Kaalkut. Chapter 7

18 September 2019,. 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?” He was famous for his abrupt orders and strange ways of grilling people. 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 that 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 for 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 lot 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 the 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 its 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.

The 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 here 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 he is right now?”

“He said somewhere near the steel bridge. 30-35 minutes drive from here.”

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

Both army men got back into the Gypsy and found the mini-truck there sitting on the roadside. 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 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 the 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 you’ve wasted our whole day and not done even one bit of work. What should 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 the 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 the 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 wrung 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 sahab.”

Gulam sullenly dunked his face in the cold water of a nearby stream and got in his car. 

The construction work was going on at a good pace a few days later. 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 the first 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 vegetable 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 mix of Hindi mixed with Pahadi and Gujjari languages used by the locals to talk with outsiders and chatted for a bit before leaving. 

The next two 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. Summers were usually busier due to a large number of infiltration attempts by Pakistani terrorists and Border Action Teams (BAT) from the regular Pakistani army. There were some incidents of artillery fire which were often cover for infiltration attempts. One of the unit’s 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 the 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 lands to pay for my vices and 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. “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.”

A few hours later Sanjeev was reading a four day old national paper in the unit’s recreation room. The paper published in New Delhi took a minimum of two or usually even more days to reach his unit in the remote area close to the 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 four 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 as 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 the 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 the next day.

A 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 at 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 the 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 big sahab. I just need to meet him as a follow-up.”

Sanjeev was having his evening chai in the barracks 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 for 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 the 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 where 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 the 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 wet in the cave. They can’t stay in the house during the 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 the intelligence, CO agreed to take action. He called up the 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 the civilian activities 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, two sections 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 the 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 the same place waiting till terrorists decided to move back to the farm again. 

A small team of soldiers cautiously searched the hut and the cave in the dark and found no one there. They did find two cleverly hidden gunny bags with explosives wrapped in plastic bags and four remote detonators. In the cave, they found a bunch of full AK-47 magazines, pistols, 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 a military hospital. He was identified as Zakir Musa, an IED expert from Mirpur, PoK. The group was tasked with bombing a bus station in Rajauri.

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

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