Dhar’s career, initially as a young IPS officer in North Bengal at a time when the Naxalite movement was taking shape, and subsequently over an extended tenure with the IB—to which he was involuntarily assigned after a few unpleasant brushes with powerful state politicians—took him through many troubled areas of the country, including, briefly, Punjab, at the height of the insurgency there, and also put him in touch and occasional friction with the inner circle of a succession of prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. He also handled the sensitive and prestigious Pakistan Counter-Intelligence Unit (PCIU), as well as the IB’s Technical Cell.
Much of Dhar’s narrative is an insider’s view of events that are well known, and would contain few surprises—except in matters of detail—for those who have closely followed national events over the past decades. Many facts and interpretations would, moreover, be challenged by other parties involved in the various controversies covered. Nevertheless, the book would make an interesting read even for other ‘insiders’ to intelligence, politics and governance in India, and would probably be entirely fascinating to the lay reader.
In the mirror of his personal perceptions and experiences, we also discover some extraordinary aspects of India’s intelligence apparatus and operations—some very uncomplimentary, but others distinctly flattering. One that is particularly noteworthy is the fact that Dhar starts out in life as a self-confessed hater of Muslims, and his loathing is visceral and personal: "I would never forgive them for raping Manorama, my childhood companion back in East Pakistan, and uprooting us from our real motherland." He never entirely loses his sneaking sympathy for the ‘Sangh parivar’ and makes no secret of his admiration for, and sustained association with, some of its prominent leaders. But it’s a testament to the IB’s ethos and work ethic that he eventually and substantially overcame his personal biases under the guidance of some of his more sagacious trainers and colleagues, to an extent that he is capable, eventually, to evolve a worldview that not only accepts that Islam is not, itself, "subversive in nature", but also the "geopolitical compulsion of India being a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation. It could never be turned into a Dar-ul-Islam or Hindu Rashtra". His transformation is such that he describes—in great detail—the machination that led up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid (the ‘disputed structure’ of the Hindutva brigade) as a "chapter of national shame".
Dhar is blunt about the IB’s many failings—this is laced with his perceptions of the character and failings of particular officers, including some of his bosses and at least one of whom he has portrayed in the worst conceivable light. He discloses, for instance, that while the IB studied the growth of radical Islamism as a part of the study of the Muslim community in India, it did not have a separate analysis desk on Pakistan. On first sight, this is absurd, except that this subject would come under the natural mandate of RAW. However, Dhar does make a sustained case for the indivisibility of such intelligence, and insists often not only that the separation of external intelligence under RAW’s mandate was a mistake, but also that this agency has (there is more than a suspicion of institutional rivalry here) been consistently incompetent.
Open Secrets is an intensely personal memoir, and Dhar is brutally frank about his opinions of all institutions and individuals covered—right to his opinion of various prime ministers with whom he had the opportunity to interact, directly or indirectly. It makes easy and interesting reading but for one unforgivable lapse: the narrative would have profited immensely from the work of a good editor. Unfortunately, a particular genre of publishers today display little concern for the niceties of English grammar and the subtle turn of phrase.