23 October 2016. Gujarat

The fishing boat’s engines were shutoff and it moved gently with the ocean waves. A Dornier Do 228 surveillance plane of Indian Coast Guard flew in circles a few hundred meters above it.  All six people on the boat were lined up on the deck watching the plane anxiously awaiting further instructions. The Dornier had noticed the suspicious looking boat far from usual fishing grounds and  ordered it to stop on radio.  

Mohsin Safi smoked a cigarette with his feet dangling past the bow of boat and waited for an update on his satellite phone. He was a passenger on the boat with Pakistani registration and crew who were not so calm and fidgeted nervously. But there were a lot of things keeping them from trying to make a run. One immediate concern was the threat of a heavy machine gun on Dornier which could have killed every single person on the small boat in a few bursts even if they tried hiding below the deck.

Then it was the matter of a significant payment and threat of beheading by Ashraf Azam if they failed to do what Safi asked them to do.

Amad Butt, owner of the boat looked at the radio every few minutes praying fervently. Safi looked at him, smiled and uttered something asking him to not worry. Although he didn’t have any contraband on his boat on this run, he was not sure about what his passenger was carrying. He was tempted to go and check the small bag that Safi had carried on to the boat, but memory of smiling face of Azam as he threatened to behead him stopped him.

He had been working as a runner for Azam for many years now, carrying all sorts of goods for him from Indian coast in Gujarat to Sindh in Pakistan. He had seen one execution done by Azam on the sea himself when the unfortunate victim had dumped some cargo in to the sea after being spooked by a Pakistani naval ship. Like most devout muslims, he believed that he’d get 72 virgins in heaven. But he didn’t want to get beheaded slowly like a halaled goat to get there.

There was a notification on Safi’s phone and he got up to stretch his limbs. He walked to Butt and offered him a cigarette. Butt could barely read, but he recognised the expensive Davidoff brand which he had carried on his boat for smuggling quite a few times. He moved his hand to pull out one cigarette, but Safi handed him the whole, still mostly full pack  and said, “We should be good to go in a few minutes. Get ready.”

Butt didn’t seem convinced but nodded. Few minutes later, Dornier gained altitude and went out of their sight towards Indian coastline. Butt and rest of his crew stared blankly at Shafi as if asking what now ?

Shafi grinned, “Ashraf bhai has long arms. We’re free to go.”

Butt could hardly believe that. He had almost started making plans about his time in an Indian jail and number of years before authorities from India and Pakistan would have enough numbers for a prisoner swap. One of his maternal cousins, a regular fisherman had spent 3 years in an Indian jail when he was caught fishing in Indian waters.  Butt was not the type of person to look a gift horse in the mouth. He ordered his crew to lift the anchor and start the engine. The small diesel boat was chugging on to it’s destination in a few minutes. 

Shafi stayed on deck, scanning the sea around them and occasionally checking his satellite phone. Soon he gave directions to Butt and they saw another boat standing still in the water, just like Azam had said. Both boats got close, Shafi got on to the other one and waved back. Butt heaved a sigh of relief on completing his part of the mission and turned back to go home. All that excitement was enough to make him look forward to reach back home and down a few drinks even with his quarrelsome wife staring daggers at him.

Shafi stood on the deck watching the other boat recede away in to a small speck. He kept watching till he saw and then heard a faint explosion in the distance. Butt’s boat sank within a minute with all hands on deck. Crew of his new boat didn’t even give a second glance to the spectacle or to their new passenger. 

26 October 2016, Udaipur

Kishan Jha stood up to shake hands with Mohsin Shafi. It had been eleven years since they had seen each other. “Are you going to keep this beard even now ?” He said as a way of greeting.

Shafi pointed to Jha’s belly, “I’ll shave it off as soon this disappears.”

Jha laughed, “That’s not going to happen my friend. Do I call you Mohsin Shafi or Sudarshan Tomar or do you want a completely new identity now that you’re back ?”

 “Nine years in Pakistan living under a false name was enough. It’ll be good to be addressed by my real name again.”

“Sudarshan Tomar it is then. Welcome back to your own country.” Jha nodded approvingly “There is still some work to do before we do anything else. Arvind Sahay will be here shortly for debriefing and details about the spy network you set up there. You’ll need to describe your missions from beginning till the end, don’t leave out any detail. “

Tomar worked in Rajasthan Police as an Assistant Sub-Inspector before he was deputed to Intelligence Bureau. From there, he was contacted by Kishan Jha and offered a job as a secret undercover agent in Pakistan. Tomar was first sent to Jamnagar and then to Indore for his undercover training. His training over 15 months taught advanced intelligence gathering techniques, covert communications, proficiency in various weapons and how to blend in as a muslim. He also learnt Urdu and Arabic and studied some Islamic theology and history.  After his training, he spent a year in muslim areas of western Uttar Pradesh and coastal Gujarat as an under cover agent honing his skills. 

Jha then sent him to Dubai, where he spent 5 months learning details about the city and it’s culture he’d need later. He was then given a new cover with some documents, money and detailed  instructions on what to do further. His new identity put him as only son of Pakistani nationals who had lived in Dubai for most of their adult lives and  passed away a few years back.  After their deaths, he had sold off most of the possessions and came back to Pakistan to try his luck. The passport and other identification papers provided to him were quite good and he had no problem reaching Karachi. 

Once there, he was contacted by a Sindhi named Abdul Noor who provided him a place to stay and showed him around the city. Noor by himself was quite unremarkable and he was owner of a stationery shop in the city.   He then introduced him to another local named Ashraf Azam who had deep links with Karachi’s underworld and law enforcement alike. Azam owned a number of legal, illegal and somewhere in between types of businesses all over the city. Shafi was given job of manager of a restaurant named Dynasty Cafe in an upscale area of Karachi. It had a dedicated clientele of a number of elites of the city which included businessmen, police, armed forces and politicians. It had quite a few dishes from Chinese and Sindhi  cuisines printed on the menu. But it made a lot more money selling smuggled liquor, hosting gambling parties and providing discreet meeting places to elites of Pakistani society.

A significant portion of the earnings were given to Karachi police and agents of various other security agencies which dropped in from time to time. Dynasty Cafe had powerful patrons who valued their privacy, so business was pretty good. 

Shafi spent his first four years in Pakistan establishing himself, cultivating resources and getting a feel of the place. To cement his cover, he married the divorced daughter of a shopkeeper next to the restaurant and bought a house.  His four years of work had brought him close to a lot of people of interest. He had links with smugglers who dabbled in transport of drugs, alcohol, gold, luxury items, weapons and various other items of interest to his patrons. He was arrested twice and put in lockup. Once when caught with contraband liquor in his car and once again when a senior police officer developed a dispute with Azam. He managed to get out both times without blowing his cover and the arrests and quick releases raised his street reputation. 

His handlers  assigned him to cultivate a few assets in Pakistani military which was a lot more dangerous but overall not that difficult job.  There are a lot of dedicated professionals in Pakistani military, but their main focus is to enrich themselves. Most of Pakistani military activities are related to land grabbing, business control, taking grafts and controlling politicians in one way or another. So getting a few Pakistani personnel from  Army and Navy on his payroll was not a very difficult task. Direct payments, help with visa or residence in a western country, few cases of liquor, introduction to a senior official, mediation for a mostly illegal business venture and even blackmailing tactics were used to set up a fairly robust spying ring. 

Safi kept a very low profile and almost never dealt directly with his sources. That’s how he managed to stay undetected for so long. During his nine years in Pakistan, he funneled arms and intelligence to Baloch separatists, collected enough intelligence about Pakistani naval assets and army bases in Karachi and nearby areas to fill up a whole library. His dirt sheet on the rich and elite of Pakistani polity and military was even more extensive which proved to be invaluable for RAW. His best work was his intelligence on Chinese and their links with Pakistani politicians and military. This intelligence reached a few important desks in RAW as well as a number of other places which made decisions about Indian foreign policy and defence.  

 In mid 2015, he  expressed his desire to go back home. There was a limit to which he could collect intelligence efficiently without getting caught. RAW realised that and sent three other agents which were established by Safi in his own place. Only thing he felt bad about was leaving the woman he married without any goodbye. But he had left a house and enough cash for her to last her life. It’d not be that bad for her to believe that her husband was killed during a smuggling trip to India.    

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22:40 Hours IST

Poonch, Jammu

A mortar shell landed meters away away from the forward post with a huge bang. A small cloud of dust and smoke marked the spot where it landed with a crater on ground as a more permanent mark. Then there were three more impacts in near vicinity. Indian soldiers huddled in the bunker could feel the rumbling earth through their boots. The bunker itself was made of 3 feet thick reinforced concrete and could take direct hits from heavier artillery, but not all bunkers were built like this. Most were made of stones reinforced with wooden beams, concrete and earth. They could withstand most small arms fire and even light mortar hits, but not direct hits of heavy mortars and artillery.

A number of other such posts in the sector were facing a similar barrage of 81 mm mortars and 155 mm artillery shells. Pakistanis were pissed after a small team of Indian soldiers had infiltrated in to Pak held territory and shot a Colonel straight through the chest via a long distance sniper shot. He was  looking over arrangements for a new staging camp for terrorists just 9 km from the fence and had brought an unusually large entourage which was caught on surveillance UAVs. The sniper team had exfiltrated successfully while the Pakis were still confused over what hit them. The massive artillery barrage had started minutes after the incident and had picked up intensity quickly.

At some distance from the bunker on hill, a Swati Weapons Locating Radar (WLR) collected data about trajectory of the mortars and artillery shells and fed it into the specialised computer which calculated position of the mortar tubes and artillery guns through it. Indian army had keenly felt the need for such a radar system during Kargil war of 1999 as the majority of Indian casualties during the conflict were due to artillery fire. Pakis had an American WLR system and thus had an edge over India in this field. Sale of such radars was blocked for India after 1999  nuclear tests but Americans sold 12 such radars to India in 2002. DRDO started the development of a local system with a budget a fraction of the imports (USD 20 crore vs INR 20 crore) and had a working prototype ready in 2004. Few such systems were deployed along border soon after for testing purposes and official inductions of around 30 such systems happened in 2017. 

Soldiers inside the reinforced bunkers were performing  ‘trial by fire’ of the new system on LoC in Poonch sector. The trajectory data from the passive electronically scanned array radar mounted on a truck some distance away was being transmitted wirelessly to the ruggedised and portable consoles which displayed data overlaid on a digital 3D map. This data was being transmitted to a heavy artillery battery few km away from border in real time. 

The artillery battery had just finished deploying it’s brand new Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) in the gun pits few kms behind the lines. It was developed in a joint project involving DRDO’s Armament Research and Development Establishment (ARDE), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and private companies Bharat Forge Limited, Mahindra Defence Naval System, Tata Power Strategic Engineering Division. 

It could fire 155mm shells at targets 35 km away. With rocket assisted shells, the maximum possible range was 47 km. It’s sustained rate of fire was 1 shell per minute. A specially developed Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact (MRSI) system enabled it to fire 5 shells within 45 seconds in burst mode. 

Six such guns were assigned targets using data from Swati WLR. Their automatic gun alignment system and ballistic computer calculated optimum firing solution and adjusted elevation and traverse of the guns automatically. All six guns fired near simultaneously covering the whole area with smoke and dust as a barrage of 30 155 mm shells was fired within 60 seconds. Gunner crews rushed to fill up the magazines with new shells and propellant charges as soon as the barrage was finished. Two small UAVs flying over enemy positions beamed live video stream of shells wreaking havoc on enemy positions. This data was used to make adjustments to guns and another barrage was let loose 2 minutes later. One shell scored a hit on a small ammunition dump of 81 mm mortar shells lying in the open and the fireball rose high enough to be visible to Indians kms away. Immediate Battle damage assessment (BDA) by UAVs indicated destruction of atleast 5 artillery guns, 3 mortar pits and 60+ dead and injured. After firing 2 barrages, ATAGS used their own engines to move out and reach the waiting Field Artillery Tractors (trucks used to tow them). Even if the Pakis used their own WLRs to locate the position of guns, they’d get only empty ground with the guns safely out of their reach. 

Pakistani battalion had lost not only their CO, but a huge chunk of their firepower and combat personnel in just a few hours with nothing to show for it. 

Mindiyan, Kashmir

“How reliable is this information?” Colonel Sreejit was reasonably sceptical of claim of the Salim Abdullah, the local smuggler and occasional double agent. Even with electrified fence, ongoing sensor upgrades and frequent patrols, stopping infiltrations or exfiltrations by determined people across the rugged LoC was no easy task. There were too many high mountains, rivers, gorges, densely forested areas which made plugging all holes nearly impossible. 

Local smugglers like Abdullah used terrain and cleverly dug tunnels to cross the fence in different places all the time. After a few recent upgrades like motion sensors, thermal scanners and radars, the job was not as easy, but still possible for people willing to risk their lives for it. He was caught a few days back while trying to smuggle 2 kilos of heroin into India from his contact in Pakistan. He was interrogated by army before he was to be handed over to the police and he had claimed to have information about a  batch of 10-14 terrorists about to cross border in the sector. He wanted his freedom in exchange for coordinates of the location inside a village in PoK.

Major Vikrant Dhanoa had caught him and done most of the interrogations. He was not completely sure whether to trust him or not and had presented the information to his COl Sreejt, his CO. 

“He offered to guide us to the house where the terrorists will arrive tomorrow evening in exchange for his freedom. Apart from that, we don’t have any reason to trust him.”

“The location you’ve marked on the map is not an easy target. We can’t hope to hit it with artillery unless shells are fired near vertically, the mountain peaks provide a good cover.”

“To top that, there are a number of civilian houses nearby. Pakis have deliberately chosen this location to hide the jihadis. If we hit them with artillery, then we are villains. Our mortars can’t reach them either.” he added as an afterthought.

“What about our informers in the area ? Do we have any updates from them ?” 

“Yes, he has actually confirmed Abdullah’s claim. He had reported presence of some Pakistani military vehicles near the village last Saturday. This is just a temporary summer settlement for labourers who work in farms nearby. It’s mostly empty in winters, but will have a few people in houses nearby. There’s no motorable path, only a wooden bridge over the river which connects the settlement to the main road. Some bags were carried by porters from the vehicles in general direction of the village. He didn’t know exactly where and what was in them.”

Col Sreejith, stared intently at the map for a minute and marked a few spots. “There are only four feasible routes that these terrorists can use to infiltrate in to our sector.” 

“And atleast one tunnel that Abdullah used. That’s the only one that we know of, there could be more.”

“Did he say anything about more tunnels ?

“He claimed that’s the only one, but I am not trusting him on this.”

Col Sreejith scoffed, “Yup, can’t trust him on this. Digging a 300 m tunnel in this terrain is not an easy job either. I doubt it’d be usable after 2-3 rain showers or winter snow.”

“If we set up ambushes, we’ll need 6-7 platoons to cover all four routes. Pakis have a good line of sight on major part of atleast two routes. We’ll need to keep them distracted while we set up ambushes.”

“Abdullah said that the group will reach there tonight, right ?”

“Yes and they’ll probably stay there for a day or two before trying to cross over.”

“That’s good for us. Dhanoa, send a 2 man recon team to the coordinates and ask them to keep an eye on our guests. Make sure that they carry enough supplies to keep watch for a minimum of two days.”

“Just a recon team Sir ?” Maj Dhanoa asked with some confusion in his voice.

“Yes, they’ll confirm the presence of terrorists and their exact coordinates. I am calling HQ to ask whether we can use their new Herons for some fun and profit. Just in case, keep some teams ready for ambush too. We may need to use them if this doesn’t work.”

“Heron UAVs sir ?” Maj Dhanoa was quite familiar with the capabilities of Israeli UAV and was happy to have some extra help.

Col Sreejit had some good news for him, “Yes Dhanoa, Herons with brand new Helina under their wings.” he said and grinned like a schoolboy with keys to a candy shop.

18 Hours Later

A two man team in Handwara military HQ stared silently at the bank of screens in front of them. The Heron UAV under their control was beaming live visual and thermal images of the terrain below. The new upgrades to Israeli UAVs had installed lighter, yet more powerful optics and thermal scanners along with datalinks for better data throughput. Another more significant upgrade was the brand new modified HELINA (Air launched version of Nag anti-tank missile).  It was called HELINA as it was HELIcopter launched version of NAg  missile. No one had thought of a similar clever name for nearly similar UAV launched version yet, so they were calling it HELINA. Two of these missiles were attached to underwing pods, one on each wing. USA was already using such a system involving MQ-1 Predator drones and Hellfire missiles to great success just a few 100 kms to the west in Afghanistan.

The technicians noticed a laser designator mark on ground and reported it to their senior on phone. They had the permission to fire a few seconds later. One operator activated the missiles’ laser seeker and got both to lock on the lased target. He pulled the trigger and two HELINA missiles left their mounts and raced to the target. 

The two man recon team of Indian soldiers saw a blur of light drop near vertically on the mud house. There was a loud explosion and walls and roof of the single story house exploded outwards with debris flying everywhere. Few people from nearby houses came running out fearing for their lives in yet another artillery duel. They were greeted by sight of the destroyed house which was supposedly occupied by army personnel. A heavily bearded man stumbled out of the barely standing doorway with his clothing in tatters and coughing blood. He walked two steps and collapsed in a heap with his hands outstretched. The gory sight was enough to scare the onlookers to run away in any direction they saw fit.

Successful hit confirmed, the recon team packed up their laser designator and started the march back to their base across the border. Two missiles fired from kms above had killed 12 fanatical terrorists with pinpoint accuracy and no collateral damage. 

Col Sreejiit saw the live video feed in his own office and made a mental note of asking the HQ for 2-3 of such drones under his command.     

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17 September 2016

Xiamen, China

“So it has come to this.” Lu puffed on his cigarette and stared at the ceiling. “19 billion dollars as his share and what do we get ? We spend a lot of money from our own pockets, do all the heavy lifting and this is what we get. 3% equity for each one of us !”

Mo took  a small sip of his whiskey and stared back. Unlike the majority of his own countrymen, he had no worries about his own personal safety from the men sitting around him. He waited for a moment before answering,”This is what Mr Xij asked me to tell you sir. I am just an employee of the company and presently a messenger from him. Nothing more.”

“Don’t sell yourself short Mo. You are the financial brain behind the company. Without your knowledge, links and expertise, this project would have never even started. Hell, if you were not involved, most of us would never have even invested in the company. “ Lu answered bitterly.

“I am very grateful for the faith you put in me. But all of you know that my authority in the company is nothing compared to any of you present in this room. I take care of the finances, that’s it. Three of you here and Mr Xij control everything else.” Mo replied in an even tone.

Lu exhaled some smoke in the general direction of Mo and smiled. “That we do Mo, but tell me how does it help us ? My own personal investment was 140 million US Dollars. Pu here supplied 50 million and expertise that only 2 companies in the entire China have. Ru invested 80 million and made sure that none of Xianji’s competitors could win any contract that we bid on. All of us took losses for 4 years with an understanding that we will have a nice little pot of gold at the end of it.”

Mo nodded in a conciliatory manner but he felt a faint tinge of annoyance. Lu was already drunk and was repeating the same thing again and again. The short meeting which was supposed to last one hour had dragged on for two hours with no end in sight. He had traveled  in a plane for 5 hours just for this one meeting and would have to take another just after midnight.

“I’m sure you remember that I became a part of the company long after you four made the agreement. I can only tell you what Mr Xij asked me to. Why and how of this and most other decisions are not taken under my authority.”

“Right, right.” Ru exclaimed with an expression which hovered between a smile and a grimace. “So you mean to say that we should take it up with Mr Xij himself. You are just a glorified messenger. Is that right Mo ?”

Mo wondered if he should say something but just looked at Ru and nodded, “That’s more or less the gist of it Mr Ru.”

Lu crushed his cigarette on the floor and glared at him, “ Then we should not keep you here Mo. You’ve delivered your message. I suppose you have a flight to catch pretty soon.”

“That’s right Mr Lu, thank you. I’m leaving these documents here for your perusal. Please go through them and feel free to contact me at any time you wish. I’ll be more than happy to be of any assistance.” Mo placed a closed envelope each in front of other three people, bowed and walked out of the room.

Pu leafed through the papers given to him in silence while Mu lit up another cigarette. Ru gave a wry smile and said, “5 years, 100s of millions, hundreds of sleepless nights and this is what great Mr Xij has for it. 9% equity for three of us which we can’t even encash without his approval.” He smirked and poured himself another drink. 

“3 percent !” Lu exhaled angrily. His hands shook slightly which didn’t go unnoticed with Pu and Ru.

Pu who had mostly stayed quiet during the meeting, spoke in a tired voice, “Nothing much interesting in the papers. It’s more or less the same what Mo said.”

Lu picked up his envelope and threw it against the wall. “So Xij can screw us after all these years and we are left with this ! I don’t know about you two, but I’ll not take this lying down. Well, I do know about you two and neither of you is going to accept this.“ 

Ru took a deep swig of drink,leaned back on the chair and stayed quiet. Lu glanced at him and then started reading the papers again. Both were familiar with the angry outbursts of  First Class Lieutenant General Lu which usually went on for hours if someone interrupted his angry rants. 

“Just because he is the son of Chairman doesn’t mean that he can screw us over. Each one of put more at stake every single day  than that jerk can imagine and I’ll be dead before he can get away with this bullshit.” He glared at the other two men waiting for a response. Lu put down the papers, looked back at Lt Gen Lu evenly but stayed quiet. Ru stayed as he was, seemingly asleep but very aware of the tension in room. 

“Don’t you two have anything to say ?” Lu thundered angrily.

Ru just spoke without moving, “We do have a lot to say General, but exactly what we can say about this issue without getting ourselves in hot water ?” Xij is the only son of CCP Chairman. Words spoken by Mo were not from Xij but his father, CCP’s all powerful Chairman and President of China for life.”  

“President of China for life ! Was it only because of my support ?” Lu spat angrily. “All three of us supported him for this. Both of you financed his “campaign” and the constitutional amendment. Do not put this on me.”

Ru looked at Lu straight in the eyes, “Cool down General. I am not blaming you. All three of us had no idea that Xij and his father would betray us like this.

Pu spoke in his soft voice, “This is no time to discuss history and who did what. There is not much we can do legally. Taking Xij to courts will never work. Best we can do is to sell our share as soon as possible and limit our losses. “

“When Chairman Wix is involved, there’s no such thing as legal or illegal.”  Ru commented.

Lu thundered, “Don’t give me this crap. He is a greedy old bastard just like the three of us. He’d have never reached where he is without my support and if he thinks that he can get away by screwing me over, then he has made the biggest mistake of his life.”

Ru sighed and asked, “I always thought that two of you were good friends. Can’t you talk to him and clear this up ?”

Lu shook his head, “You do know that I was next in line for the post of CCP Chairman, right ? Wix came to me before he got you two on board and promised me this deal as compensation for my support for his lifetime Presidency amendment. It was me who suggested your names to him for this company. He knew from then what he was doing, how things will turn out and how he will treat us.

The work that Xianji did was not just for making us rich. Pu was brought in not for his 50 million but for his very specific expertise that PLA needed for spying. You were brought in even though you owned a competing company just to create an illusion of choice in the minds of our customers.” 

He glared at his almost finished cigarette and flicked it away. “Now do you see what Chairman Wix has done ? He has sole control over one of the biggest telecommunications companies which also doubles up as the biggest mass surveillance network in the world. Not only he has a few new billions in cash in his bank accounts but also the data of 100s of millions of people from all around the world and full control over the networks. If this is not unprecedented absolute power, then nothing else is. All this was supposed to be ours, not just his personal kingdom. If he thinks that he is going to be the dragon sitting on a mountain of treasure by himself, then I am going to be the dragon slayer of western fairy tales.

He paused to light another cigarette and continued, “Do you think that I’ll be happy with this puny payout after all this ? Are you two happy with just this ? This was not what was planned and I will make sure that Wix pays for his treachery.”

“How are we going to do that General ? After last year’s amendment, Wix is China. Anything you do against him will be viewed as treason against the state. Not to mention that Xijiang is just one of our many interests closely intertwined with Chairman Wix. Each one of us has 100s of millions invested in dozens of other projects with him. If we do anything rash, we might lose everything just when things are getting streamlined” Pu interjected.

“Mr Pu, you are a brilliant technocrat, but you still have to learn a few things left to learn about politics, statecraft and the inevitable backstabbing required to survive in this murky world.” Lu answered with a smirk. “We don’t fight this war at all. Our “enemy” will fight it for  us.”

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6 September 2016.

New Delhi, India.

Prime Minister Angad Bisht had just arrived back to New Delhi after a whirlwind tour of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh where he had inaugurated construction of a few new infrastructure projects and educational institutions. He considered stopping at his house for a quick shower, lunch and change of clothes but had no time as the meeting was scheduled to start soon. So he just went straight to his office after landing at Palam airport. 

One of his personal assistants had been contacted by Defence Minister’s office and he briefed the PM about the agenda of the meeting as well as schedule of the remaining day as they drove through the wide open roads of New Delhi.  Unlike many of his predecessors, PM Bisht took a keen interest and was personally involved in many decisions related to national security. He had personally hand picked many of the people present in the meeting room based upon their past record, talent and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.

He reached his office 20 minutes before the meeting was supposed to begin and managed to grab a quick bite before heading straight to the meeting room. He met External Affair Minister Piyush Vajpayee who was giving some instructions to a bureaucrat a few steps away from door of the room. Both men greeted each other and EAM entered the room after PM. Everyone else was already inside waiting for meeting to begin. After some greetings and a bit of small talk, the meeting quickly came to point. First it was the turn of National Security Advisor Ajay Dhumal who explained the same briefing that he had provided to Defence Minister Maadhvan Kamat. 

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Rajinder Singh had read the briefing from NSA and had some more information from his own office which had a few more details about Chinese support for terrorist organisations in India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. He picked up after NSA, “I concur with Dhumal ji. We actually have a list of some names for the Bhutan camp. Most of them are harcore communists who had vanished from the country a few months back. RBA (Royal Bhutan Army) had shared some intelligence with us a few months back about the issue. Some of the Bhutanese men are related to some politicians there and have been accused of stuff like hate speech, inciting violence and so on.  

They had arrested two such men who were trained in a camp near a small city earlier this year. Their interrogation had revealed that they were attempting to overthrow the monarchy and had gotten aid from China. After these recent developments, I think we should interrogate them again.”

EAM Vajpayee gestured his approval, “Sure, getting access to them shouldn’t be difficult.”

Home Minister Rajat Sudarshan looked at NSA and asked, “Dhumal ji, do you have any idea if these Bhutanese communists have any links in India ?”

Dhumal shook his head, “Not that we know of for certain. But after analysing the data we already have, I’d be surprised if they are not cooperating with terrorist groups like NNFC. Both are being propped up by China and I’m willing to bet that there must be some links. We may get some information from the men arrested by RBA. We need to take some concrete action fast before Bhutan ends up like Nepal.”

PM who had mostly just listened to the other people present in the room spoke, “Alright, we should do that as soon as possible. Now what do we do about NNFC and their Chinese connection ? ”

CDS answered, “We really don’t have many choices apart from paying them back with the same coin. They’re trying to create and exploit faultlines within our nation. China itself is a house of cards divided by hundreds of issues and held together just by the iron hand of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  We can exploit their soft underbellies in Tibet, Xijiang, Taiwan, Mongolia, South China sea and various other places of our choice. They’ve made enemies everywhere and only crackpots like Pakistan and North Korea are their allies. 

They’re doing their best to subjugate us, it’s time that we start hitting them back where it hurts.”

DM took over when CDS finished speaking, “I’ve been saying this for years now. We need to treat Pakistan as the insignificant rabid dog it is and put some focus on China which is a much bigger threat. Even Pakistan couldn’t have this much nuisance value if it wasn’t being propped up by China since the last few years..”

HM added his bit, “I do not agree completely. Pakistan can affect our internal security much more due to the support they get from some of our population. China has little or no such leverage and is just an external threat. Both these countries have different threat profiles for different reasons.”

PM intervened to get the discussion back on track before it diverted too much, “You both are making valid points, but we need to discuss our plan of action against China. What do we do against their support of terrorist groups and how do we make them feel some pain ?”

There was a pause and then NSA answered, “As decided in our previous meeting, we’ve already started work on reactivating some old assets and creating some new ones. It’s a slow process and will take a few months or perhaps even years. Nothing happens fast in this type of work.

We have gained some vital intelligence in last few weeks and if we play our cards right, we can engineer a split in NNFC and neutralise some of their top leadership. One thing we still haven’t figured out yet is how to intercept their cadre undergoing training in China. Some of them will trek back over the mountain passes, rest will use different international routes to reach back to India. We can turn and neutralise a few with help of local intelligence units, but even 30-40 such trained terrorists in the region can prove to be a big headache.”

DM spoke again, “That’s not bad at all. But even if we neutralise NNFC, what’s stopping Chinese from creating and arming yet another group like this ? What I am suggesting is making the cost of such activities unacceptably high for China. They should think twice before they go around trying to light fires in our house.”

“Do you have any ideas Maadhvan ji ?” PM sensed that his DM was itching to say something and gave him the chance to open up completely.

“Yes, ofcourse.” He responded quickly. “For starters, why not agree to the some of the requests put forth by Tibetan PM Kalsang and give recognition to Tibet as a fully sovereign nation ? Even if it’s just symbolic, we pour cold water over Chinese dreams of One China policy. With all the goodwill that Tibetans have all over the world and with some help from us, we can make it a prominent international issue  and I am very sure that people in most democratic countries will pressurise their governments to be sympathetic to the cause even if the regimes themselves can’t or wouldn’t do anything significant. 

Now before anyone here mentions it, I know that it’ll not mean much by itself, but it is just one step in getting Tibet free from Chinese control. We need to abandon our support for One China policy they demand from us. Even if we don’t succeed today or in near future, we have a leverage over China which we can use to our advantage in some other issue.”

Everyone in the room voiced their support which led to the PM think for a moment before replying, “It seems like a good idea for starters. We should gather some data on it and discuss how to take it further when we meet next. Anything else ?”

Now was Dhumal’s turn to speak, “ Like I said earlier, we are in process of creating some assets which we can use in China. We discussed it earlier this year. It’s going according to plan and we should be able to start effective operations in a few months.

Additionally, I am meeting with Rear Admiral Rajratan Hooda about status of the new Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) tomorrow. Some reports suggest that Chinese have managed to penetrate our communication infrastructure using their private companies. We need to secure ourselves against possible cyber attacks  as much as we need to secure our borders.”

“Chinese private companies ? If that’s the case, then we need to kick them out as soon as possible.”   PM asked with raised eyebrows.

“Yes, we have some intelligence which suggests that CCP is using companies like XIanji for military espionage and data collection. They’ve been on our radar for quite sometime and we are trying to keep them out of our business as much as possible. I can’t say how long it’ll take to have a strong enough case against them, but we are getting close. I’ve been asking for an official or even an unofficial ban or restrictions on a few Chinese companies for quite some time now. 

Apart from that, DCA is working to strengthen our defence communications from inner as well as outer threats. I’ve also asked for their help with security of our civilian infrastructure. DCA is in process of commissioning some equipment which will boost our offensive capability manifold.”

CDS was next, “I’m sure you must be sick of hearing it, but we need atleast one Mountain Strike Corps ready by yesterday. Not a  mish-mash of borrowed brigades and weapons dusted off from reserves, but a proper new Corps, fully staffed and properly armed. Plus 14 new squadrons of fighter jets, atleast 6 more aerial refuellers and same number of AWACS for Air Force. Navy needs more submarines, atleast 8 diesel-electrics to maintain bare minimum operational capacity. The budget allotted to us this year is barely enough to maintain our current level of preparedness. We can’t hope to tackle China and Pakistan both with what we have. “

PM raised his hands in surrender, “You don’t need to preach to the choir General. We are trying our best, but there are lots of mouths to feed and not enough resources for all. Most of the stuff you guys choose is so expensive that it’s impossible to pay for all of it from the budget we have.”

CDS and everyone else in the room knew that PM was talking about recent payments for imported T-90 tanks, Rafale planes, Scorpene submarines, Spike missiles, R-77 Air To Air missiles (AAM), SIG-716  rifles, Apache helicopters and various other hugely expensive imports. There were local alternatives for almost all the mentioned weapon systems. But Indian defence procurement was plagued by rampant corruption, incompetence and an unhealthy obsession for foreign imports at expense of local weapons development and production.  

One huge example was repeat orders for Russian T-90 tanks which were proven to be quite inferior compared to Arjun in one on one comparative tests. T-90s were given a number of concessions in trials to speed up their purchase, while everything was made doubly tough for Arjun. Even then, Transfer of Technology deal that had come in with the tanks was not honoured by the Russians and Indians had to add numerous improvements like air-conditioner, sights that actually worked on their own. 

Similarly, Air Force was willing to import every plane on offer, but unwilling to support  local Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. One Air Force Chief was even wary of showing support for the project because he thought of the project as that of it’s developer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), rather than IAF itself. The list was quite long and grew only longer every year. It was after the same air force had spent years trouble shooting and improving imported Sukhoi-30, Mirage-2000, Jaguar and Mig-21. But they refused to extend similar support for LCA till DM had put his food down.

Even reliable allies like USSR used these sales as leverage on their clients and control and even restrict usage of their weapon systems by restricting supply of spares. China had learned this lesson decades back and had done everything possible to be completely self-reliant for it’s defence needs like all other major powers. But India was still burning money every year on costly imports and even more expensive spares and maintenance.

One of the things that the new regime had done to remedy this was to encourage defence production in the country and decrease the value and quantity of imported systems. But old habits don’t change easily and there were a lot of vested interests, both internal and external trying to throw a spanner in execution of every such move.

“I hope we get better budget allocation next year.” CDS replied  simply as a kind of truce.

PM acknowledged, “We are trying our best to increase the defence budget next year and working on improving the weapons purchase system.  Anything else ? I read something about Vietnam in the meeting brief. What about it ?

EAM answered his question,” As I mentioned in the meeting brief, they have sent a request for increased intelligence sharing and sale of some military hardware. What should we do about that ?”

PM spoke,“I think we should be able to help them out easily, right ?”

EAM answered, “I am not sure about the technical details, but if you ask my opinion, we should definitely respond positively to their approach even if we have to spend some money from our own pockets. They can be a useful ally against Chinese hegemony.”

DM leafed through his papers and put one in front of PM, “I have checked the feasibility of their wishlist and most of it is quite easy for us. We can manufacture a satellite according to their specifications in 3-4 months. Only hard thing is getting them a slot in the scheduled launches this year. 

Next item in their list is training of their pilots and submarine crews. Their Sukhoi-30 and Kilo submarines are very similar to ours and we can easily accommodate their crews.

Increased intelligence sharing is actually good for us and we should be doing it with as many countries as possible. We should get someone to work on this as soon as possible.”

The last item in their list was possible sales of some fast patrol boats and anti-submarine ships. I think they were referring to Car Nicobar class patrol vessels and Kamorta class anti-submarine corvettes. That is also not impossible, but I have my doubts.”

 “Why’s that ?”

“Both ships are manufactured by GRSE and all of their production lines are completely full for 3-4 years.They can open extra manufacturing lines only if they have confirmed orders.

Additionally, there are a lot of very good options for these categories of ships from Japan, Russia, South Korea, France and a few more. I am not sure that our state owned shipyards can compete with any of these competitors just yet.” DM answered with a slightly frustrated expression.

PM chuckled, “ I know, I know. We are trying our best but old habits die hard and Indian bureaucracy has a lot of inertia.”

“That’s why we need more contracts for private sector,” HM added. “We also need to talk about the latest terrorist attack Rashtriya Rifles foiled in Rajauri.. If the terrorists had managed to detonate the explosives in bus station, they could have killed 300-400 people easily. 25 kgs of RDX is no joke.” 

CDS mirrored a map of the region on the large screen showing location of encounter along with the long LoC snaking along the western border. “In last two months, Pakistanis have attempted 11 infiltration attempts and fired at our posts as well as villages 24 times just in this sector. We’ve lost 11 soldiers and 18 civilians in these attacks. This area has been relatively free of militancy for last few years and they are trying to change it. We have been retaliating with our artillery, but they need something much stronger.”

“Excuse me General sahib, but why do you say that artillery fire isn’t enough?” PM asked quizzically. 

“It’s mostly because the artillery can’t hit the real planners who train and push in the terrorists. With our firing from the border, we can kill some of their low ranking soldiers, that’s all. They are considered expendable cannon fodder anyway and Pakis don’t care much how many of them die. Their lives are only marginally more valuable than those of the terrorists. We need to spear some of the bigger fishes across the border to put some fear in them.”

PM considered advice of CDS for a moment and asked, “I suppose you have some plans for this?”

“Yes Sir, we can send some teams of our own to hit some of the targets which include some staging camps for terrorists, artillery positions and a few important rear echelon posts. So far, we’ve been fighting them inside our territory. If we take the fight to them, they’ll get the message.”

PM looked at the DM who gestured his support. “You have our approval on one condition. You need to make sure that this doesn’t spiral out into a full fledged war. Hit them where you like, whenever you feel necessary. Just make sure to keep things under control. It’s time that we pay them back with interest.”

CDS looked happy for first time since the meeting started, “Thank you Sir. You have my word.”

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1 September 2016

Ghani Village, Rajauri, Jammu

Captain Sanjeev Pandey entered the Commanding Officer’s (CO) room and saluted smartly, “Good afternoon sir.” His CO returned the salute and instructed him to have a seat.  “Sanjeev, how good are you with construction work?”

CO was famous for his abrupt orders and strange ways of grilling people. Capt Sanjeev was expecting something like this when he got the message about CO wanting to see him asap. He had answered dozens of such questions since his deputation two months back and heard hundreds of stories from his subordinates and seniors alike. Yet, he had no answer and just mustered a confused, “Sir ?”

“Do you know about the new building for the primary school that our battalion is helping with ?” CO stared at him evenly as if looking for a weakness to pounce upon.

“Yes Sir.” The two words came out more as a question than an answer.

“You’ve been busy with patrols on the fence, cordons and getting to know your men. But this is important, you know. This work we are doing helps the local villagers as well as us too.”

“No doubt Sir.”

“So do you think that you can help out with this ?”

“Certainly Sir.”

“Good then. Go to Suraj Yadav and ask him to take you to the construction site. He will brief you about the job.”

“Yes Sir.”

Sanjeev got up, saluted and walked out of the office still as clueless as he had come in apart from one lead, Havaldar Suraj Yadav. He found the elusive Havaldar playing a game of volleyball and asked him about the school business.

Suraj nodded sagely, looking somewhat impressed, “CO saab asked you to take care of it! That’s good!“

“Take care of what?”

“Didn’t he tell you anything else ?”

Sanjeev felt a twinge of irritation rise within himself, “I’ve told you everything what he told me. Now let’s go to the construction site.”

Suraj opened his mouth as if to say something then changed his mind, “Ah… so he really didn’t tell you anything! Well the main thing is that there is no construction going on right now.” Sanjeev just sighed deeply, his irritation rising with each passing second but Suraj seemed oblivious. 

“No construction going on…. Right. And why’s that ?”

“Gulam said that some of his workers were sick and a few were asking more money, so he fired them. He will bring new workers tomorrow to resume the work.”

“Who is this Gulam ?”

“He is the contractor making the school building sir, Gulam Bhat. He is kind of the default person to get this kind of work done in these parts. He is from Srinagar but usually lives around here for most of the year. Has a lots of ‘approach’ in state government too.”

“Of course he does. Do you have his phone number ?”

“Yes Sir, do you want it now ?”

“No, just give him a call and ask him to be at construction site at 11:00 tomorrow morning. I want to talk to him.”

Indian armed forces perform a lot of community outreach activities in their areas of deployment. They build schools, clinics, roads and other civil infrastructure in remote places which don’t have much development work done by the civil authorities. They also arrange sports programs, scholarships, life skill programs, study tours, medical checkup camps among a few other things in order to help the population of the area where they are deployed. In J&K, most of these activities are done under Operation Sadbhavana as a way to generate goodwill and remove any sense of alienation from the people.

Capt Sanjeev Pandey’s battalion was constructing a new building for a village’s primary school in it’s area of operations (AOR). The construction contract had been awarded to a local contractor Gulam Bhatt as is the case with most such work. Construction had started in the allotted land but the progress was slow. Sanjeev had been assigned to speed up the process by his CO.

Next morning he took Suraj in his Gypsy and drove to the construction site only to find it completely empty apart from two stray dogs napping in the sun. Suraj immediately called Gulam and turned to Sanjeev, “Saab, he is saying that his vehicle has a problem and he will not be able to reach before 2 pm.”

“2 pm” Sanjeev muttered while gritting his teeth. “Where are the labourers then? Why haven’t they started the work yet ?“

“He said that he was driving them in the truck transporting them.”

“Inbred bastard! Do you know where is he right now?”

“He said somewhere near the steel bridge. 40 minutes drive from here.”

“Good. We are going to meet him there.”

Both army men got back in to the Gypsy and found the mini-truck there sitting on  side of the road. There was no sight of Gulam, his labourers or even someone repairing the minitruck. Sanjeev cursed the CO under his breath for assigning him to chase after idiots to do their jobs. He had specifically chosen infantry to avoid a life of paper pushing, contracts and office work. First posting in an active zone and he was doing exactly that. Another phone call to Gulam and he claimed that he was driving a mechanic to the broken minitruck. 

Sanjeev nearly snatched phone from Suraj’s hand and asked Gulam to meet him tersely. Half an hour later, Gulam drove up to them in his brand new Tata Safari and grinned as he offered a handshake to seething Captain. Sanjeev got a good whiff of cheap alcohol coming from him as he opened his mouth to say hello. Sanjeev was too angry to indulge in niceties and idle chit chat.

“So Mr. Gulam Bhat, it looks like that you’ve wasted our whole day and not done even one bit of work. What do I say to my CO ?” 

Gulam grinned sheepishly as a way of apology showing off his many discoloured teeth. “I was personally bringing the labourers to the construction site, but this stupid truck broke down in the middle. You don’t need to worry, I will finish the building right on time.”

“Mr Bhat, my job for next few days is to ensure that you finish the job in time and I will make you do it one way or the other. By the way, where are these labourers you were bringing ?”

“Oh those bastards ran back when I was gone. They wanted me to pay them for whole day of work even when they had not lifted a single finger for anything.”

“It’s not their fault that they couldn’t reach the construction site in time when you were transporting them.”

Gulam guffawed loudly as if Sanjeev had cracked a funny joke, “How could I pay them if they had done no work ? I drove them from Rajauri, 40 km from here and they start demanding money as soon as the truck broke down as if I’d run away. And all of them ran away when I was gone to get a mechanic.”

Sanjeev felt like picking the man by his neck and giving him a good shakedown but restrained himself, “Where is the mechanic you’re talking about and why are you bringing simple labourers so far from the site. There are enough people willing to do the job in the Ghani and nearby villages.”

“Don’t worry about the mechanic Captain sahab, I’ll get it repaired soon.

As for the labourers, have my advice sahab and never trust anyone from Ghani or any village in this area. All of them are lazy bums and only want money without doing any honest work. I’ve stopped hiring them for any job.”

“But they were working on the site before you fired them, right ?”

Gulam wringed his hands and nodded a reluctant yes.

“Good then you are coming with us to Ghani right now. Go to the labourers you had hired previously and rehire them. I’ll personally supervise the job. Get the smell of this shitty liquor out of your mouth and follow us.”

Gulam opened his mouth to protest only to get a sharp rebuke from Suraj, “Do not waste our time and  obey what he is saying Ghulam ji. We have orders straight from CO saab.”

Gulam sullenly dunked his face in cold water of the stream and got in his SUV. 

The construction work was going on at a good pace. The local labourers were working fairly well unlike claims of Gulam who had dismissed them as lazy freeloaders. Sanjeev had been going to the construction site daily to spend 1-2 hours there and see the progress. He met Gulam there on 1st day and then he had not shown up for three days claiming that the labourers didn’t need his constant supervision and that he had some other projects to take care of too. 

Sanjeev was taking stock of the building supplies when he noticed a labourer with a deformed leg carrying a bag of cement on his head. The disabled worker used a thick stick clamped within his left armpit to support his bad leg while carrying loads on his head supported by his right hand. He looked older than his years with patches of grey in his hair, deep lines on his face and deeply tanned skin. Sanjeev watched him for a few seconds, then got busy with his own work.

About an hour later as he was about to leave, labourers stopped work for lunch. Most of them had brought simple rice, roti with some vegetables type meals from their homes and were eating them while chatting.  He walked to the group as they were finishing off their meals and greeted them. They were respectful, smiled and answered politely but seemed a little reserved. Sanjeev was still getting used to the Hindi mixed with Pahadi and Gujjari language spoken by people of the area and chatted for a bit before leaving. 

Next 2 days went by without much to talk about. He barely had any time to spend at the construction site due to some night missions and patrols. Summer time was usually busier due to large number of infiltration attempts by Pakistani terrorists and Border Action Teams (BAT) from regular Pakistani army. There were some incidents of artillery fire which were often cover for infiltration attempts. One of the sister platoons had neutralised two terrorists in such an attempt and there were rumours of more in hiding.

 He had spent most of the last few nights setting up ambushes on likely infiltration routes but had ended up empty handed. Last night was yet another long sleepless night spent in the forested area freezing their butts off without anything to show for it. After getting a few hours of sleep, he had reached the construction site in late afternoon to see Gulam leaving just as he approached from another direction. 

The labourers were huddled in a group at some distance talking animatedly but grew quiet upon noticing him and went back to their work. The disabled labourer was there too, but seemed much slower than usual. He was carrying stuff as usual but unlike previous days, was not as energetic and struggled visibly. Sanjeev felt bad and walked up to him, “Hello, how are you ?”

“Fine sahab. Just doing my job for the day.”

“You seem tired,  are you ok ?”

“I am fine, just had a little fever last night. I should be fine by tomorrow.”

“Why don’t you take some rest ?”

“We just had a break to get our wages, can’t take another. Otherwise Gulam sahab will get angry.”

“So he was here  to pay your wages. Does he pay you in the middle of the day?”

“He pays us every 3-4 days or whenever he feels like.” There was a strange expression on the labourer’s face as he said it and Sanjeev caught it.

“I thought you men get paid every day after finishing the work.”

“That happens sometimes too sahab.”

Sanjeev just realised that he didn’t even know the name of the man he was talking to and asked hurriedly, “Sorry I still don’t know your name.”

“Liaqat Ali, sahab. I live in a small house near the grocer’s shop. The shop owner is my cousin.”

“Can’t you get another job in which you don’t have to do so much manual labour ?”

“My forefathers have been farmers for as long as we can remember and we’ve always spent our sweat to earn our bread. I was an idiot and a bit unlucky and sold all of my land to pay for my vices and wife’s hospital bills. I need to work here otherwise my family will sleep hungry.”

Sanjeev was not ready to hear all of Liaqat’s story, yet he felt bad about the poor man. “Come with me to the base dispensary. I’ll get a doctor to check your temperature and get you some medicine and food for home.”

 “I can’t leave work before time sahab. It will not be fair to the rest of them.” Liaqat answered by gesturing towards the other labourers. 

That simple explanation gave Sanjeev some pause. He thought for a moment and then said, “Alright. Finish your job for the day and then come find me at the base. I’ll ask the guards on duty to let you in.”

Few hours later Sanjeev was reading a four days old national paper in the unit’s recreation room. The paper published in New Delhi took minimum two or usually even more days to reach his unit in the remote area close to border. Most of the time, they got a whole week’s worth in one batch. With such a large gap, the paper was read for everything but the news. His reading of the editorial section was interrupted by a guard who escorted Liaqat to him. The unit’s doctor had done a basic medical checkup and given some medications for his fever. 

Sanjeev offered him a seat and a cup of tea and some biscuits. Liaqat seemed hesitant but gratefully accepted after a bit of cajoling. 

“So Liaqat, you told me that you don’t get your wages on time.”

“That’s true sahab. Gulam keeps on delaying it over one issue or the other.”

“I’ll talk to him and ensure that you get your wages on time. This is no way to treat workers. By the way, do you know why he didn’t hire anyone from here for the job and was bringing labourers from Rajauri ?”

Liaqat seemed hesitant as he sipped his tea as if thinking about something. Sanjeev was about to encourage him to speak up when he spoke of his own volition, “Sahab, Gulam had hired labourers from Ghani and neighbouring Dullian for the job, but was taking away one-fourth of our wages. Even then he was not paying us on time. He claimed that he was not getting paid either and put up different excuses every time. When we protested after not getting paid for 5 days, he said that the project was delayed and he had no money. He paid us wages for two days and said that it was the maximum he could pay us.”

“Is he giving you your full wages now ?”

“When he came to hire us again, most of us refused. But he later offered to take only 15% . All of the other labourers are as poor as me and we don’t have many jobs here. So we agreed to work for him again.”

“And none of you considered informing us of what he is doing ?”

“We did, but think of it from our position. You are a fauji who will stay here for a year, maybe two or three and then you’ll move somewhere else. Men like Gulam are the ones who provide us with some work. How can we complain against him?”

“But you complained against him just now.”

Gulam gave a wry smile, “Yes I did. I didn’t want to do it but the bastard took an extra 10% of my wages saying that I don’t work hard as others because I’m a cripple.”

Sanjeev was speechless for a moment and then felt even more anger for the man than he had met only twice. He got a bag of dry rations from mess, handed it over to Liaqat and sent him on his way.  He was tempted to go to the CO just then, but he waited and verified what Liaqat had told him with a few other labourers next day.. 

Few days later, Gulam Bhat was forced to pay pending wages to all the labourers, blacklisted from all the defence contracts and his running projects transferred to someone else. Sanjeev knew that Gulam was just one of many blood sucking parasites, but he was happy to make a difference, however small it was. The fact that it won him a few new local friends was an added bonus.   

Work on the school building resumed after a gap of two days and Sanjeev was on the construction site again trying hard to not fall asleep while taking stock of the situation. The work was going on on a good pace and the building was starting to take shape. His hunt for the terrorists was not going on very well though. There were some radio intercepts in last few days which suggested that a group of three to four Pakistani terrorists was hiding in their sector and were planning something big very soon. Security agencies had tapped every informer, put up ambushes and guards on every possible route to get a lead without any success. Sanjeev himself was leading a search mission every night without anything to show for it. 

He was about to leave the site when Liaqat came up to him and greeted him. After Sanjeev’s report, CO had pulled some strings to help the labourers. Liaqat was about to get a small loan to buy two milch cows as a result. Some other labourers had received books for their children, another a scholarship for studying in college

“Sahab, can you arrange a checkup for me with a doctor in your dispensary today ?”

 “Sure. What happened?”

“Nothing major sahab. I just need to meet him as follow up.”

Sanjeev was having his evening chai in barracks in evening when a soldier escorted Liaqat to him. He offered to get a cup of tea for him, but Liaqat refused, “Captain sahab, I don’t have much time today. I just wanted to talk to you about your night patrols.”

“Night patrols?”

“You are searching from some goats across from the border, right ?” On seeing Sanjeev nod, he added hesitantly, “And I’ve heard that  there’s a reward for information related to them.”

Sanjeev put his cup aside and looked at Liaqat keenly, “Yes, there is if the information is good.”

“Sahab, I don’t particularly care for any money or reward. I just want to pay you back for the help you have provided me. I just want to be sure about safety of my family.”

“If you have some concrete information, you can freely share it with me and it’ll remain strictly confidential. If it’s correct and leads us to these ..goats, we’ll pay you in cash. No one apart from me and CO sahab will know anything about who provided the information.”

Liaqat rubbed his knee for a moment thinking over his words carefully. “You know about my cousin Mukhtaar, the grocer right ? His wife’s older brother Abraar has a vegetable farm near the waterfall. If you send someone there to take a look in the straw hut in the potato field, you may find some big stuff which the goats carried with them. There is a small cave around 30 steps right from the hut hidden behind a rock. Ask someone to take a look there too.”

“Interesting. And do you know here I can find these goats ?”

“I’ve seen four on the upper floor of Abraar’s house at night. You must have seen the green double storied house at  western end of the village. It’s one of the largest in the village, so you can’t miss it. They spend the night there because it’s too cold and damp in the cave. They can’t stay in the house during daytime for obvious reasons. I’ve seen them leaving the house just before morning’s namaaz time.”

“How sure are you about this Liaqat ? Isn’t this Abraar district head of Democratic Peoples Party ?”

“He is and his son-in-law is a constable in the police.”

“Anything else you can tell me?”

“That’s all I know sahab.”

Sanjeev sent him on his way back home and nearly sprinted to CO’s residence and shared the information. After a short discussion in which both officers discussed the veracity of intelligence, CO finally agreed to take action. He called up commander of Quick Reaction Team (QRT) and instructed him to set up observation posts near the field as well as Abraar’s house. They could not raid the house without any proof and they didn’t want to let anyone else know of their intentions either. Abraar was just a small time politician, but he was capable of causing a lot of drama if something went wrong.  They had to be careful while collecting information about terrorists like their routes, timings and armament to be successful. 

A six man team took up camouflaged positions at a short distance from the field and another climbed up a small hillock to monitor Abraar’s house. They couldn’t get close to the house because of movement of civilians and houses nearby. Both teams were equipped with night vision devices and thermal sights to ‘see’ even in the dark. Days in such places start and end up early and most of the village was closing down for the night around sunset. The shops closed at around 6-6:30 pm and the people chatted animatedly as they walked back to their homes from their farms, shops or whatever their work involved. By 10 pm, all the streets were empty and only a few houses had any lights on. 

Once the streets were dark enough, a platoon worth of soldiers moved out of the base silently and took up positions on the two possible routes from Abraar’s farm to his house. 

Around 10:30 pm, Q1 team assigned to the field reported movement of three men from the cave and one from the hut. They had draped themselves in shawls to hide the outline of AK-47s hanging from their backs. None of them used any torches and walked carefully and slowly in a straight line on the narrow hilly trail leading up to the village below.  It’d have worked in the dark, but not with experienced troops equipped with night vision devices who tracked their movement from start to finish at Abraar’s house. 

A decision was made to not storm the house and wait for terrorists to move out before dawn to avoid any chances of civilian casualties. That meant soldiers had to wait out the night sitting in same place waiting till terrorists decided to move back to farm again. 

A small team of soldiers cautiously searched the hut and the cave in dark and found no one there. They did find two cleverly hidden gunny bags with explosives wrapped in plastic bags weighing roughly 25 kg and four remote detonators. In the cave they found a bunch of full AK-47 magazines, a couple of pistols and some grenades along with some plastic sheets, blankets and food supplies. 

Around an hour before sunrise, the observation team near the house reported four men moving out of the house and taking the same path back again towards the farm. Once they were far enough from the village, the ambush party cornered them and asked them to surrender. Three of the terrorists started to fire indiscriminately and the fourth started running towards the village. First three were shot down within seconds while the fourth took two bullets in leg and one on his shoulder without even getting his gun in firing position. He was captured, given first aid and moved to military hospital. Hewas identified as Zakir Musa, an IED expert from Mirpur, PoK. The group  was tasked with bombing of bus station in Rajauri.

Liaqat got his reward of INR 2 lakh cash few days after the encounter.

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