The Indian spy agency's former chief, AS Dulat, flew to Srinagar in early February on a hush-hush mission for the government — a quiet, top secret meeting with detained National Conference (NC) leader and former chief minister Farooq Abdullah, multiple senior officials said on condition of anonymity.
The brief for Dulat's secret mission was simple: to suss out Abdullah's mood in "accepting the new reality of Jammu & Kashmir after the nullification of Article 370", according to one of the officials. The government effectively revoked the state's special status on August 5 last year and detained several leaders including Farooq, his son Omar Abdullah, and former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples Democratic Party.
"Mr Dulat had been wanting to meet the former chief minister for several months," a member of the family said, adding on condition of anonymity that the former Research & Analysis Wing chief was finally given the go-ahead earlier this month.
When contacted, Dulat said: "No comments. If the officials and family have told you so, I have nothing more to say."
Abdullah was detained and placed under house arrest soon after Article 370 was nullified. Since mid-September, the 82-year-old leader has been held under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA). Subsequently, his son Omar and former chief minister
Mehbooba Mufti too were detained under the same law, which allows for detention without trial for a period of two years.
A second official familiar with what transpired in the meeting between Dulat and Abdullah said, "Farooq Abdullah was furious and refused to yield any ground." This person added that the J&K administration has been trying to get Omar Abdullah to sign a bond giving an undertaking that he would not criticise the nullification of Article 370, but that he has refused.
The senior Abdullah is angry and hurt at being detained and painted as an anti-national when he has openly and publicly raised slogans of "Bharat Mata ki Jai". He has, in fact, often said that he was "a soldier of the country, not an enemy of the nation", the person said.
New Delhi has been trying to restart political activity in the new Union Territory and has silently backed former ministers Altaf Bukhari and Muzaffar Baig to announce the formation of a new party. HT reported a chance meeting between Bukhari and the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav in Gulmarg last week.
The government does not seem to be clear on how to move ahead and break the security logjam and, as the second official quoted above said, "They are trying various options. Letting Dulat meet Farooq was one such experiment. Keeping leaders locked up under PSA is not a long-term possibility. Many foreign envoys who visited the UT have (also) asked for their release."
Since January, two groups of foreign envoys, 40 in total, have visited the Valley.
The relationship between Dulat and Abdullah is an old one, and this is the third time that the former intelligence official has been chosen to meet the former chief minister and "calm him down".
In 1989, Abdullah was the chief minister when Rubaiya Saeed, daughter of then home minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed, was kidnapped and released in exchange for five militants. Dulat, then an Intelligence Bureau official posted in Srinagar, was by the side of an angry Abdullah, who did not want the militants released.
The tougher task assigned to Dulat was in December 1999, when, as RAW chief, he went to Srinagar to convince Abdullah to release terrorists in exchange for passengers aboard Indian Airlines Flight 814, hijacked to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Abdullah argued against their release, saying it would be "the last nail in India's coffin". He even threatened to resign as chief minister and took Dulat along with him to Raj Bhawan, where then governor GC Saxena persuaded him not to resign.
The outcome of the latest meeting remains unclear. It isn't known if the NC will now contest the deferred panchayat body polls or if the PSA against Farooq Abdullah will be revoked. The NC recently said it would participate in the elections only if its leaders were released from detention.