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Checking out the Doval detail: Some myth, some reality, and much folklore

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Ajit Doval’s admirers know him to be a brilliant, “khurafati” intelligence mind.

As Ajit Doval becomes the first National Security Adviser to have a cabinet rank, and his legend continues to grow, here’s my insight on the myth and reality of his fascinating – and controversial –life.

That Ajit Doval has had an outstanding career in the Intelligence Bureau is widely accepted. I did write in a National Interest a few years ago that our careers, in our respective professions, have run, sort of, parallel as I have mostly ended up covering the situations he was tackling at different junctures. He has stayed a couple of steps ahead because of seniority and years – he will turn 74 next January. But if I got to a story even shortly after Doval had been there, he had left enough of a reputation to still be a talking point.

In January 1981, as the new northeast correspondent of The Indian Express, when I made my first visit to Mizoram, the chief minister, Thenphunga Sailo, gave me a long lecture on the past and the future. One key point he made was how things would have been so much better if “we had a few more officers like that A.K. Doval”. Doval had headed the Mizoram unit of the IB (called Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau) as assistant director until recently then.

Also read: On security front, Modi’s favourite Ajit Doval has the power ball

Almost exactly a year later, when I arrived in Gangtok to cover the funeral of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the Chogyal (or rather former Chogyal as Indira Gandhi had abolished the title after the merger in 1975), the name of Doval was mentioned often enough – in adulation or awe – for you to know that he had recently been there and had left his mark.

My next big story took me often to Punjab. Doval wasn’t there yet, but he was across the border, quite legitimately and legally, in the Indian mission in Islamabad. He was undercover only to the extent that his posting, if I recall correctly, was as head of the commercial section. I do not believe there was so much commerce between India and Pakistan. Doval was busy, however, keeping a close eye, among other things, on the subversion and separatist propaganda to which Sikh pilgrims visiting their holy places in Pakistan were exposed. In an ugly and unfortunate incident, instigated and orchestrated by Pakistan intelligence, he was once attacked by a jatha at one of these pilgrimages.

Ajit Doval is an IPS officer from the 1968 batch, but like many others of his ilk who came to the IB early – including equally legendary M.K. Narayanan – became an IB citizen for life. Messrs Doval and Narayanan, incidentally, are from the same Kerala cadre and made quite a team at the IB in their heyday. Kolkata publisher and my friend Aveek Sarkar has the most apt description for them: if Doval was the 007, Narayanan was the ‘M’ who controlled him.

From the moment Doval returned to India, he walked straight into the Punjab/Sikh crisis and that kept him busy for nearly a decade until that insurgency ended as K.P.S Gill’s Punjab Police, with quiet help from a rejuvenated IB, destroyed what is often described as the third, and longest, phase in that decade of terror. I am grateful to Gill for the access he gave me, not just to himself and his key officers, but also to a large group of former top (A and B category, as they were classified) militants who were now detained in the Punjab Armed Police centre in Jalandhar.

Their capitulation had been spectacular as just until a few months back they held sway over much of the western districts of Punjab. Most of them were barely in their mid-20s and spoke with a degree of innocence. One, a self-styled “major-general”, in fact, told me he had already killed 87 Hindus to attain that rank. If only he had killed 13 more, or three policemen (one cop equalled five Hindus), he would have automatically become “lt-general”, but that was not to be.

Also read: Despite Uri and surgical strikes, Modi-Doval kept in touch with Pakistan

Their stories made it clear to me that the success in Punjab was of the local police, as well as the IB. I have often said that each A or B category Punjab militant killed or captured in the Operation Black Thunder phase (1986-88) should be marked “caught Doval, bowled Gill”. In the last phase, Doval was more involved in tracking Khalistani terrorists across the country, and did that with his usual panache.

Terror ended in Punjab, but another full-fledged crisis had meanwhile grown in Kashmir. Doval was back to what he so loves: operations. You would find his calling card in many key operations, from Kashmir to Dawood. Some of his more “proper” seniors did not approve of his methods. But he was widely respected for his ability to deliver and it was the UPA government that appointed him director, Intelligence Bureau, in July 2004.

Doval’s subsequent career is relatively better known. He was the prime mover behind Vivekananda Foundation, which filled the vacuum for a right-of-centre think tank. He was a key mind behind the spectacular anti-corruption campaign, including Anna Hazare’s. The Foundation became a key source of talent for Narendra Modi’s government. His principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra, was there too. Doval, with his hardline image and the legend built around him, was a natural choice for national security advisor (NSA).

The essential truth about him, that his mentors, peers and protégés would tell you, is that he is still compulsively an operations man. Just a whiff of a live operation, and he is back in the field, at least in his mind. That is why the immediate decision to send the National Security Guard (NSG) to Pathankot. But there is a difference between classical intelligence or counter-terror operation and dealing with a larger threat to a place as sensitive and sprawling as an air force base.

This is what led to confusion and mix-ups. This left Doval no room for denial as he was widely seen to be controlling the operation. Frankly, I do not even know for sure whether he was. But folklore is often stronger than reality. Doval’s admirers from the ‘80s and the ‘90s know him to be a brilliant, “khurafati” intelligence mind. This was a tactical military operation in a very sensitive military environment.

Also read: Ajit Doval’s trip to Bihar — personal visit or political recruitment drive?

Doval is our fifth NSA. In some ways, on the security side, he is our most powerful yet. The first, Brajesh Mishra, combined the job of principal secretary, but had his focus on running the PMO and foreign policy. The UPA then split the job between J.N. Dixit (foreign policy) and M.K. Narayanan (security) until the former passed away. Narayanan controlled intelligence and key levers of foreign policy but left governance alone as that was the remit of T.K.A Nair. Shiv Shankar Menon, as you would expect, was more focused on foreign policy although he did focus on the military, filling the gap left by A.K. Antony’s uncommunicative indecision. Doval now brings a compulsive operational mind to the job – and to that extent, makes the NSA’s position much newsier.

An earlier version of this article was published on 10 October 2018.

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  1. Good article but doesn’t do full justice to Doval. E g doesn’t mention his spectacular infiltration of the Golden Temple that paved the way for a smooth Op Black Thunder.

    As for Pathankot, it hardly matters that there was confusion …. that is normal in any operation, most certainly so one in which you are reacting to an evolving situation with conflicting information coming in, a hidden, mobile enemy and a high value, static asset like an airbase to protect. What is important is that he correctly sized up the threat, took initiative to send in the NSG, and neutralized the terrorists without any loss of aircraft.

    The NSA exists to provide single point input to the PM on national security, which is a multidimensional field encompassing foreign affairs, defense, policing, intelligence and more. No one person can have the background in more than one of these areas …… it’s a task of melding together these disparate bureaucracies and getting things done, utilizing the authority delegate by the PM. Doval does that well. Modi’s is a government that is hawkish, and bent on implementing a focused agenda vis a vis our national security threats, most particularly Pakistan and China. Hawkishness and proactive focus on threats are trait not seen since Indira Gandhi. Doval’s background is admirably suited to what needs to be done.

  2. “Caught Doval bowled Gill” is a sad joke on the Army. It was the Indian Army which helped Gill sort out the terrorists in Punjab. The Police carried out search operations after the Army had cordoned off the terrorist infezted areas. However, it was decided by the then Government that the Army would not take any credit for the actions owing to the possible repetition of repercussions which were there post Op Blue Star. I am surprised that writer is not aware of this. Doval may have assisted in providing supporting intelligence but thats about all. Period!

  3. Today, a culture of ‘careerism’ that has crept in almost all government services including the bureaucracy, police and military has diluted if not totally destroyed yet the high character values like ‘courage’, ‘initiative’ and ‘innovation’ among the young entrants into the Service. A ‘play safe’ attitude is being openly advocated by the seniors who want their tenures to pass without ‘problems’!

    Ajit Doval has been a leader with a difference all through his illustrious career. Having seen him very closely during operations and high risk missions, I dare say, he has been one of the sharpest and daring officers who would jump into the jaws of Danger and only then beckon others to “come in” rather than sit far away under cover and order others to “go in”! Another great quality of Ajit Doval is that in the event of things going wrong, he would own up his responsibility risking his own career and absolve his subordinates instantly! On the contrary for every success in his missions, he gave credit to his suboridnates. Like a good military leader, he always stood between his men and the harm! His IPS tag besides, Doval, son of an army officer, grew up in military environments and hails from Uttarakhand, the land of great soldiers! Courage, initiative, innovation and sincerity are his natural traits, and knowledge and acumen his unmateched qualities that entitle him to be where he is! Today, the NSA is perhaps the best General India has to preside over National Security!

  4. It hardly matters if Doval is more of an operation man or a right wing activist; but what his job demands is a holistic view of the present world order and preparing India to face the challenge beyond the foreseeable future. Indian Defence Forces are skilled and equipped enough to mount Defence in right proportion as and when the necessity arises, Doval or no Doval. As a senior journalist Sekhar would have done good to talk about the major policy shifts expected under Doval, than giving us a biography.


  6. There are two distinct strains or streams to the NSA’s job. Dealing with terrorism, which has an external dimension, insurgence in the north east, Kashmir, Maoism, all that requires the expertise and background of men like Shri M K Narayanan and Shri Ajit Doval. Then there is the foreign policy component, which goes beyond security, covers a lot economic engagement as well. That was the forte of cerebral men like Shri Shiv Shankar Menon; Shri J N Dixit too was highly regarded. Shri Brajesh Mishra was much more than an NSA. Both because he was Principal Secretary and Vajpayeeji was not a nuts and bolts PM, he practically ran the government. This still leaves the domain of defence, which has not seen a gifted Raksha Mantri in a very long time. Neither the IFS nor the IPS really trains a man for this sphere of responsibility. 2. There is too spread out an area of responsibility for the NSA. There was logic in sharing the burden between two professionals. If one, he should be a big picture man, let others cross the Ts, dot the Is.

  7. The post can be summarised by borrowing the first line in the Stylesheet of The Statesman that “English is a language of understatement”. Memory is always selective. The post has omitted the role of Dinesh Pathak, the then Joint Director of IB at Chandigarh, in charge of Punjab under whom Doval worked. As pointed out by another commentator, the crop was sown by Ribeiro in the form of infiltration in the ranks of terrorists and cut by KPS Gill. It takes years and years to ividends accrued from the infiltration among the terrorists.

  8. An engrossing and informative article that flows easy — Shekhar is also good at story-telling. My only regret is that in all the lines he has devoted to Punjab terrorism, he has not even once mentioned the name of Julio Ribeiro. Ribeiro joined the Punjab police as its Director General in 1986 when terrorism in that state was at its peak. I do not know how Ajit Doval comes into all this, but it was Ribeiro’s work that broke the terrorism’s back and facilitated a relatively easy winding-up by KPS Gill. By the time Ribeiro retired and left the reins in Gill’s hands, Punjab terrorists were already a disheveled and disheartened lot.

    There was an attempt on Ribeiro’s life in 1986 by Punjab terrorists. They were so flustered and therefore angry with him that they AGAIN tried to kill him in 1991 in Bucharest, when he was serving there as India’s Ambassador to Romania, long after he had left Punjab. Their rabid belligerence to Ribeiro tells the TRUE story of who actually “killed” terrorism in Punjab. We never even heard of Ajit Doval in those days. He must have been exceptionally sly to NEVER even arouse the suspicion or wrath of the Punjab terrorists! Or perhaps there is an exaggeration in portraying his role. I do not know who has coined the phrase, “caught Doval, bowled Gill”; it sounds sickening to me. I think someone from the NDA government has palmed it off to the author. Because Julio Ribeiro was chosen by the then Congress government and he succeeded in wiping out the Punjab terrorism, the NDA would want a complete silence on that gallant officer’s name. And somehow slip in their own Ajit Doval. Well, I am only making a guess about the NDA; for us it is Shekhar Gupta who has committed this oversight.

  9. A typical Shekhar Gupta style article, full of praise, but no “acumen” to give out the greatness in Doval , nor, the courage and capacity to bust the myth of Doval ! The article throws no light on how Doval’s son is where he is. What is the source of funding for the Vivekananda Foundation. These touchy questions left out.

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