No spymaster before him is so fabled for running meticulously conceived anti-terror operations deep inside enemy territory. He has personally trained agents in the dangerous art of exhaustive reconnaissance of insurgent hideouts in troubled Kashmir, at great risk to life and liberty. He has spent decades tirelessly tracking down suspected militants in the treacherous terrain of the North-East, infiltrating terrorist outfits in Punjab, conducting dangerous counter-insurgency missions, and, most importantly, acting as the father figure for India’s intelligence operatives working thousands of miles away from home running covert operations that no other Indian agency—perhaps with the exception of the Technical Services Division dismantled by General Bikram Singh— had dared to attempt in the past.
Ajit Kumar Doval, 69, former Director of Intelligence Bureau and now the new National Security Adviser in Narendra Modi’s government, is a revered figure in the secret world of Indian espionage. The ‘Master’ as a field agent had successfully broken the back of the North-East insurgency in 1986 in an undercover operation that gave him lasting fame—the defection of 6 out of 7 commanders of Laldenga’s outfit to the Indian cause, forcing the secessionist leader to sign the peace accord. In his heydays as an operative, Doval’s addiction to danger, instead of safely spending life behind a babu’s desk in the North Block, drafting and signing INT reports, marked him for greatness. As a young man, he was a thrill seeker—in the Eighties, the 1968 Kerala batch IPS officer, a master at disguise and embedded deep undercover in Pakistan for almost six years, pulled off daring coups that left ISI clueless. With years of experience in dealing with insurgency and terrorism in Kashmir, the new NSA is expected to shake up New Delhi’s moribund security establishments paralysed by UPA’s inaction and inter-organisational politics. Veteran intelligence analysts feel the Doval Effect will also impact the PMO’s aggressive foreign policy towards Pakistan and China.
Hours after the formal announcement of his appointment last week, terrorist chatter on the Kashmir border revealed that terror commanders in Pak Occupied Kashmir (PoK) are on knife edge. India’s Most Wanted Dawood Ibrahim, who is the ISI’s prized guest in Karachi, immediately shifted his base closer to the lawless Pak-Afghan border. Doval’s experience in covert actions deep into enemy territory left the don fearing an unexpected Osama-like op. The legend of Doval, who for the next five years will command Indian security and Intelligence to ruthlessly protect Indian interests, stands to be reborn again.
D C Pathak, former Director of the Intelligence Bureau, who had worked with Doval, says the government’s choice of NSA is perfectly tailored to the task. “The challenges and problems we face are well known to all. Now we have the right man for the job. I have always advocated someone with field operations background should be the NSA,” feels Pathak. Some of the best spies in the CIA, Mossad and the now defunct KGB with field experience as either soldiers or spooks make it to senior positions in government and intelligence across the world.
Sometime in 1988. Residents of Amritsar around the Golden Temple where Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale once held sway, and Khalistani militants spotted a rickshawpuller plying his trade. He was new in the area and he looked ordinary enough. The suspicious militants put him on their watch list. It took 10 days for them to make contact; or for him to approach them, as the confusing game of spycraft unfurled within the sacred precincts. The rickshaw puller convinced the militants that he was an ISI operative, who had been sent by his Pakistani masters to help the Khalistan cause. Two days before Operation Black Thunder, the rickshaw-puller entered the Golden Temple and returned with crucial information, including the actual strength and positions of the terrorists inside the shrine. He was none other than Ajit Doval undercover. When the final assault came, the young police officer was inside Harminder Sahib, streaming much needed information to security forces to carry out search-and-flush operations.
“His piercing gaze and mysterious smile is etched in my memory forever,” says an intelligence officer who met Doval after Operation Black Thunder. “The risk was high but our security forces got the blueprint for the attack from Doval. Maps, details like strength, weapons and the location where militants was hiding were given by him. The IB passed over the information to NSG, saving countless lives and preventing further damage to the temple,” he recollects.
Doval’s bravery and ingenuity earned him the Kirti Chakra, the first cop to win the gallantry award, previously given to Army officers only. Similarly, his operations in the ’80s in Mizoram had an unprecedented success rate in eliminating and effecting the surrender of important insurgent leaders. Doval’s strategy was to use information from agents on the ground to keep a tight leash on rebels while covert operations were carried out against hardcore anti-nationals. An intelligence officer, who served under Doval, describes his informal style towards trusted agents engaged in field operations. They were encouraged to “live” their roles and could come to work dressed anyway they liked, with no questions asked.
“We were not required to dress like babus,” the officer recalls. “Operatives would come in kurta pajamas and lungis, wearing sandals. Anyone preparing for an op deep inside enemy territory was allowed to grow a beard ‘to get into the role.’ Others could hire maulvis to learn Urdu and Arabic. As part of their cover, some agents spent days learning shoe-making and later worked as mochis in targeted areas including foreign countries. Doval saab himself is expert in Urdu,” the officer adds proudly.
The surrender of the dreaded Kashmiri militant Kuka Parray was a feather in Doval’s cap in the Nineties. Such was his acumen that, armed with terrorist psycho profiles, he was able to brainwash and persuade Parray and gang to become counter-insurgents. “He met Parray sometime in the 1990s and motivated him to help the government,” confides a serving intelligence operative who had seen action in Kashmir as a young man, refusing to divulge further details. Parray and his outfit Ikhwan-e-Muslimoon, neutralised top militant commanders in the Valley with the help of the Indian Army. Turning Parray was a political victory as well; the operation enabled the Centre to subsequently hold the Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir in 1996. Parray, who became an MLA, was killed in a terrorist ambush later. The official says then “New Delhi” was not certain Doval would succeed, being aware of the complex political situation. But, the coup earned him the respect of even his staunchest critics within the agency, who were advocating a peacenik policy with Pakistan-sponsored terror outfits. A master of psychological warfare, Doval’s role in several near-mythical exploits in Kashmir expanded from being just a ruthless spymaster to a master-strategist, who brought various separatists including Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah Maulvi Farooq, and even the hawkish pro-Pak SAS Geelani to the negotiating table.
Intelligence agents admit that though India’s George Smiley hung up his boots in 2005, he was still unofficially in the field, directing covert missions. A Wikileaks cable dated August 2005 had suggested that Doval had planned the failed IB operation to take out Dawood, who escaped after some bad ’uns in the Mumbai police had tipped him off. “The reports of Dawood shifting his base in Pakistan appears credible as Doval has been pursuing him for over a decade,” said an Intelligence officer.
Doval’s New Strategy
To formulate a firm policy in dealing with Pakistan and other neighbouring countries known for harbouring anti-India elements. Read More
The Avenger: Never Forgive Nor Forget
An intelligence aide who worked under Doval in the Nineties observes that the spymaster is utterly ruthless and calculative while dealing with Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism. Read More
Nipendra Misra, The Man at the PMO
Misra retired as telecom secretary and was subsequently appointed chairman of TRAI in 2006, in what turned out to be the most crucial phase of his career because of the 2G scam. Read More
The Gentleman, Earning Loyalty
A senior spook who had worked with Doval at the IB headquarters says the “Boss” was a “multi-tasker,” writing notes on one subject while giving verbal instructions on another, and in between talking on even trivial issues on the phone—all at once. Read More
3 Immediate Challenges: Pak, Nepal, Bangladesh
Amar Bhushan, former R&AW Special Secretary observes that the Doval-Modi team would need to improve people-to-people contact while preventing ceasefire violations and terrorist infiltration. Read More
To Transform Demoralised Intelligence Agencies
Doval as head of the think tank Vivekananda Foundation has always been of the view that the neighbourhood factor and historical experiences make India highly vulnerable to external threats. Read More
Doval played a key role in flushing out militants from Golden Temple in an operation codenamed “Operation Black Thunder” by providing sensitive intelligence input to security forces. Read More