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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On June 2, 2024

    By Karan Thapar

    Perhaps even John le Carre would have considered it too improbable to be credible. It’s like suggesting the chiefs of the CIA and KGB have agreed to collaborate. But, hard as it is to believe, something similar has happened in South Asia yet passed unnoticed or, at least, unremarked upon. The former heads of India and Pakistan’s rival spy agencies – R&AW in our case and ISI in theirs – have become buddies and collaborated on books they’ve jointly written. On Monday Amarjit Singh Dulat and Gen. Asad Durrani launched their latest called ‘Covert: The Psychology of War and Peace’. Their first was aptly named ‘The Spy Chronicles’!


    How did this relationship start? On a boat on the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok, it seems. They were guests at a Track II dialogue on terror. Dulat was called upon to speak but being new to such events was nervous and reluctant. Durrani was thoughtful and supportive. As Dulat adds, “the chemistry” worked and they soon become friends.


    Covert reveals their similarities and their differences. As a child Durrani “always loved to be alone”. Even the adult “didn’t want to be part of a crowd”. The young Dulat had few friends, “mostly the servants’ children”. As he puts it, he “learned to be on your own and fend for yourself”.


    The future ISI Chief was a star performer at school. “I was always amongst the first four or five in almost every subject”. Dulat was the opposite. He was “a very average student”. But the future R&AW head shone at sports. He played “every game in school”. Durrani, being a loner, “was very fond of cycling” and “there was no place in a city like Lahore that was too far”.


    Not surprisingly, the individual in Durrani determined the sort of person he became. “I was different, a non-conformist”, he says. “My spirit has always been a little rebellious.” Dulat more readily accepted parental or educational discipline. He grew up believing “there are things that are right and there are things that are wrong”. I guess this gave him a clear moral direction.


    Durrani joined the military and adds “I don’t think I ever regretted it”. Dulat began as a policeman but admits this was because “I couldn’t make it to the better services”. But it was accident or fortuitous good fortune that lead them to their respective intelligence agencies.


    “I landed there by accident”, Durrani reveals with a laugh. “I have admitted that”. Dulat joined the Intelligence Bureau “without knowing what intelligence really was”. Yet both men rose to the top and are today acknowledged by their countrymen as outstanding former chiefs of ISI and R&AW respectively. So I wonder if either believes in fate? Certainly James Bond would never have rashly challenged superstitions. Do they?


    Dulat says he admires Durrani’s “candour … the fact he always calls a spade a spade”. He’s outspoken and doesn’t hesitate to criticize the Pakistan army. But it seems Durrani also admires the Indian system. That could be more difficult to do. Let me leave you with this quotation and ask you to consider if my conclusion is right. “In India people rise from the ranks through merit and take over IB or R&AW. In our case, a person can be appointed to such posts at the pleasure of the chief executive of the country or the army. So we do not always follow the criteria of who could make a good ISI chief.”


    Covert doesn’t reveal the inner workings – leave aside secrets – of R&AW and ISI. Nor did The Spy Chronicles. Instead, it “explores the inner lives and motivations of spy chiefs … (it’s) inherently psychological”. Its focus is on the two principals. What sort of men are they? What makes them tick? But it also illustrates the fascinating way they have navigated the pursuit of India-Pakistan peace without the least hint of disloyalty to their countries. And more often than not their views tend to coincide. Spies, it seems, seldom differ.

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