A vinuous symposium in the queen of cities saw the first of many conversations that would become the ingredients of The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. It was May 2016, and ex-Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief A.S. Dulat, former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Asad Durrani and I were to meet in Istanbul following a Track 2 ‘intel dialogue’ between retired officials from India and Pakistan. Our project was hush-hush. On my Turkish Airlines flight, however, I espied the academic Ananya Vajpeyi a few rows behind me. Oh no. Where do I hide? I slouched into my seat. But eventually, all flights land. As soon as I stood, the inevitable “Aditya!” rang out. She was visiting her spouse Basharat Peer who was in the city, writing. And I? “Um, a Track 2 meet,” I lied. “Oh, which one?” she asked. “Ah, the usual, peace and conflict, etc,” I mumbled, and fled the plane. A close one.
That night, spies descended on my hotel room for ‘happy hours’. Besides Dulat and Durrani, the celebrants were former Pakistan High Commissioner Aziz Ahmed Khan and ex-RAW chief C.D. Sahay. (Former Intelligence Bureau special director K.M. Singh and the ISI’s ex-chief Ehsan-ul Haq preferred to report to their bosses. Yes, their wives.) Sahay is a teetotaller, but Aziz was well and truly liberated, telling ribald jokes, his face turning ruddy with each roar of laughter. Dulat is an inscrutable drinker; Durrani nods his head continuously, like a doll at Shankar’s Museum in Delhi. We stumbled up to the terrace for dinner, and along with the uxorious gentlemen (and the wives), talked volubly about the popularity of Pakistani TV serials. “That’s in north India,” I interjected, uninvited. “In the northeast, Korean serials are the most popular.” A hush descended on the table, as if I had just set Indo-Pak relations back a decade.
January 2017 at a hotel on the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok: despite six months apart, Durrani has grown used to me. He still has a fauji’s disdain for journalistic recklessness and indiscipline. One breakfast we shared a table, and he opened up about the memoir he had long been toiling over. My alarm bells sounded: a ‘scoop’ must be guarded more closely than any secret. His memoir should not clash with our book. “It may confuse the readers,” the publisher, with an eye on sales, later agreed. Durrani emailed me the PDF of Pakistan Adrift in December and I sighed in relief. It’s as reliably turgid as any bureaucratic memoir; what need has the ISI for the rack when it can break a captive thus?
Dulat wanted to inject some momentum into the project, and so we made our way to Kathmandu at our own expense as March drew to a close. The pollution was so oppressive that when we made the 20-minute stroll from our hotel to Thamel for lunch, we could barely see each other—and it was high noon. A glut of dinner invitations: Dulat had lived in the city during 1976-80 and had many friends from those days. We accepted two. The second was a dinner party, and our host was hard of hearing. As he ambled around the room pouring the scotch, he would gesture at Durrani and loudly ask: “Is that really a Pakistani? What is he doing in my house? Is he really an old ISI chief?” Durrani, to his credit, was nonplussed. Ironically, in the late ’70s, the host had been bosom friends with the ISI station chief.
Our last sessions were in October 2017 at a hotel in Sukhumvit, Bangkok, again following an ‘intel dialogue’ between the two countries. The Pakistanis were in a foul mood. The Indians had been combative, inflicting on them the most unkindest cut of all—presentations. It perhaps negated the idea of Track 2. We knew the Pakistanis were keeping their GHQ informed about the dialogue, but we didn’t account for the Indians wielding a ‘muscular’ brief from their top dog.
Each spy chief had had his doubts as the book progressed. Durrani never said as much, but on a couple of occasions it was clear that he was getting cold feet. Dulat twice privately wondered whether it was worth going ahead. He never explained his anxiety, but I could guess— word had leaked to the government and it was unhappy. (This explains the anaemic press coverage upon the book’s release; one major newspaper at the last minute withdrew its plans for a Sunday spread).
In these final days, Durrani was slow to warm up, and had to be defrosted. We chatted about this and that—I had loads of questions—and as we sat in a business lounge, a young Russian voice rang out, calling for General Durrani. The gentleman had recently organised a conference in Russia on Afghanistan that Durrani had attended— the Russians in the last few years had devoted attention to him, as India inched closer to the US —and hey presto, the same gentleman was in our hotel, on holiday. Durrani perked up immensely as they exchanged hugs and introductions. The Russian soon departed for sightseeing, and Durrani plunged into the discussions with renewed vigour. Dulat smiled at me and winked.
(The writer is a former editor of The New Indian Express and an author)