Kaalkut. Chapter 8

4 October 2019. New Delhi, India

Prime Minister Angad Bisht had just arrived back in New Delhi after a whirlwind tour of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh where he had inaugurated the 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 the Defence Minister’s office and he briefed the PM about the agenda of the meeting as well as the 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 handpicked 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 the door of the room. Both men greeted each other and Vajpayee entered the room after Bisht. Everyone else was already inside waiting for the meeting to begin. After some greetings and a bit of small talk, the meeting quickly came to a 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) General Mohit Sharma 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 Dhumal, “I concur with Dhumal ji. We actually have a list of some names for the Bhutan camp. Most of them are hardcore 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 Dhumal 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.”

Bisht 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? ”

Sharma 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 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  We can exploit their soft underbellies in Tibet, Xianji, 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.”

Kamat took over when Sharma 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..”

Sudarshan 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.”

Bisht 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 Dhumal 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 the 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.”

Kamat spoke again, “That’s not bad at all. But even if we neutralise NNFC, what’s stopping the 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?” Bisht sensed that his Kamat was itching to say something and gave him the chance to open up completely.

“Yes, of course.” He responded quickly. “For starters, why not agree to 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 the near future, we have 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 thinking 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 it was Dhumal’s turn to speak, “As I said earlier, we are in the 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 year or so.

Additionally, I am meeting with Rear Admiral Rajratan Hooda about the 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.”   Bisht 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 some time 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 the security of our civilian infrastructure. DCA is in process of commissioning some equipment which will boost our offensive capability manifold.”

CDS Sharma was next, “I’m sure you must be sick of hearing it, but we need at least 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, at least six more aerial refuellers and the same number of AWACS for Air Force. The Navy needs more submarines, at least eight 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. “

Bisht 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.”

Sharma 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, Meteor Air To Air missiles (AAM), SIG-716  rifles, Apache helicopters and various other hugely expensive imports. There were local alternatives for a lot of 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 indigenous 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-conditioners, sights and armour. 

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 troubleshooting and improving imported Sukhoi-30, Mirage-2000, Jaguar and Mig-21. But they refused to extend similar support for LCA till Kamat had put his foot down.

Even reliable allies like USSR used these sales as leverage on their clients and control and even restricted 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 its 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 the execution of every such move.

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

Bisht acknowledged, “We are trying our best to increase the defence budget next year and working on improving the weapons purchase system. We’ll make sure that you get the basic essentials first, then we’ll move on to the rest. 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?”

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

Vajpayee 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.”

Kamat leafed through his papers and put one in front of Bisht, “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 four-five months. The only hard thing is getting them a slot in the scheduled launches this year. The next item on their list is the training of their pilots and submarine crews. Their Sukhoi-30 and Kilo submarines are very similar to ours and we can easily accommodate them.

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 on 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.” Kamat answered with a slightly frustrated expression.

Bisht chuckled, “ I know, I know.”

“That’s why we need more contracts for the private sector,” Sudarshan 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 150-200 people easily. 25 kgs of RDX is no joke.” 

Sharma mirrored a map of the region on the large screen showing the location of the encounter along with the long LoC snaking along the western border. “In the 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 12 soldiers and 18 civilians in these attacks. This area has been relatively free of militancy for the 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?” Bisht 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.”

Bisht considered the advice of Sharma 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.”

Bisht looked at the Kamat 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.”

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

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