical Strikes” are given a miss as well, but the Pulwama bombing and the Balakot airstrike are covered in some detail.
Even though the authors drop enough hints, the questions they raise about Pulwama and Balakot being “proactive operations” to help the political masters, which Doval didn’t answer, are tantalisingly left hanging.
The book is not without flaws. Unlike the authors’ earlier books, Spy Stories, because of its structure, is devoid of a plot and a gripping climax, which can make it a tough read for those who aren’t domain specialists. The structure also makes it a fragmented book, which risk being mistaken as nothing more than a few random spy stories thrown together.
This aspect becomes pronounced due to the absence of any significant discussion on the overall context in which these spy vs spy games were being played; the politics, diplomacy and the military are marked by their absence. The routine use of quotations to dramatically convey decades-old conversations ensures a smooth narrative, but raises serious questions about accuracy and recollection.
More problematic, however, is the equivalence that the book attempts to draw between India and Pakistan, two countries who chose diametrically different paths in 1947, even though the Hindu majoritarianism dominating Indian polity now seems to be a mirror image of Islamist extremism in Pakistan.
Still, the parallels between ISI and RAW are more contrived than real, and do not fit the formulaic CIA vs KGB framing of the Cold War, which the book attempts. That it is a book made possible by high-level access, which becomes abundantly clear in the last part, will be construed as an attempt to build Doval up as a national security hero, despite his patchy record as Modi’s NSA.
That the authors don’t question him about the intelligence failures that led to Uri, Pathankot, Pulwama or the crisis on the China border in Ladakh sticks out. Much was expected from ‘Spy Stories’ since it was first announced a couple of years ago but the book leaves the reader unconvinced and unsatisfied.
In the final analysis, if there is one word that can be chosen to describe the book, it is quixotic. It may well make it to the bestsellers’ list but it must be read carefully, with a critical eye, for all that it reveals and all that it doesn’t. The India-Pakistan story is too vivid and important to be limited to some stories about spies.
Sushant Singh is a senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research and a visiting lecturer at Yale University.
Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the RAW and the ISI, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, Juggernaut Books.