Amarjit Singh Dulat’s journey as the former special director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau and former secretary of the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) has been nothing less than extraordinary. As a spymaster, he had been at the helm of dealing with two of India’s most conflict-ridden states: Kashmir and Punjab. Prabha Khaitan Foundation organised a special session of An Author’s Afternoon with the former intelligence officer to discuss his book, A Life in the Shadows: A Memoir. Dulat was in conversation with columnist and businessman, Suhel Seth. Esha Dutta, Ehsaas Woman of Kolkata, delivered the formal welcome note on behalf of the Foundation, introducing both Dulat and Seth before opening an intriguing session tracing Dulat’s incredible journey.
How did the early years of Dulat’s life shape him? “I went to Bishop Cotton in 1951, at the age of 10, and spent six years there,” said Dulat, underlining the influence that his school had on him during his formative years. “Most of all, I learned there that truth is important. If you’ve done something wrong, you put your hand up and own it. That’s how you do the right thing.” However, despite having a glorious career to his credit, Dulat admitted that it was not the career that he had planned on. “To be honest, I wanted to make it to the Foreign Service, which I didn’t,” he admitted. “I didn’t make it to the Indian Administrative Service either. So, the third best was the Indian Police Service, which I was very proud to be a part of. When I came to the IB, it was also not by choice. I was very lucky to have shared my room with a great man like M.K. Narayanan [the former governor of West Bengal]. He was 10 years my senior. I saw him operate and I learnt a lot from him.”
But Narayanan was not the only senior that taught Dulat important lessons. His close association with former IB chief, Shyamal Datta, helped him tackle many situations with panache. “I’d never have been anything without him,” said the author. “He made me the chief, and I owe a whole lot to him.”
Elaborating further on his career, Dulat pointed out that he had joined the workforce when India was being headed by Indira Gandhi. At the time, Indira Gandhi’s popularity was unrivalled and unparalleled. But her career went into a steady decline, especially after the death of her son, Sanjay Gandhi. “I always felt that there were two Indiras — the one up to 1969-1975, when P.N. Haksar (former secretary to Indira Gandhi) was there with her, and the one after Sanjay Gandhi’s death,” said Dulat. “The former version was during the time when she won the liberation war for Bangladesh. She did everything right during that time, but once she lost Sanjay, she was not the same person anymore. Even though she came back with a thumping majority in the 1980 elections, she was different from the first Mrs Gandhi.”
Dulat agreed with Seth when he admitted that despite Indira Gandhi’s popularity, she became autocratic to retain her power. “Once she sent the army into the Golden Temple and Operation Blue Star happened, she knew she would never be left alone by the Sikh community,” he remarked. But Dulat also said that the revocation of Article 370 “should have never happened”. He maintained that there are no solutions to Kashmir, except to have an elected government rule the state. “They’re crying out to be on the right side of Delhi, but we’re not accepting it,” he opined.
Kolkata, however, has succeeded in being close to Dulat’s heart. Not only did he start his career at the Intelligence Bureau by being allotted West Bengal, he has also frequented the city since his childhood to visit family. Even his honeymoon was spent in Kolkata, which always welcomed him with warmth and civility. Speaking of his honeymoon, Dulat said that his wife and he came to Kolkata because that was all that they could afford. “We stayed for a week with my uncle, who was very kind to give us a room. The last five days, we spent with my sister, who was also very kind to make us sleep on the ground!” he joked.
The session came to a close with an engaging Q&A round with the audience. Esha Dutta delivered the vote of thanks on behalf of the Foundation. Shamlu Dudeja, chairperson of Calcutta Foundation and SHE Foundation, felicitated Dulat while Vijay Shrikent, general manager of Taj Bengal, Kolkata, felicitated Seth.