The Spy Chronicles
It is the season of name-calling, especially the choice epithet: ‘traitor’. Recently former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was roundly condemned as a ‘traitor’ because he had the temerity to ask during an interview why Pakistan had allowed some elements to travel to Mumbai and massacre 166 innocent people in November 2008. All hell broke loose and everyone and his aunt were competing to preen their patriotic feathers and condemn Nawaz Sharif the loudest.
Now the publication of a book, The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, authored by former ISI and RAW chiefs Lt-General Asad Durrani and A S Dulat respectively, has once again seen the literary **** hit the fan. Accounts and memoirs by individuals in high office after retirement are quite normal in most of the world, including Pakistan and India. However, the book under discussion is unusual in that the former heads of these two premier intelligence agencies engaged with each other and an Indian writer/journalist, Aditya Sinha, to elaborate a whole palette of issues between the two off-again-on-again hostile South Asian neighbours.
At the very outset it should be clarified that I have not yet read the book. An explication/review of the content of the book would therefore have to wait until one has gone through it. So far, all we have to go on is news reports and some tantalizing extracts from the book. It is therefore in the fitness of things that one confine oneself to what is known so far.
As to reactions to the book being published per se, both Nawaz Sharif and former chairman Senate Raza Rabbani have used the ‘shoe on the other foot’ argument, the former wanting a meeting of the National Security Committee as happened after his interview referred to above was published, the latter asserting that if a politician or any civilian had penned such a book with an Indian counterpart, cries of ‘treason’ would surely have rent the air. Rabbani also wanted to know if Durrani had obtained prior permission or at least informed his institution before going ahead with the book. That question was answered promptly by GHQ summoning Durrani for clarification/s, a meeting reportedly in progress when these lines are being written.
It is time the polity and all of us in Pakistan grew up and matured beyond literally schoolyard name-calling at the drop of a hat. The favourite epithet, not worn by repeated use, is to question the patriotic credentials of anyone who dares to stretch the limits of what is ‘allowed’ and expresses a dissident, critical, contrarian view to the hegemonic narrative of the national security state. This is the exact opposite of what is meant by a democratic polity, a will o’ the wisp we have been chasing for 70 years. Insecure, paranoid, existentially-challenged states strangle all such expression. Confident, mature, firmly rooted (in the hearts of their people) states do not. Readers can themselves imagine which description Pakistan answers to. In any case, insiders’ accounts are always welcomed because of the light they shed on hitherto little known or unknown facts. The process of learning from history, at which we are arguably so poor precisely because we do not have the courage to look the truth in the face, is helped by such accounts.
Unusual (unpalatable to super patriots) as the collaboration between the former heads of the respective top spy agencies of Pakistan and India may be, it can only be welcomed as shedding fresh light on the history of conflict between the two sides, the lessons to be derived from such a retelling by experts in their field, and a welcome turn from the present miserable state of relations between the two South Asian neighbours. From all accounts available so far, the gamut of issues touched upon is pretty comprehensive, including Kashmir, Kargil, the perceptions of each side of the leaderships, civilian and military, of the other, etc. On the most vexed question of Kashmir, the two chiefs wax nostalgic about Musharraf’s four-point plan for defusing the conflict, leaving the status quo in place but making the Line of Control a porous border through which trade and people-to-people contact could incrementally lead to the historic compromise that the book argues is perhaps the only feasible solution to the intractable dispute. None of the reports speak of any major or unknown beans being spilt. Known facts and developments are commented on by both protagonists according to their lights, perceptions, and interests. However, the book promises a candid examination of the political/diplomatic failures on either side going back over 70 years.
The GHQ summons to Durrani notwithstanding, it beggars the imagination that the book was not cleared by the intelligence authorities of both countries. Even if, unlikely as it sounds, that was the case, hysterical demands from a few to ban the book or have it withdrawn before even having read it smacks of a preconceived notions-based witch-hunt. Let us all take a deep breath, take the trouble to read the book, and then comment in a serious manner. That may help take the wind out of the sails of the patriotism/traitor chorus getting louder and louder of late.