28 August 2019. New Delhi, India
The Monsoon of 2019 had been more humid than usual with more heat than rains. Indian National Security Advisor Ajay Dhumal started sweating as soon as he stepped out of his air-conditioned car and started walking towards the office of Indian Defence Minister Maadhvan Kamat in the expansive South Block building.
Dhumal had retired as a Deputy Director in the Indian external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). He had served as a field operative in a number of countries which included Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Unlike most of his colleagues who usually salivated over easy foreign postings in Europe, USA and other similar countries, he asked for and got postings in hostile places where the job was a lot tougher and risk to life and career much higher.
He was instrumental in setting up several deep cover assets for Indian intelligence in various places which had proven their worth time and again in the last few years. His work in Afghanistan had ensured the protection of Indian interests in the war-torn country even at the worst of times. In addition to Hindi, Garhwali, Kannad, English and Tamil he could fluently speak Arabic, Pashto, Sinhalese and understood a bit of Mandarin and Cantonese. Sometimes he considered writing it all down in a book after retirement, but the project always stayed just out of reach.
As NSA, he usually dressed in white shirts, dark trousers with plain spectacles, an analogue watch and a pen in his shirt pocket as his only accessories. But during his work as a field operative, he had taken up disguises as varied as a smuggler, shopkeeper, fortune teller and quite a few more. He was considered to be one of the sharpest people by his friends and detractors alike and was appointed as NSA on the personal recommendation of the Prime Minister himself.
He was shown straight into the Defence Minister’s office who was just finishing up his third cup of tea of the day. Dhumal saw him put away the cup and remarked, “Namaskar Kamat sahab, yet another cup of tea in this weather? I thought that you’d be having something cold in this heat.” Maadhvan Kamat’s addiction to tea and his knowledge of its wide varieties were well known. Both men had developed a friendly informal relationship during their work together and Kamat insisted that the Dhumal treat him like a regular friend. He laughed “Namaste and welcome Dhumal ji, have a seat. This is iced tea, for a change. Would you like to have one too? It’s pretty good.”
Dhumal took a seat and considered for a moment, “Sure, why not. It’s about time I taste cold tea too. I think I need it after all the headache last night.”
“Is it about that NNFC operation or something else.?”
“That and a few other things. I meant to brief everyone about our progress with that NNFC issue in our next biweekly meeting. But there’s another thing which I think is related and I wanted you to know about it as soon as possible before we take further action.”
Dhumal was referring to the scheduled biweekly meetings between the Prime Minister, Defence Minister, NSA, Home Minister, Chief of Defence Staff and RAW Secretary. Every such meeting always had these six people plus a few other people from organisations such as three service chiefs, IB, DRDO, HAL, External Affairs Minister among a few others relevant to the issue for the time.
“Alright, I’m all ears,” Kamat said after handing Dhumal a glass of iced tea.
“Have you had the chance to read the mission report about our Bangkok mission that we sent last night? No, then let me give you a short summary first. In April, our people got a lead about a huge shipment of weapons and drugs divided into 3 parts being shipped from Thailand and China by NNFC. We have reason to believe that they’d have sold some of the weapons to some other terrorist groups in India too. Some weapons were meant as payment for islamic terrorist groups in Bangladesh and Myanmar for their help in smuggling weapons from ports to their country’s border with India.
We tracked down NNFC’s main weapons runner in Thailand, a man named Elias and monitored him closely. Through him, we got information about his main financiers and suppliers and the shipping details. We arrested him as soon as he landed in Kathmandu and brought him in for interrogation where he spilled more details that matched with our surveillance reports.
Based on the information provided by us, Myanmar and Bangladeshi intelligence captured two of the consignments as soon as they landed on their shores and arrested thirteen people between them. They’ve also provided us with a fair bit of information in return. The third ship was meant to leave from China yesterday, but our reports suggest that they’ve delayed or cancelled it after the other two were intercepted.
We’ve known about the role played by China in arming and financing terrorist groups like NNFC for quite some time. But now it seems like they are trying to increase the heat against us from all directions. “
Dhumal paused to take another sip of the iced tea and continued, “They have been training terrorists from north-eastern states for decades now. But till now, it was meant as an irritant rather than a means to wage war. The terrorists in the past were given basic weapons training, some fieldcraft and surveillance skills. But since the last 6-7 months, these terrorists are being trained a lot like special forces soldiers with advanced battle tactics, demolition and espionage. It’s almost like they’re being trained as an army to fight a high-intensity war, rather than terrorists meant to keep the pot simmering.”
And it’s not just us, a fairly large number of the terrorists in Chinese training camps are from Myanmar and Bangladesh too. Our reports suggest 150-200 Indians and as many Bangladeshi and Myanmarese nationals being trained in a total of four to six such camps. In addition, they have a separate division for Bhutan. But we don’t have a lot of information about their activities yet.”
“Bhutan!” DM Kamat exclaimed incredulously.
“Yes, Bhutan of all the places. As far as we know, their main motive is to destroy the monarchy and get their own puppets in control of the country. “
“Like they did in Nepal. Kamat observed. “ What about Bangladesh and Myanmar?”
“I think it’s being done to make our raids on their camps in the two countries a bit more difficult. Also, these terrorists can keep on hitting us on the borders and then melt away in dense jungles. We can’t really cross the border to hit them every time after every such incident. Additionally, the Chinese think that armed terrorist groups controlled by them provide some sort of leverage and influence over the two countries. They think that they can use their activities to drive out competition, make their supporters stronger, assassinate opponents and so on.”
“Statecraft with guns and bombs, in a way.” Kamat Kamat observed dryly.
“Yes and all of this is being done far away from their borders, so they think that they have plausible deniability and no one can blame them for anything.”
Kamat leaned back in his chair and sighed, “So they are trying to emulate their sweeter than honey iron brothers In Pakistan! ”
Dhumal gestured his approval, “Yes, but you might be wondering how this issue deserved a special meeting before our regular one. So I’m coming straight to that.
Our people have detected some consolidation and movement of Chinese troops in multiple sectors, one is a tri-way junction near our border with Bhutan and China near Sikkim and the other is in Arunachal Pradesh. They’ve also started construction of more roads and some military infrastructure in Aksai Chin.
The first place never had any problem till now while the second has been a hot point of contention with multiple incursions by Chinese patrols since 2012. It’s nothing that we have seen before. But Bhutan is under our military umbrella and if Chinese are making a move to raise a dispute in that sector, it’s going to make things very complicated. The only way we can send our troops to this area is via helicopters or a land route through Bhutanese territory.”
“Never a boring day in this line of work, eh? So the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) will need to be prepared for the upcoming meeting” Kamat took off his spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“For this and for another party too,” Dhumal said, finishing up his iced tea.
Kamat looked at him with questioning eyes.
“We have one informal contact from Vietnam. They haven’t opened up completely yet, but they seem to be asking for military assistance. The message came through an unofficial channel, so I am not completely sure what to make of it. But EAM may need to get involved too.”
“Do you have any general idea about what this is about?” Kamat asked.
“From what we know so far, they are looking for some help against the Chinese grabbing some of their islands. They may ask for intelligence sharing, weapons and maybe some training.”
“Personally I am not against the idea, but isn’t Vietnam too far from here for us to be of much help? And how can we help them with weapons? As things are, we can’t even get enough for ourselves.”
“That may or may not be true according to them. I can get more information if you give me approval.” Dhumal knew he didn’t need to ask, but he wanted to play it safe by keeping someone trusted in the loop.
“Yes, why not. It wouldn’t hurt to know what they want. Can you get this information before the meeting?” Kamat asked.
“I think so. We have one common enemy and quite a few common interests. It will be a good idea to help out each other for more than one reason.” Dhumal answered and asked for permission to leave.