Millennium Post

The spy who talked about his craft

Intelligence officers are usually drab people not much given to disclosing secrets in public, least of all big-time secrets involving the nation’s history. But Maloy Krishna Dhar, a former Joint Director of the Intelligence Bureau, who died last week, was an uncharacteristic spy; he loved to talk about his art. Years after his retirement, when the number of his listeners started fading out, he began to write his stories as books, with him at their centre, of course. And the stories were as stupefying in their candor as they were embarrassing to the characters they targeted. It speaks volumes for the accuracy of Dhar’s disclosures that none dared challenge his published stories in court.

A nugget from his kiss-and-tell book, Open Secret, a runaway success, is about his being sent, as an Assistant Director, IB, on a mission by none other than Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, to install a bug in the roadside telephone switch-box connected to the editorial office of Surya, the magazine founded and edited by Maneka Gandhi, her estranged daughter-in-law. It was surprising that Dhar included this episode in his book, because it could also make him blush. While Indira Gandhi surely made no distinction between an IPS officer and a ‘durwan,’ Dhar could say no after all. Or was he making a confession to rid himself of the sense of guilt that a soulless service had instilled into him?

In a corner building on the North Block where the IB office is located, the traditional spirit is that of doing political master’s bidding without asking, so nothing that Dhar did was out of line with the service’s general behavior in being ingratiatingly unctuous. I have heard of an IB officer in the 1990’s who was made to keep a tab on the lover of a minister’s daughter. But what Dhar resented most — I remember him in incandescent rage discussing it — is the fact of there being no Act in Parliament to govern the IB (or RAW), its activities being guided by politicians’ caprices. 'Parliament has no right to know what we’re doing, and that’s a pity,' he’d thump his desk and say, in a voice at once low and steely.

But he was anything but a faceless spy. He enjoyed the inner secrets of the world of power both as a player and as observer. And if Parliament was in the dark about the cloak-and-dagger department, it was Dhar who partially burdened the responsibility of telling it to his friends. His narration was complex and deep. He pointed out that, soon after Indira’s assassination on 31 October 1984, some 50 or more officers who had the power to offer evidence for a deep probe into the plot, were rewarded in some way or the other, including promotions. The list he had was genuine. Some Deputy Commissioner-rank police officer who’d have had intimate knowledge of the circumstances of Indira’s two Sikh bodyguard-assassins being given duty and positions that fateful morning managed to get  promoted almost overnight, and shifted to a distant Union Territory. Minutes after the assassination, a personnel belonging to a paramilitary force inexplicably killed one of the assassins (thus silencing him forever), but the chief of the force was made Lieutenant Governor of a UT straightaway. So what was really happening? Were the bodyguards cat’s paw then? And, if so, who is the cat?

Dhar was blunt about pointing fingers at holes in conventional wisdom. About Sanjay Gandhi’s death due to the crash in Delhi of the small aerobatic plane he was flying, in June 1980, all eye-witness accounts converge on the fact that the plane had exploded and was in flames before it came down. But how could a small plane explode mid-air unless it had explosives? And if it carried explosives, it must show up in subsequent chemical analysis. Apparently, none was found in the DGCA inquiry that followed. When I asked Dhar this question, he said if petroleum jelly was stocked in the fuel tank, instead of aviation turbine fuel, it would explode with great force at the first contact of a spark, but its post-explosion remnants would be pretty much the same as that of burnt ATF. But how did the plane take off without ATF in the first place? Dhar said, with the self-assurance of the sage of Baker Street, 'it could be 3/4th jelly and 1/4th ATF, without the poor pilot knowing, of course'.

Dhar’s innate inquisitiveness about how power works often took him too close to the mascots of power in Delhi in the twilight of the past century. His closeness to R K Dhavan, Indira Gandhi’s controversial Personal Assistant, was legendary. It is at Dhavan’s insistence that, post-retirement, he once joined the Congress, becoming even an AICC member. But his association with the Congress was short-lived and he remained critical of the party till his end. In fact he could not fit into any political party as life in a party is no less arbitrary than in the Intelligence Bureau.  

But despite his abhorrence of the intelligence set-up, being devoid of a parliamentary oversight, he loved the business of espionage. In the pre-digital era in which he worked, he had a great fondness, early James Bond style, for an array of miniature analog recording devices which he at times demonstrated secretively to friends, with a crisp warning that one should not carry them in left shirt pocket lest it picks up the heart beat, making the conversation inaudible. The late Dhirubhai Ambani, who knew him through Dhavan, once consulted him on the possible security threats to ‘Sea Wind,’ his then newly constructed palatial residence in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade. Dhar had apparently made a rather scary presentation, with threat objects riding the sea from the north, and launching daring attacks on prominent targets in the city.

That was a good eight years before it actually happened on 26/11.
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