The general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The five men moved quietly and swiftly in the dark though they could barely see each other, covered as they were in black battle fatigues. They were familiar with this kind of terrain, though as they proceeded, they felt that this side of the border was slightly rockier. That did not bother them, as they had all spent their childhood in far more treacherous terrain.
The leader, Ghulam, motioned for the others to pause as they came upon a small hillock. With practiced, expert movements, Ghulam scaled the rocks to reach the summit. He unslung the pair of binoculars from his shoulder and peered into the darkness. He could see no movement, but a small fire caught his attention. That would have to be where the troops were likely to be, most probably using the fire to keep themselves warm in the cold.
The others followed him up the hill- being especially careful not to make any noise. Ghulam judged the distance to the camp as about three hundred meters. Just a little bit closer and he would be in position.
Ghulam and his men were now down on their haunches, creeping along the oft-used trail leading to the camp. This trail was obviously heavily used for grazing, as evidenced by the large numbers of dung heaps. At a distance of a hundred meters, Ghulam stopped. He once again looked through his binoculars. He smiled to himself. This was no camp, just a small patrol of four men, which had probably stopped to rest for the night in a small cave on the side of a hill. Probably rookies who had gotten lost.
As Ghulam scanned the group, he realized that they were not regular Army troops. Their antiquated 0.303 rifles were a dead give-away. Most likely they belonged to some police or paramilitary force.
Ghulam shook his head at what things had come to. This was hardly a worthy target for one, who as a fifteen-year-old, had fought the cream of the Soviet army and later, fought the Americans in Iraq- but they would have to do for tonight. He knew there would be many more targets for him before it was all over. He began to reach for his Kalashnikov rifle at his side, but then stopped himself. No, that would just take the fun out of what was already turning out to be a bit of a damp squib.
Inside the cave Lance Naik Ajeet was getting increasingly irritated with his men. All he had asked was for one of them to guide the group using the detailed map they had, and they had somehow still managed to get hopelessly lost. While Ajeet had established radio contact with the police station, he had decided against trying to walk back in the biting cold of the night. He could see Havildar Santosh still fiddling with the map, and he couldn't contain his irritation any more.
`What are you doing now, you buffoon?'
The Havildar looked up sheepishly and said something about being directionally right, which caused Ajeet to explode into a stream of choice expletives. As he lay down to sleep, he asked Havildar Pandey to stand guard.
The pot-bellied Pandey managed to stay awake for about thirty minutes, during which he finished off half a pack of cigarettes, but did precious little guarding. Finally, seeing his boss asleep, he decided to take a little nap himself. He lay down, muttering to himself,
`What will I guard in this godforsaken place? I don't think that fool with the map even knows whether we're on this side or that side of the Line of Control.'
The men crept closer to the policemen, who were fast asleep. Now Ghulam could make out their individual features glowing in the reflected light of the small fire. One of them stirred, causing Ghulam to stop dead in his tracks. But the man just rolled over to his other side and continued sleeping.
Now Ghulam was at the entrance to the cave. He took out a long and curved hunting knife from his belt, and entered the cave, followed by his men.
He grabbed the nearest man by his hair and slit his throat, the knife making a sickening grating noise as it cut from ear to ear, slicing through bone and tissue. The man's eyes popped open as he grabbed at his mangled throat. He tried to cry out, but all that came out of his mouth was a steady stream of blood. In his death throes, he knocked over his rifle standing balanced against the wall. The noise awakened his colleagues, who scrambled to deal with their attackers.
They never had a chance. The man to Ghulam's right tried to grab at him, only to be met with a vicious blow that almost decapitated him. By the time Ghulam turned around, the other two guards were already dead, lying in expanding pools of blood. As quietly as they had come, the five men turned around and left, leaving the four Indian policemen dead in the cave, the fire spreading eerie shadows around their bodies.
Inshallah, all raids would be this easy, Ghulam thought, as he looked back at the cave, the fire now barely discernable in the distance.
His hand paused over the intricately carved rook for a second and then moved away. `Karim, checkmate.' The clean-shaven Air Force officer looked up at his Prime Minister, who as usual, had won. `Sir, you've beaten me again- but I'll get back sometime.'
Illahi Khan smiled slightly. `We'll see. My friend Karim, you were always the fearless one- to go charging in against impossible odds. I, the more careful one- I guess it shows in our chess.'
Illahi Khan enjoyed his Thursday evening games of chess with Air Marshall Ashfaque Karim. He found it intellectually challenging and also a diversion from the worries that had been consuming him for the last few weeks. The two men had been close friends from early on in their military careers. While they had serious differences of opinion, especially on religious views, and had gradually drifted apart a lot over the years, the Thursday evening chess game remained a link to their past.
`Sir, someday we'll play a game where it will boil down to quixotic charges. Well, I have to be going, if I'm late again for dinner, my wife's going to start suspecting who I actually spend Thursday evenings with.'
Illahi watched Karim get up to leave, not without a trace of envy. Karim had maintained himself well, his washboard stomach and ramrod straight posture belying his forty-five plus years. Illahi, though of a similar age, had softened a lot, especially after leaving active military service. The hawk like, sharp eyes were still there, as was his trademark pointed beard, but his body was not as nearly as fit as it once was.
Illahi got up and walked to his bookshelves to take out his well-worn copy of the Holy Koran, given to him by his grandfather. He had never been one for the books, but the Koran was not just any book. Since childhood, he had read it almost every day.
He walked to his CD player and put on some music. The gentle strains of ghazals filled the room as Illahi sat down to read. It was a fairly spartan room, with only a simple sofa, a study table and two bookshelves. But then, Illahi had never been one for creature comforts. Like the chess games with Karim, he cherished every solitary moment he got. They served to remind him that he still had a life beyond trying to make sense of and manage the chaos that was his country. As the thoughts crossed his mind, he silently rebuked himself.
What do you mean by chaos, Ilahi. This is your country. You chose to take on the mantle. You chose to make the deals you did. Now you just have to play the cards you've been dealt.
Leading Pakistan was not an enviable job at the best of times, and the times Ilahi lived in were hardly easy. The coup in Saudi Arabia, led by an Al Qaeda fanatic called Abu Sayed had provided the flow of money, material support and a groundswell of fundamentalist ideology that had led to another military coup in Pakistan- one that had brought Ilahi to power.
The phone's ringing interrupted his thoughts. He leaned across the sofa to pick up the handset. As Karim left the room, he heard his Prime Minister utter just three words, `Abu Sayed himself?'
More than a thousand kilometers away in New Delhi, Vivek Khosla settled down in his living room, a copy of The Prophet in hand. Gibran had always been one of his favorite authors, and no matter how many times he read it; Khosla could always find wisdom and solace in Gibran's masterpiece. He had a glass of scotch in his hand as he turned the dog-eared pages. Unlike most Indian politicians who made a public pretence of virtue and engaged in most vices known to man in private, Khosla believed in making the distinction between his private and public faces as small as he could. Years ago, seniors in his party had warned him that such an attitude would never take him far in Indian politics. Well, he had proved them all wrong. At the age of sixty-one, he was relatively young by the standards of Indian politics, and had reached the pinnacle of Indian democracy- he was the Prime Minister of India.
Khosla had swept to power in the general elections held in 2009 after a tumultuous year, which saw two governments come to power only to fall within months. The past two years had been harrowing experience- juggling fickle political allies, trying to push forward economic reforms in the face of staunch opposition from some of his own party members, and an opposition, which was out to malign the government at the slightest opportunity. Khosla's greatest successes had undoubtedly been in the economic field, with considerable success on many fronts, and continued the onward progress of the Indian economic juggernaut. However, in the political arena, things had not been as rosy.
It had been a long journey indeed, and sometimes Khosla found it difficult to accept just how far he had come from his humble beginnings. Born just after India's independence in 1947, Khosla had been born in a family of refugees from Pakistan who had left considerable ancestral property in Pakistan to escape the communal holocaust consuming the Indian sub-continent. They had arrived in India with almost no money and the daunting prospect of starting all over again. Khosla's father set up the family business of textile trading in Delhi and though the initial years were tough, the family had regained much of its former wealth within a decade. After a brilliant academic career culminating in a doctorate in Economics, Khosla had joined politics. Though most of his fellow party men were staunchly right-wing, with strong communal overtones, the stories Khosla had heard from his father had convinced him that he would do whatever he could to prevent such fratricide again. Now he was truly in a position to do so.
The room was large and tastefully furnished, but bore the marks of slovenliness that his staff had come to accept as part of his personality. There were books and tapes strewn across one of the chairs, and Khosla knew his maid would complain again the next morning. He stretched out on the sofa and began reading.
A slight knock at the living room door caught his attention and Khosla got up to answer it. Though he normally had several servants at his official residence, Khosla preferred to be alone on Saturday nights as far as possible, so that he could catch up on his reading. Given his hectic schedule, such Saturdays were rare, which made his insistence on being left alone even stronger. As he jumped off the sofa, the niggling pain in his back reminded him that he would have to see the doctor soon- getting old, Vivek. In his youth he had been quite an athlete, and was still fairly fit for his age, but there were some things he had begun to accept as the ravages of advancing age. Tall and trim, he did cut quite a striking feature, and many columnists remarked that he was quite the most handsome Indian Prime Minister in a long time. The jury was still out on that one, though, especially among those who insisted that the late Rajiv Gandhi would have given Khosla a run for his money in the looks department.
Khosla wearily opened the door to see his personal secretary, a large stack of files in hand. `Good evening, Sir. Sorry to disturb you. Here is the daily intelligence summary, and some other files for your signature.'
Khosla accepted the well-worn files. They were regulation Indian Government files, which had changed little in the last five decades. At least these days they condescend to give computer printouts. As recently as the mid 1990s, these reports would come typed out by manual typewriters and sealed in brown envelopes the old fashioned way- with a wax Government of India seal. Well, some things in the Indian bureaucracy will take more than technology to change, mused Khosla, as he ripped open the familiar reddish-brown seal.
He picked up the two-page daily intelligence summary prepared by the Intelligence Bureau and put the other files aside, which among other things reported what the Opposition was up to. When he first came to power, Khosla had taken an idealistic view of the situation, and protested that the IB was not meant to spy on Opposition politicians. But, over time, he had come to accept that one had to do some things one did not necessarily like.
Khosla scanned through the report as he sat down. As he read, he kept scribbling notes and reminders on the margins. Things looked under control. The usual couple of killings in Kashmir were of course there, but that had become a regular feature in India's troubled northern state. At least large-scale terrorism was on its way out.
One particular paragraph caught his eye. Four policemen killed by unidentified attackers. The four members of the J&K State Police were killed with knives while on a regular patrol.
That did strike him as surprising. Why would anyone kill with knives in an age of rockets and automatic weapons? There had been similar killings in recent weeks, and many believed these were the handiwork of hardened Afghan mercenaries crossing the porous border with Pakistan and striking with the intent of spreading terror in the local populace and security forces. Need to check what's up with the mercenaries with Joshi.
After the Taliban had been swept from power in Afghanistan by the United States following the World Trade Center attacks, the Taliban fighters had melted away. However, with the rise of a new regime under an Al Qaeda affiliate, Abu Sayed, in Saudi Arabia and his active role in spreading fundamentalist terror throughout the region, the need for paid killers had arisen again. Importantly, Abu Sayed could promise these Islamic guns for hire more than virgins in the after-life. His religious inspiration was backed by petro-dollars. Many of these mujahideen, as they were now publicly known, had fanned out across the Middle East, and several had appeared in that old festering wound in India's nationhood- Kashmir. Abu Sayed had adopted Emir as his nom de guerre, a title that suited his self-image as the leader of Islam worldwide. The Emir had promised a climactic Jihad against the West, and India was beginning to feel the first blows in that struggle.
Khosla put the papers aside and settled back to read. He turned to a page in his book. `And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles. Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children.'
Khosla wondered why people could not accept such a simple truth, expounded by the holy books of all major religions. It would have saved thousands of lives over his country's history.
There was an almost palpable sense of gloom hanging over the long conference room, as Illahi waited for everyone to sit down. In front of him were the people who, along with him, could decide the fate of Pakistan, and, he hoped, help him fulfill the difficult task that now lay before him.
It was a powerful gathering- with the Chiefs of Staff, the Intelligence Chief and the Defense and Foreign Ministers. There was however, one notable omission, without whom a meeting, especially this meeting, could not begin.
Illahi waited for about five minutes and was about to ask for a break while the awaited member arrived when the door swung open.
The man who entered could not have been over forty, and wore a loose fitting robe, in the fashion of his nation. His long, unshaven beard and rugged build gave away clues as to his origin, as did the automatic pistol slung at his waistband. `Illahi, I'm sorry. I was caught up in traffic.'
`It's okay, Abdul, please be seated.' The man seated himself among the Generals and bureaucrats. Illahi began speaking, knowing that he was probably making the most important speech of his life, one that would not only determine his fate, but that of his nation as well.
`The Emir called. He expresses his pleasure at our current level of activity in Kashmir but wants us to increase our pressure dramatically.'
Karim was the first to respond, as Illahi had almost expected him to. If there was one thing he did not like about Karim, it was the fact that he tended to ask too many questions. Illahi cut him off in mid sentence.
`It's all in here. Please read it carefully and then I'll continue.' Illahi handed out a single sheet of paper to each of the men at the table. As they read it over, there were audible gasps in the room.
`But Illahi, what's come over him all of a sudden?' The speaker was the Chief of Army Staff, General Shamsher Ahmed.
`We should not use such words while talking of that great man. Illahi, please go on', interjected the representative of the Emir in Pakistan, and the last man to enter the room.
`Well, it's pretty simple. He wants us to move soon. We've had the Mujahideen operating behind the lines for almost six months now. But now the Emir feels it's time to escalate and try and wrest some territorial control.'
`Come on, Illahi- we have nukes, so do the Indians- why would we risk war now?' the Army Chief was not going to give in so easily.
`You will do as I say!' Illahi's famed temper came to the fore, and the proud Army officer did all he could to control himself. His face was flushed with anger and his broad shoulders heaved as he sat back in his chair, but he did not make his displeasure at this censure known.
The Emir's representative spoke up again, `His Holiness does not want us to try and get full territorial control- for he knows we are probably not ready yet. But what he wants is a sign to the doubters among our faith and a stern warning to the infidels. We need to make substantial territorial gain and then stop- demonstrating that we are willing to step in to protect our faith's interests. And remember- it's not just a question of going in with our guns blazing- we need to smart about it- and create circumstances that would serve our purpose. One of the key challenges before the Islamic Brotherhood now is to unite for the final battle against the Great Satan. But before that our leader, the Emir, needs a demonstration of his power. This is our privilege and our opportunity to contribute to this holy cause. If the Emir wants us to do something, let us not waste time debating it- let us figure out how.'
As Abdul finished speaking, Illahi could see the distaste writ large on the faces of many of the men inside, especially the Chiefs of Staff. Professional soldiers all, they had not taken kindly to the virtual usurping of power by the Emir. But harsh lessons had taught them not to express their displeasure openly. Ilahi felt that Abdul, while blunt as always, had probably been a bit too harsh. He should remember these men are the most professional soldiers in the world, not his Afghan thugs.
He adopted a more conciliatory tone as he tried to defuse the tension in the room. `Gentlemen, you have served Pakistan all your lives with dedication and patriotism that has been beyond question and reproach. But now I appeal to you to serve an even higher cause- the greater cause of our Quam- the Islamic nation. The Emir feels, and I agree with him, that while the Islamic nation has made great progress in terms of international solidarity, we are still a badly fragmented people. We can never hope to ultimately win against the Western imperialism and Indian expansionism unless we do unite. And the honor of the first task in uniting us as a common front falls to us.'
Ilahi's always been a great speaker, got to grant him that. But Karim could feel the tension and apprehension in the room as the meeting disbanded. The Service Chiefs were clearly not in favor of escalating military tensions. The past few years had taken a heavy toll on the Pakistani economy, and its military had not been spared. While discipline and training had remained at their usually high levels, spare parts and new equipment were not as easily forthcoming. And Karim knew that wars were not won with fervor alone, but real equipment and blood.
In the privacy of his bedroom, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was not so belligerent. He knew he was taking a big risk, but then, he reasoned, history had rewarded only those who dared. Moreover, he mused that it was not as if he had any real choice.
Illahi Khan had stormed to power in a military coup with the blessings of fundamentalist groups. The previous military government under Musharraf had provided a few years of near autocratic rule, but in the bargain, had antagonized many of the fundamentalist groups, especially with its clear support to the United States in its war in Afghanistan to root out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The fundamentalist forces had always lurked in the background, and surfaced occasionally with attacks on Musharraf and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late 2007. Religious fundamentalism and economic collapse made for a volatile cocktail, and Illahi had stormed to power in yet another coup, this time with the backing of the Emir and fundamentalist forces within the Pakistani army. Illahi had, to his credit, restored some semblance of economic stability and social order, but at the cost of a harsh clampdown and a virtually autocratic government.
But he realized, in his quest for power, he had sold himself out. And he did not regret it for a minute. Starting life as a non commissioned officer in the Pakistan Army, he could never have dreamed of attaining the highest position in the country. As he gradually rose in the Army hierarchy, he was not noticed for his tactical brilliance, but for his staunch, almost fanatical religious fervor. He had come in contact with hard-line fundamentalist groups early on in his career, and with his influence in the army and religious circles, he became a natural candidate to lead the coup.
Despite his lack of much formal education, Illahi possessed a sharp mind, and he never deluded himself with the thought that he was actually in control. He had ridden the fundamentalist tiger to power, and could now do little without their approval. He was in no way indispensable- and if he strayed too far, they would find someone else to take his place.
What had queered the pitch even more in the last two years was the growing power of the Emir. Following the upheavals in Saudi Arabia, the Emir, known before his rise to power as Abu Sayed had overthrown the monarchy and had emerged as the political and religious leader of Saudi, and he claimed, of the entire Muslim world. Most liberal Islamic countries like Egypt and Algeria were resisting the Emir's visions of an expansionist religion and his ultimate terrifying vision of an Armageddon between the forces of Islam and others. However, his influence was growing by the day- he had many allies in Pakistan and, as Illahi was never allowed to forget, he owed his coming to power in no small measure to the money and weapons supplied by the Emir. To reinforce this, a representative of the Emir, Abdul, had to sit in on all top-level meetings. This irked Illahi, but he knew better than to make his displeasure known. His loyalty to the Emir stemmed not just from the purely selfish consideration of staying in power, but also from a real belief in the man and his words. Illahi had met him only once, but his overwhelming charisma and presence had awed him. To disobey him was unthinkable.
Now the Emir had upped the ante. What he was asking for was bold and dangerous- but if it worked, it could firmly establish the Emir as the leader of the Islamic world and Illahi as the greatest national hero of Pakistan ever.
Yes, he decided, he would go ahead with it. His generals were competent and more importantly, would carry out his orders. His purges following the coup had ensured that any officer who tried to rock the boat would soon find his career destroyed. Illahi had found several strong allies in the Army, especially the fanatical Lt. General Tariq Ahmed, who headed a special wing of Pakistan's elite Special Security Group. In the initial struggle for power, Tariq and his handpicked SSG commandos had proved decisive.
While Tariq had refused the offer of being made Chief of Army Staff, preferring to carry on his `holy orders' on the field, he remained one of the key figures in the military hierarchy and was also given independent charge of a wing of Pakistani's intelligence arm, the Inter Services Intelligence. Tariq's men would now once again come in handy, mused Illahi as he sat down. Illahi also realized that he indeed did not have much time.
He opened his drawer and took out the brown envelope, which he must have opened at least a thousand times over the past six months- hoping each time that by some miracle, the contents would change. He decided that the Emir's call was indeed a divine sign- now he could at least fulfill some higher purpose before his time came.
Illahi did not sleep that night, as he sat in his study, thinking up what would form the core elements of his plan. He had at the most eight months to do it- as then snow would render most of the mountain passes impassable- and he would do it. He knew he would not get a second chance.
News is the first rough draft of history. - Ben Bradlee
The alarm seemed to ring forever. Pooja fumbled around in the dark, sending the much-battered clock tumbling to the ground with a resounding crash. That woke her up. As she got up she marveled at the abuse the clock had endured over the years. It had been her constant companion for the last ten years, from before her days in college. She wryly wondered that this clock had lasted longer than any of her boyfriends over those years.
Before doing anything else, she reached for the cordless phone at her bedside and dialed a number. There was no answer for over a minute. But she didn't seem surprised or perturbed- it was a part of everyday life- a routine she had long gotten used to. She mentally started counting, one hangover, two hangover. As she reached five hangover, a groggy voice appeared at the other end.
`Uh, who is this?'
`Good morning, Rahul.'
`Hey boss, not today. You were at the party as well.'
`Yes Rahul- but you were the one who decided that all the booze in the world was going to disappear and you had one night in which to finish it. Plus, you're at some party every night- so forget it. Get up, we have work to do.'
`See you at eight, slave.'
Pooja slammed the phone down and jumped off her bed. Her bedroom was a study in chaos- the only areas which did not have clothes or newspaper clippings strewn on them were the huge bookshelf crammed with books and a computer table with a PC on it. As a journalist, Pooja realized that it was critical for her to do two things- anticipate things before they actually occurred, and read up to know enough about the background to have a meaningful analysis when the news finally broke. The rest of her flat was equally bohemian- a small living room with a TV, and a kitchen. She had never bought a dining table, preferring to eat by her computer, while she surfed the Net.
She stood in front of her bathroom mirror, brushing her teeth. She reminded herself that she needed a new tube of toothpaste as she squeezed with all he strength to get some paste out of the tube on the shelf. She showered and shampooed, and as she toweled off, she cursed herself for not having exercised for a week. Work was about all she managed to get into her life right now. Every once in a while, her mother would call, pleading with her to marry a `good' boy, whatever that meant. Pooja did not want to be like most of her friends, for whom marriage was a routine thing, something to be done because `it was time', which Pooja always found ridiculous. It made marriage seem about as exciting as a haircut. There had never been a shortage of boys wanting to woo her. At twenty-eight, she was clearly very attractive with her slim body, chiseled face and long, black hair, and managed to turn heads wherever she went. But, as she had found, most men felt quite threatened by her combination of looks and strong professional ambition. There was no way she was going to compromise on the way she wanted to live her life. Her mother's parting shot was that the day she found a man she truly loved, it would not seem like a compromise at all.
Well, that was yet to happen. At the age of twenty-one, she had started off with a leading newspaper as a journalist. Within a couple of years, however, she had chucked it for what seemed to be the more glamorous world of TV journalism. `I want to be there when the news is being made, not write about it later', she had explained to her editor before putting in her papers. Her father, a retired journalist, had opposed her move to the `sensationalist media', but she had gone ahead, and had never regretted her decision.
Pooja put on jeans and a white T-shirt and rushed down to the parking lot. It was still relatively chilly, but even the severest of Mumbai winters never really required anything heavier.
She had joined WNS- a mega media conglomerate that had been formed with the merger of several of the old news channels in 2010. In her first year, she had risen to become a senior journalist- and now had a cameraman of her own- Rahul. Maverick, wild and absolutely brilliant- those were the words anyone used to describe Rahul. He had once jumped into a burning building after a bomb explosion a year ago to capture the news as it broke- but then when he saw the maimed victims crying out for help, he had ditched his camera and helped them out. It had cost him his job, but he couldn't have cared less- that was when WNS had hired him, at Pooja's insistence.
Pooja stopped her old Fiat Uno outside Rahul's fourth floor apartment and dialed his number on her cell phone.
Before she could utter a single word, Rahul shouted out, `Boss, gimme a break- I'm coming down in a minute. If you want it any faster, I'll have to jump from the window.'
Pooja watched Rahul sprint down the stairs to her car. Large and stocky, Rahul was only a year younger than her- but insisted on calling her Boss. It was uncharacteristic of Rahul, who viewed hierarchy with undisguised contempt, but reflected the real respect and affection he felt for her. He accepted as part of his job protecting the little stripling of a woman who seemed to never bother about how much trouble she might be running into.
He slumped into the passenger seat, dressed in what was his usual attire- old jeans and T-shirt, topped off with long hair and four-day-old stubble. Whenever Pooja made one of her futile attempts to convince him to expand his wardrobe beyond a single pair of jeans and to get a haircut, he would point to a global conspiracy involving jean manufacturers and barbers. It was hard to argue with logic like that.
Pooja started the car, grateful that the engine caught on the first attempt. The car had been a gift from her father, and though she would probably never admit it in public, her hanging on to the old car was her way of showing her affection for her father, though relations between them had never been very good. Her father had always sought to cast her in a mold of his choice, and perhaps because of this, she had always ended up rebelling against him.
`So which grease ball are we tailing today?' Rahul asked between swigs of a Coke can, which much to the immense annoyance of his mother, had served as his breakfast ever since he joined college.
The question was a running joke between the two. Pooja had asked for a transfer to the glamorous foreign desk- but in a bureaucratic snafu, had been rotated to the home desk. So instead of covering breaking international news, she was usually on the trail of India's politicians as they went about their venal ways. The editor had promised her a transfer out in three months, but that seemed like a very long time away.
'Yeah. Grease ball numero uno.' Another large swig. Pooja looked at Rahul and laughed out loud. `Rahul, it's amazing how a human being can stay alive without any solid food. They should lock you up in a lab or something.'
`It's simple, Boss. The cola gives me the calories I need, and the booze kind of kills all the germs. It's actually good for health. Serious.'
For the last week, they had been following a lead on Ram Sharan, a senior minister in the new cabinet. They had nothing firm yet, but their source had sworn that Sharan was regularly accepting bribes in money and kind for dispensing favors to large industrial houses. He was the weak link in an otherwise relatively clean government, and his appointment reflected the kind of electoral compromises the new government had had to make to come to power.
`Which way, Rahul?
'Hotel Sea Princess- just keep going towards Juhu.'
It was a fifteen-minute drive from Rahul's house in Bandra to the hotel where Sharan was supposed to be staying. As the car pulled into the parking lot, Pooja pulled out her writing pad where she had scribbled the information her source had given her.
The two got out and sat on a bench about twenty meters from the main door, obscured by a large tree. `So, what do we expect, Boss?'
`Get ready to shoot- if this is to be believed, we're in for the biggest scoop in WNS history, or our careers at least.'
Rahul took out the small Handycam from a bag in the back seat. `There, Rahul! Right on time.'
`Whoa, Boss- that's Karan Ambujee.'
Oblivious to Pooja and Rahul's presence a few meters away, the elder scion of one of India's largest business families entered the hotel. Tall, elegant and dignified looking, he was supposed to epitomize India's emerging class of global businessmen. Well, corruption is a global thing, I guess, Rahul thought as Ambujee entered the hotel.
`What do you think he's got in the briefcase?'
`According to the source, about fifty lakhs in cash.'
`Whoa. Must be a big deal if Karan Ambujee is here himself. Who is this source anyway?'
`Don't know- and really don't care. He's probably some rival of either of these two jokers. That's the way with these scums.' The two entered the hotel and checked the room Sharan was staying in.
`What now, Boss. We can't just walk in with the camera running.'
`Don't know. We'll think of something, we still have one floor to go. Let's get there and take it as it comes'
Rahul had long gotten used to Pooja's style of functioning. She would rush into any situation where there was likely to be news- but never believed in planning too much in advance. That was fine with him- he was not much of a planner himself.
Ram Sharan got out of bed and looked wistfully at the girl next to him. She was still asleep and stirred a bit as Sharan reached over to fondle her one last time. He reminded himself that he would be very nice to the Ambujees. Girls like this one were rare. He looked at the bathroom mirror and sighed at the sight of his corpulent frame- he would need to go on that much planned diet soon. A life of overindulgence in rich food and alcohol had not left him in very good shape at all.
As the bell rang, he threw on a robe and went to the door, expecting Karan Ambujee, but was instead greeted by a very large waiter with a lopsided grin on his face. `Yes- what do you want?'
`Sorry to disturb you sir- but I just wanted to clean up the room service trays in the sitting area.'
`No, no. I'm expecting guests.'
`Sir, it'll only take five minutes.'
Sharan did not want to waste any time talking to a waiter, and finally gave in. `Okay- go ahead, but make it fast.'
Sharan went back to the bathroom to get dressed, not paying much attention to this unexpected interruption.
He heard the door close as the waiter left and a minute later the bell rang again. When he opened the door, a smiling Karan Ambujee was waiting for him, a large briefcase in hand
Rahul had now returned to the corridor where Pooja was sitting, munching on a biscuit. Trust her never to miss her breakfast. `Boss, just how illegal is all this? So far we've flicked an uniform, a housekeeping trolley and have invaded someone's privacy.'
`Rahul, this man is not just anyone- he's an elected representative of the people. If he's fooling around and betraying their trust- they and we have a right to know. What are you smiling at?'
`Nothing Boss- just love it when you get all angry and stuff. Just hope you keep your sense of humor when we get chucked out.'
`Get ready. You'll have to do your waiter act again soon.' Less than ten minutes later, Ambujee, Sharan and an attractive young girl came out of the room. Rahul waited thirty seconds and went in to get his Handycam, which he had left concealed behind a vase while `cleaning' the room.
The swirling desert sand made visibility beyond a few dozen yards almost impossible. To the casual observer, there could not possibly be any sane man out in this inhospitable terrain.
The quiet of the desert was shattered by what sounded like the roar of some pre-historic beastsas powerful engines revved to life. Then, out of the mist emerged four monsters of steel- racing through the desert at over fifty kilometers an hour, belying their fifty-ton weights.
Colonel Dev Chauhan looked through his scope at the enemy tanks swarming across the battlefield. His troop of four Arjun tanks had just emerged from behind two large sand dunes. He had spent the last five minutes waiting for the enemy to swallow the bait he had offered, but it had seemed like an eternity of waiting. Racing ahead of the enemy tanks, he could just make out the two BMP armored vehicles he had sent out as a feint. The plan was simple- let the enemy think the BMPs were lead elements of the main force, and have them lead the enemy into a trap.
As an enemy tank filled his scope, he gave the order to fire, and watched the high explosive shot track into the enemy vehicle.
`That's a hit!'
The gunner had already selected his next round with the automatic loading system on the tank by the time Chauhan found his next target- an armored personnel carrier just 1500 meters away.
The enemy tanks had by now been alerted to their presence and were swiveling their guns to attack Chauhan's position. The four fifty ton monsters raced out of their position at the enemy, firing on the move. Chauhan's tank claimed two more kills before the fighting stopped with the enemy retreating.
Chauhan had walked the enemy into a perfect ambush- for the loss of two tanks; his troop had destroyed nine enemy vehicles and blunted the attack. It had been only a mock battle, played out in India's Thar Desert to hone their skills, but in a real war, the losers would all be dead. That realization made the lessons learnt very real.
The rest of the crews came out of their tanks, cheering, but were forced back in to take cover from the sand being whipped around by the wind. Chauhan, however, stood alone in a corner, watching the retreating enemy. The wind swept past his body and whipped sand into his face, caking his eyebrows and moustache. But the young officer had only one thought in his mind- I still have it in me.
`This is dynamite stuff, Pooja! How in God's name did you manage this?'
`Tsk, tsk, Boss- a magician never tells.'
Rahul watched in fascination with the station chief sitting wide eyed in front of the television as they watched Sharan accept a suitcase and then open it to reveal neatly stacked 500 Rupee notes. The audio was as devastating; with Sharan promising Ambujee inside information on bids given by rival groups for the new building projects the government was sponsoring to house Mumbai's teeming slum dwellers. The project was worth billions, and Sharan obviously believed there was nothing wrong in helping himself to a small bit.
The balding Station Chief, Mr. Dasgupta, was literally jumping with excitement. `This goes on air tonight- Pooja, you've got the lead story.'
He picked up the phone to issue a series of rapid-fire instructions, which in essence said everything else could wait, this goes on air TONIGHT.
Pooja turned towards Rahul; barely able to conceal her excitement- and saw him sipping yet another can of Coke.
As Chauhan walked back to the mess- he knew the guys from the 14th cavalry regiment were going to be in a foul mood. They had come down to Chauhan's regimental HQs in Bikaner to train with them- and had been comprehensively drubbed in the afternoon's war games played out in the arid expanse of India's Thar Desert.
Almost all eyes turned towards Chauhan as he entered the mess. As Chauhan looked into the eyes of the men he faced, he knew what he saw. To a man, they would acknowledge Chauhan as one of the best tank commanders in the Indian Army. Yet. Yet- that was one word Chauhan had been trying to live down for the past two years.
Tall and strapping, he had bucked the family tradition of joining the Infantry to join India's armored corps. His first assignment had been on the Russian made T-72, three of which he had `killed' in the war games. His initial years in the army had been picture perfect- till that fateful evening in the desert.
It had been a slow climb back, and the wounds had not healed yet.
Chauhan tried to push the thoughts to the back of his mind as he went to his room. Yet he wondered if his life, and career, would ever be the same again.
Khosla started in disbelief at the images flickering on the TV screen in his office. `Oh my God!'
He sat upright with a jolt- he could have sworn he had felt a real, physical electric shock. The sudden movement sent his dinner scattering all over the carpet, but right now he had far bigger concerns than a stained rug.
`This is Pooja Bhatnagar signing off for WNS'. No sooner had the news story ended that Khosla reached for his telephone to call his Home Minister.
`Have you watched WNS News? Well, switch the goddamn TV on!'
There was a perceptible tremor in the Home Minister's voice as he answered. He had been one of the key drivers of Sharan's entry into the cabinet, in the face of much reluctance from Khosla.
`Vivek. I had no idea....'
Khosla cut him off in mid-sentence. `I told you I wanted nothing to do with these crooks. I'm going to have a meeting of the cabinet called tomorrow morning- and I want a public statement that we're expelling Sharan and that the law should take its own course.'
`Vivek, we need to talk this.....'
`Nothing doing, Prasad. You've heard me- I hope I don't have to repeat myself.'
`God. I'm sure things just couldn't get any worse', Khosla said to nobody in particular as he sank back into his couch.
He was very, very wrong.
Naik Subeer Singh raised his night vision scopes again- yet again he saw nothing. He knew he was probably being paranoid, but something just didn't feel right tonight. Come to think of it, things had gone crazy on the border for the last month. Incursions and firings were always a part of life, but these had taken on a whole new dimension in recent days- firing by regular Pakistani troops had subsided, but incursions by heavily armed Afghan mercenaries had become almost a daily event. Completely different from the Kashmiri terrorists Singh and his men had been fighting for years, these Mujahideen were battle hardened and fanatical mercenaries who wanted to expand their jihad to India. The past few years had done much to shatter the myth of their invincibility, when in the face of overwhelming US firepower and rage following the World Trade Center attacks, they had chosen to run and hide, instead of even trying to make a fight of it. Except now the fuckers seem to be crawling out of the woodwork all of a sudden, Singh thought.
Well, let them come. Singh held the terrorists in utter disdain. Coming from a family that had sent men to the Indian Army for five generations, the thought of becoming a paid killer who attacked unarmed civilians was abhorrent. In the exchanges so far, the mujahideen had come off distinctly second best to the Indian Army, but had caused havoc among the poorly trained and armed local police force and paramilitaries.
`Ready', Singh whispered to his men as he noticed some movement in the rocks ahead. He turned off the safety on his rifle and aimed at where he thought he'd seen some men. He mentally readied himself for the telltale rattle of a Kalashnikov, the favored weapon of the mujahideen. The thought that the mujahideen could for once be packing more than twenty-year-old assault rifles never even crossed his mind. That error would be fatal.
Suddenly, the quiet of the night was shattered as two Chinese made NORINCO Red Arrow anti tank missiles streaked towards the Indian army post.
These missiles were designed to defeat the strongest tank armor in the world. They sliced through the sandbags and rocks of Singh's bunker like hot needles through butter, and exploded inside, showering the post with red-hot fragments of steel. Singh barely had time to duck as the rockets struck.
When he got up, of the six men with him, only two remained alive, both badly wounded. Singh tried to wish away the pain and the warm wet feeling along the side of his face as he bought his rifle up, bayonet attached. He looked up to see six men rushing at his post, guns blazing. He had been deafened by the explosions, otherwise he would have heard the sound of gunfire accompanied by cries of `Allah ho Akbar'.
Singh braced himself and took aim. If he was going to die, he would take a few of the bastards with him to Hell.
It is from the character of our adversary's position that we can draw conclusions as to his designs and will therefore act accordingly. - Karl Von Clausewitz, On War
`Do we have even more bad news today?' It was an unnecessary question from the Indian Prime Minister. He had barely slept at all over the past two days, and it was telling in his blood-shot eyes. He knew the same held for his entire National Security Council, now seated around the table with him.
`Mujahideen have made four more incursions in the last week', the Chief of Army Staff spoke up, `We've lost a dozen troops over the weekend and there's no letting up'.
The NSC knew that Khosla was in a foul mood. He was walking along the breadth of the room, with his characteristic occasional clap that meant little, except to signify that he was deep in thought.
`What the hell's happening? Has Illahi lost his mind- why the hell does he want war now?' Khosla nearly shouted.
Gireesh Joshi, the erudite, soft spoken Intelligence Chief spoke up, `In a conventional war, we're bound to get the upper hand, and so far the only insurance they had was the threat of nuclear retaliation. But if they used nukes, so would we, so it was a nice stalemate. Their current belligerence makes sense only if something fundamental has changed to upset that equation'.
`The only way this makes sense is if the Pakistanis have got some sort of assured first strike ability or a reliable anti-missile system. And neither of them has happened', the Air Chief cut in.
`None that we know of, Sen and there's a world of difference between the two'.
Khosla looked up at the remark from his Intelligence Chief. In addition to the already thankless task of being Prime Minister of the world's largest, and by far, most complex, democracy, Khosla also held the Defense portfolio for now. The previous incumbent, a vigorous but old stalwart, had been laid low by sudden heart related complications, and till Khosla could find a suitable replacement, he was double hatted. With crowns of thorns, he thought.
`Point taken, Joshi. Let's ensure we aren't caught with our pants down. I want our forces on an enhanced level of alert. I want a review of the correlation of forces, and I want it by tomorrow morning.'
The Service Chiefs exchanged glances, knowing that they, and their staff, all had a long night ahead. But they were thankful too. After seeing dozens of Indian politicians rising to the rank of Defense Minister with little or no understanding of defense issues, and very little sympathy for the soldier's cause, Khosla had come as a breath of fresh air. Though he had never served in uniform, Khosla was convinced that while economic progress was the top item on his agenda, there would be no compromise on national security. Within months of coming to office, he had acquired a high degree of familiarity with issues facing the services and also the weapon systems and tactics they used. His large library included most of the military classics ranging from Von Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu, to the latest editions of the Jane's series.
Khosla looked at his Foreign Secretary. `Also, Guha, set up a call with Illahi as soon as you can. Joshi, find out if he's got something up his sleeve that we don't know about', the Prime Minister summed up and left the room.
The members of the NSC got up, wondering why this had to happen on a Friday evening, of all days.
Vice Admiral Ramnath was a worried man. At fifty-nine, he thought himself a bit too old to go out and play cowboy again- but here he was. He cut the image of the stereotypical sailor; with his salt and pepper beard and his spotless white Navy uniform. He had seen combat up close and personal, and was old enough to know that no war movie could ever capture the sheer terror and adrenaline rush of combat. Over thirty years ago, as a rookie pilot in the Navy, he had flown Sea Hawks off India's aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant, to attack targets in East Pakistan. He still remembered that heady cocktail of terror and exhilaration while zigzagging along the narrow rivers of Bangladesh, shooting up gunboats, squirming in his cockpit as tracers reached out at his plane, and exulting when his shots hit home.
Now he commanded the pride of the Indian Navy, the INS Vikramaditya, acquired just two years ago from Russia, where it had been born as the Admiral Gorshkov. The Vikramaditya was a powerful ship- the 44000 tonne behemoth was by far the largest ship in any Navy in Asia, and it's formidable air defenses and complement of MiG-29K fighters would give any adversary a nightmare. The acquisition had been a long and tortuous process, more than once threatening to be derailed or lost in the red tape and confusion that epitomized any defense deal with the chaos that Russia's once vaunted defense industry had been reduced to. Ramnath had played a leading role in ensuring that the acquisition pulled through, and was convinced that the future of war lay in control of the sea-lanes.
Ramnath and his task force were currently about 300 kilometers off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan's major port. They had been taking part in routine exercises, when a flash cable had warned them to increase the level of alert. With increasing tension in Kashmir, the Indian Government wanted to make sure that there was nothing left to chance. Ramnath hoped that war wouldn't break out- with both India and Pakistan having nuclear weapons; war wasn't something to look forward to. But if it did come to that, he wanted to make sure that he and ship were ready.
`Okay, let's run another ASW drill- we were almost killed last time', Ramnath growled to his Anti Submarine Warfare officer. The young man cringed and got back to his display. Ramnath knew that he could not take any chances now- he was responsible not only for his own life but for a dozen ships, and thousands of lives.
Ramnath walked out to the flight deck to see a Kamov 31 helicopter take off. The stubby Russian made helicopter hovered briefly before flying to its station about fifty kilometers ahead of the carrier. The Kamov was a `poor man's AWACS', but its on-board radar and computers gave it a powerful ability to detect any incoming air or surface threats before they could come close to the Indian carrier. The Kamov was followed by two Sea King helicopters, which would simulate a hunt for the deadly Pakistani Agosta submarines.
As this aerial ballet was carried out with deadly precision, Ramnath looked at the seemingly endless expanse of blue sea before him. A deceptive calm, beneath which he knew death lurked at every turn.
`What do you make of this stuff on the border, Boss?' Rahul's question was barely audible, being muttered between huge bites of his burger. If I eat solid, it better be meat, he had offered by way of explanation for this dramatic deviation from his normal diet.
Pooja and Rahul were seated outside one of Mumbai's many McDonald's outlets. Their newfound celebrity status after the Sharan Scandal was not lost on them, as many patrons paused to stare at them.
One little girl walked up to Pooja, and pointed at her saying, `TV auntie.' A sharp growl from Rahul sent her scurrying to the safety of her mother.
Pooja laughed at another expression of Rahul's professed hatred for children.
`I'm not sure, Rahul. The new government in Pakistan has been a bit loony- but I don't know why they would want to escalate matters now. I don't think they'd go too far- they probably bred themselves a few more mujahideen than they could handle and are sending them over here to keep them busy.'
'Yeah- that's probably it, Boss. See I knew you'd know. The papers are all full of shit.'
`I wouldn't be too sure, Rahul. Things can go crazy real fast. Wanna eat my French fries? You seem to be hungry today.'
`Illahi, what the hell is going on', Guha cringed as the Prime Minister screamed over the speakerphone. As a seasoned diplomat and the newly appointed Foreign Secretary, he knew it wasn't good form to scream at other Heads of State, but nothing would calm the PM down this morning.
The latest wave of attacks that had begun almost a month ago had continued unabated, claiming over a hundred Indian casualties. After the first few attacks, the Indians had got alerted, and given back as good as they got- the most notable victory being during a show of misplaced bravado by a dozen Mujahideen when they charged a post manned by eight Gurkhas. It had come down to hand-to-hand combat and the Gurkhas had massacred the Mujahideen with their khukris, suffering only three casualties. But it had not been as good across the border and the Mujahideen had overrun several posts before withdrawing across the line of control to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
Illahi's coarse voice wafted over the speakerphone.
`Vivek, calm down. I assure you that Pakistan has nothing to do with this. This is the act of Muslim youth who are unable to tolerate the injustices being heaped on their brethren in Kashmir. I cannot stop them- though I have ordered increased police presence on the border'.
As the two men talked, the sharp contrast between them was apparent. Illahi was a man with only rudimentary higher education, having just completed high school before joining the army. He had come from a poor family, the only son of a security guard. His background reflected in his coarse and halting English, which contrasted sharply with Khosla's sophisticated, clipped tone. Today, however, Khosla was pulling no punches. Also, the members of the NSC noticed, Khosla insisted on carrying on only in English, a language Illahi was uncomfortable with, and which only put him further on the backfoot.
Which idiot once said that this man doesn't understand realpolitik, Joshi mused as he watched his Prime Minister's verbal duel continue.
`Illahi, hear me out. This has happened before. Or have you forgotten 1948 and 1965, when your `youth' had just created the groundwork for regular troops. We will not tolerate this invasion of our sovereignty, and if your forces step in, we will retaliate. For God's sake, we both have nuclear weapons now, why would you want to bring our countries to the brink of destruction?'
`Vivek, we give wholehearted moral support to these youth, but are not intervening militarily. And you have no proof either way. So please keep your threats to yourself.'
`Whew, that was some tough talking', Joshi commented as Khosla almost threw the phone down.
`Okay guys, if it comes to war, how ready are we?'
`Sir, we can be ready to fight in a couple of days. We've just finished the summer combined arms exercises, and we're as ready for battle as we'll get', the Army Chief, Baldev Randhawa summed up. He had the thick accent typical of his native state of Punjab and had reached the top post after a thirty-five year career in the infantry. He was by far the most hawkish of the Service Chiefs, and his heroics in the Kargil conflict had ensured that everyone knew that he had the bite to match his bark.
`The Air Force is ready to go. Our fighter and strike squadrons in the Western and South Western Command are at a ten minute alert status, and our air defense is on full alert', Sen spoke up in his characteristic drawl. In sharp contrast to the big and beefy Randhawa, Sen had a slight build and spoke in a slightly anglicized accent, which often aroused the derision and amusement of his peers. However, there was no such reaction to his professional capabilities- he had had an outstanding service record as a fighter pilot, and was particularly known for not standing for any bureaucracy and political interference. His career had been on the chopping block after he had stood up to the previous government over delays in approval for critical spare parts for the Air Force's aging MiG fighters. One of the first things Khosla had done on coming to power was to resurrect Sen's career.
`The Vikramaditya task force is just off Karachi anyway, and we have two Kilos shadowing the Pak fleet in Karachi. If it comes to war, the Pakistani Navy will have a short and exciting life'
Raman had spent much of his professional life in submarines, commanding the Indian Navy's first operational squadron in the 1970s. He had commanded every class of submarine the Indian Navy ever had- the now retired Foxtrots, the German designed Type 209 and the even more modern Kilos.
`The Kilo is one of the most difficult submarines to detect in the world. Ever since things started getting hot, we moved two boats off Karachi harbor. Their brief is to lie low and observe the Pak Navy. If war breaks out, they're to sink their capital ships before they get out into the open seas. What does worry me is their submarine fleet- their Agostas are superb boats, and their sub drivers are right up there with the best in the business. We'll be watching them closely- if Pakistan is up to anything aggressive, I would bet on the Agostas being their first punch at sea.'
Khosla looked briefly at the papers in front of him, not really reading anything, but taking in all the pieces of information, trying to make some sense of how they could fit together.
`All this is fine, but why the hell would he want war? Joshi, any progress?'
The Oxford educated bureaucrat spoke in his usual clipped accent, but the tensions of the past few days, and his highly overweight frame ensured that he was constantly wiping perspiration from his forehead.
Khosla always enjoyed Joshi's precise analysis, but sometimes he felt that his Intelligence Chief was just a bit too mechanical, like a computer rattling off responses.
`Well, Sir, we've had three MiG-25 recon flights over Pakistan last night- plus we've got satellite photographs from the latest IRS pass. There's nothing to suggest that they have any new or unknown anti-missile systems in place. That leaves one option- they've found a way to neutralize our nuclear capability.'
`Or Joshi, they believe they can engineer circumstances that would ensure neither side uses nuclear weapons.'
Karim was getting very uncomfortable with the kind of talk he was hearing around the table. It had been nearly two months since that fateful telephone call from the Emir, and now Illahi was laying out the broad strokes of his plan to execute the Emir's directive. The plan terrified Karim. As the Air Chief, he and his men would carry out much of what Illahi had envisioned- and the very thought chilled him to the bone.
He noted that Illahi had left many details vague and had really elaborated only upon what he expected his armed forces to achieve. Some way to motivate a professional soldier- don't even trust him. Or do you have something so dirty up your sleeve that you're afraid to tell us openly?
`So it's pre-ordained- the day is near when we shall restore glory to our Quam and liberate our brethren in Kashmir', Illahi said with a flourish that would not have been out of place had he been posing for the camera.
Illahi had really dressed up for the occasion. While he usually did wear khakis, today he had dug out his stars and was standing with all his medals and decorations on his chest.
Karim looked at this display with more than a little distaste. Illahi had never been in battle, and had he stayed in the Army as a professional soldier, would not have risen far. Most of his stars and decorations had followed his ascendance to political power. Karim looked around the table at the other Service Chiefs and thought he saw similar feelings in their eyes. None of them, however uttered a word as Illahi continued speaking
Tariq maintained his usual stoic silence, standing in a corner, his massive bulk obscuring much of the view out of the window. As Illahi finished and was about to sit down, a single voice broke the silence of the room.
`But Illahi, this is madness- surely you don't want to risk a nuclear exchange- why should we risk millions of innocent lives because of your visions of grandeur and that old mad Emir'. Everyone turned to the speaker, General Babar. Babar had retired in the late 90s but due to his glorious career and staunch patriotism, had remained a key advisor to the military leadership. Even Illahi's purges had not dared touch Babar, something Illahi was beginning to regret now.
`Illahi, I too have fought for my Quam, and have shed and spilled blood for it. But there's no glory in setting out on such a foolish quest'
`You are getting old and tired, Babar, war is not for the faint-hearted. You worry about nuclear weapons, well, the Indians dare not use them first, and we will not give them any reason to'.
`Illahi, you know we cannot win an outright victory in a purely conventional slugging match. And this plan that you seem to have worked out with the Emir is just too risky. If anything goes wrong, we're standing at the threshold of using nuclear weapons. Moreover, you're not even telling us everything. You can't expect us to walk our forces, our families and our whole nation into something without knowing what's going on.'
`You do not need to know everything- and I do not need to tell you everything. Just put your trust in Allah and me and set out on this noble mission. If you cannot bring yourself to do it, then I have no need for you'.
`So be it', and to everyone's horror, Babar got up and left the room.
Babar sat down with his daily peg of whisky in front of his television. He savored the rich taste of the scotch as he tried to forget all that had happened over the day. The alcohol got him thinking of the day's events again. The imposition of prohibition in the Pakistani Army in the early Eighties had in fact been a signal of far reaching changes. It had marked the gradual transition from an Army created on British traditions- the Army Babar had joined, to an Army that was part of the larger Islamic establishment that was being created in Pakistan, which was the Army that had created the likes of Ilahi and Tariq.
That bastard Illahi, his madness was going to bring ruin to the whole country! Babar drifted off to sleep, old memories of burning tanks and dying friends coming back to him. He had long lost his wife to cancer, and his son was settled in the Gulf. After the day's happenings, the old soldier felt for the first time that he had very little to live for anymore.
He was awakened by a slight noise outside- a noise his trained ears recognized as the snapping of a magazine into a rifle. It had been a long time, but Babar's fitness could put men half his age to shame- and he raced to his drawer and pulled out his Guernica .25 pistol. Smaller than a man's palm, the Guernica was not a weapon to kill with at long range, but at short range, it could be deadly. There was now no time for calling the police or others for help, but he was determined to make this as difficult as possible for his attackers. The first thing he did was to switch on all the lights in the drawing room and then he hid behind a bulky cabinet in a far corner of the room.
The four gunmen were now almost at the door. They were hired mercenaries and were hardly the best choice for this kind of job, which required stealth and precision. But they would have to do- it would be unthinkable for Tariq to get Army commandos involved in this operation. The first man kicked the door open and rushed inside, his AK-47 on full automatic.
Babar now saw what he was up against. One on one, he was sure he could have dispatched these rogues even at this age, but the odds were clearly against him.
All four attackers were now inside, having emptied nearly two hundred rounds in a futile burst that had destroyed the TV and completely shredded the sofas. As they paused to reload, Babar made his move. He emerged from behind the cabinet, the Guernica blazing. Three rounds caught the nearest man, who went down in a heap. Two others nicked another, who screamed and dove for cover. Before the others could return fire, Babar had run up the stairs and taken a new defensive position.
`Get that old bastard!'
Firing from their rifles, the gunmen advanced towards Babar's hiding place, the steady volley of bullets pinning him down. They stopped after a minute, realizing they had their quarry trapped.
`There's no hope now, old man, you're going to die!'
Babar knew that was true- he had made a big mistake by running towards a culvert on the second floor. Now he was trapped- to emerge from the cavity under the stairs where he had hidden himself would expose him to his attackers, and there was nowhere else to run.
The old soldier reached his decision quickly. He snapped a new magazine into his gun and burst out of his position, firing at his attackers.
The gunmen were taken unawares, and one of them fell, before the two others returned fire. A burst of rifle fire caught Babar in his stomach, turning him around and throwing him across the room. The last thing Babar did was to empty his magazine into the nearest attacker's chest.
It had been yet another meeting of the NSC with a lot of speculation, but very little in the way of hard facts. With the rest of the NSC gone, Khosla could speak more freely to Joshi. Khosla ordered a couple of cups of tea and waited for the servant to leave before he locked the door.
`So, Joshi- what we said in the meeting was all we could before the others- but what about the Patriot? Doesn't he have anything to add to what we know?'
`No, Sir- for once, things are moving too fast. He hasn't really had a chance to tap his sources in Islamabad. But I wouldn't bet on his being out of the know for too long- remember he's the guy who gave us a week's warning before the Pakistani coup. As soon as he sends any message, I'll get it directly to you.'
Khosla sat down heavily, as if the worries were physical forces bearing down on him. He had considered the reactivation of the Patriot carefully, and after much discussion with Joshi, decided to go ahead. If there ever was a situation when India needed the Patriot's help, this was it.
`Good. Just remember, as usual, no one else gets in the loop.'
Illahi paced up and down his office- almost oblivious to the presence of his Chiefs of Staff. That old fool had almost spoiled everything. But now nothing would stand in his way. He would finally fulfill his destiny. His plan was perfect- it had to work. `Okay gentlemen, let's commence the first phase of our Jihad.' The generals, still in a state of shock from the news of Babar's death at the hand of `robbers', nodded and left the room.
Karim could almost hear his heart pounding in his chest. He had known Ilahi to be a ruthless son of a bitch, but he could never imagine his one time friend stooping to murder. He wondered if Ilahi had been involved in it, or it had been Tariq's own initiative- and then decided that it realty didn't matter after all. Pakistan was being thrown headlong into a war. Once everyone had left, Illahi looked at Tariq, still standing where he had been for the past two hours.
`Tariq, the ball's in your court. Don't fail me.'
The big soldier grinned.
If we are the invaders, we may direct our attack against the Sovereign himself. - Sun Tzu
Khosla finally retired to bed at midnight. Before hitting the bed, he combed his hair in front of the mirror. If probed, he could never give a logical explanation of this habit of his, except that it was something he had done for as long back as he could remember.
As he lay down, it was one of those rare moments when he regretted never having married. Having someone to talk to would be great just about now. He had had only one serious affair in his youth, but the relationship could not stand the strain imposed by the twin hectic schedules of a banker and a politician, both determined to reach the top of their careers. He smiled wistfully as he remembered his mother's frantic advice to him, `Who'll look after you in your old age?'
He had ambitions of reading the day's intelligence summaries, but was way too tired. He fell asleep within seconds of hitting the bed. Being the Prime Minister of the world's largest, and possibly, most chaotic democracy was bad enough. Adding on the threat of nuclear war was more than any man could be expected to bear.
Naik Iqbal Dar checked his rifle again. It was a worthy cause to die for, but the prospect of impending death could stop the bravest man in his tracks. He had been in the Police for almost six years, but the bitter memories of the past had not left him. He still remembered the day when his father and brother had died- shot down by Indian troops as they tried to run. He remembered his rage and desire for revenge. He remembered the Afghan who had befriended him and taught him to channelize his anger, taught him that one day he would avenge his father and brother thousands of times over. He remembered being asked to join the Indian Police under a false name, and with forged records. He remembered the hours of training and lies the Indian government told him about his homeland, Kashmir.
The Afghan had not contacted him for years, and he was surprised to see him at his doorstep a couple of months ago. When the Afghan heard that Iqbal had been posted to the elite guard unit outside the PM's house, he went nearly mad with joy and left, promising to return the next day with instructions.
Iqbal strode over to the PM's house, telling the Army commandos at the door that he wanted water. They brusquely motioned him to go to the back. Iqbal had practiced every day for a month for this, and things came to him automatically. The Afghan had promised him help, but he did not know what form it would take. For now, he was alone.
Iqbal whipped out his knife and slashed the throat of the nearest commando, who went down with blood spurting from his severed jugular; eyes wide open in shock and surprise. The second commando tried to raise his gun, but Iqbal's knife sliced through his ribs before he could shoot. Now there was no time to lose. Iqbal broke open the door and ran straight for the PM's bedroom, shooting down a servant who appeared in the doorway.
He jumped behind a pillar as a commando opened fire behind him, but as he looked around, he was surprised to see that the other commando, a man he recognized as Ahmed, was not firing at him, but at soldiers running towards the house, having been alerted by the gunfire.
The Afghan had not failed him.
Khosla woke with a start at the sound of gunfire. He got up off the bed and made a big mistake by opening his door to see what was happening. He found himself face to face with a man in a police uniform advancing towards him, assault rifle at the ready.
Khosla compounded his error by coming out into the corridor and walking towards the policeman, hoping he could clarify what was going on. To his horror, the policeman brought his rifle up to his shoulder and took aim at him. Before he could even process what was going on, let alone react in any way, Iqbal pulled the trigger.
Iqbal fired a three shot burst at Khosla from a range of ten feet. A bullet caught Khosla in the upper arm and spun him around, slamming him against the wall.
Khosla had never felt such intense pain before. As a much younger man, he had once had twenty stitches on his face after a disastrous attempt at go-karting. He had thought that was the most pain he had ever endured in his life. Compared to what he felt now, that had been a walk in the park. He somehow found the strength to roll over and face his attacker, slipping once in his own blood, which he realized was fast forming a small pool under him. Iqbal was now a mere six feet away and raising his gun to finish the job.
Khosla braced himself for what seemed to be inevitable death when in a blur of movement, his personal security guard, Ram Bhan, threw himself in the path of the bullets. Bhan had been trained to take the bullet for his PM, and he did not fail. Nobody would know if Ram Bhan had even considered what he was getting into. But in that split second he had to react, training and discipline came before conscious thought.
Iqbal cursed his luck as the Indian commando fell limply to the ground. Well, it wouldn't change anything- just delay things a bit. He advanced towards the prostrate figure of Khosla.
As a young man, Khosla had trained in the martial arts- but now he was over sixty, bleeding profusely from the bullet wound in his left arm, and facing a man armed with an assault rifle.
`How could you do this....'
Khosla had barely completed his question when Iqbal bought up his gun and pulled the trigger.
He cursed the gun and tried to fire again, but the damn gun had jammed. Well, it would have to be done with the knife. The firing behind him had stopped and he could hear footsteps coming up the stairs. He had no time to waste.
Bhan was dying. Iqbal's bullets had struck him in a wide arc, shredding much of his abdomen. But he had saved his PM from certain death. Now, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Iqbal approaching the fallen figure of Khosla, knife in hand.
`Remember Kashmir, dog', Iqbal was now a mere foot away from Khosla.
Perhaps it was the defiant look on Khosla's face, perhaps his training, or perhaps just anger at the sheer betrayal of trust he was witnessing- but something gave Ram Bhan a last burst of energy as he lunged across the corridor at Iqbal, his own commando knife in hand. Iqbal was taken by surprise as Ram's knife lodged into his ribs, and he fell back. Grimacing with pain, he flipped his own knife around in his hand and nearly decapitated the guard, but it was too late now. As he slowly stepped towards Khosla, a burst of fire from commandos clambering up the stairs caught him in the neck and face, spraying blood all over Khosla. The commandos rushed up the corridor to their Prime Minister to find him covered entirely in blood- Iqbal's, Ram Bhan's and his own, and lying quietly on the ground.
`Is he dead', asked a commando, shaking despite himself at the intense and unexpected firefight he had just been in.
`Get me up'
Those three words from Khosla galvanized the commandos into action as they helped him up and began calling for an ambulance.
Out of the corner of his eye, Iqbal saw Khosla being helped to his feet. His last thoughts were that he had completely failed in his mission.
He was wrong.
The MGF Metropolitan Mall in Gurgaon was jam packed with familes out to enjoy the weekend. There was a long queue at the ticket counter for the multiplex, and people jabbered excitedly at the prospect of watching the latest Bollywood blockbuster- a romantic potboiler starring the new queen of Bollywood, Deepika Padukone, acting opposite Hrithik Roshan.
The two men walked in almost unnoticed. Dressed casually in jeans and loose shirts, they could have passed for college students- and they were, in a way. Having studied in the Madarasas of Afghanistan, with their practical exams in the fields of Iraq and Kashmir, they were hardened Afghan warriors. They had been surveying the mall for weeks, and had learnt that the metal detectors were faulty, and were switched off most of the time. Bribes to a mall emplyee revealed that the detectors were due to be replaced in two days time. Till then, they were essentially very expensive pieces of useless furniture. That knowledge had sealed the choice of their target.
They walked past the rows of shops filled with the latest electronics and cosmetics and paused when they reached the crowded coffee shop in front of a book store. For a while, they looked like two students out to browse the latest bestsellers, but when they seemed to be making no move to buy anything for a while, a guard walked over to the duo. With the daily crowds at the mall, he had been trained to look for anything unusual. He didn't quite know what bothered him, but something about the duo didn't quite look right.
`Excuse me, Sir, looking for something particular?'
The men ignored him, continuing to study the crowd with interest.
The guard ambled away to check on a kid who seemed to be lost. When he looked back a minute later, the two men were still there. As he began walking towards them, one of them nodded to the other, and they pulled out AK-47 assault rifles from their duffel bags.
An old woman near them saw the guns and began screaming hysterically, but was stopped in mid-scream by a bullet to the throat.
The two men now began walking calmly through the corridor, shooting with deadly precision as they walked through the mall. People tried to hide behind counters or run away from the impending death, but in the press of the panicked crowd, only a handful succeeded.
Five policemen on duty across the road hastily threw away their lunches and rushed into a situation they were unprepared for. Armed with the old .303 rifles, which had long passed into antiquity, two of them were mowed down in the first burst. The others dove for cover and fired back. Two more fell before one of the terrorists died. The other terrorist hurled two grenades to add to the carnage before escaping outside.
The attack on the mall claimed thirty dead, and over double that number injured.
India Gate is located in the heart of New Delhi, an elegant and imposing monument erected in memory of the thousands of Indian soldiers who had died in the First World War. Since then, it had become a symbol of reverence for those who had given their lives in India's defence, and a lamp burnt continuously under the Gate's arch, as a testimony to the unknown soldier. The lush gardens and lakes around India Gate are also popular weekend picnic spots for families. This day was no exception, as children played cricket, lovers serenaded each other behind the bushes, and the elderly walked in the neatly trimmed grass, reminiscing about how much had changed in India's capital over the years.
What had not changed however was the proximity of India Gate to the nerve center of India's government, the North and South Block, housing the External Affairs Ministry and Home Ministry respectively. The two imposing red-bricked compounds were located on either side of the same road, a straight drive from India Gate.
Among the families at India Gate were gathered two young men. They had a large bag with them, and dressed in whites, people assumed they were young cricket players carrying their kit with them. Hiding behind a large bush, one of them looked through a small pair of binoculars, and smiled as he saw what he was waiting for.
Less than a kilometer away, a convoy of five white Ambassador cars left North Block and turned towards India Gate. The Ambassador was a fifty-year old design, and obsolete by any standards, but still made up the bulk of the Government of India's official fleet. In the third car of the convoy was seated Mani Tripathi, the head of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), who together with the Intelligence Bureau head, reported into Joshi. In other cars were commandos and more officials of the R&AW, headed for an urgent meeting called by Joshi after news of the attack on Khosla had broken, just a few hours ago. Word was still slowly filtering out of details of the attack, but in the prevailing chaos, nobody paid much attention to two young men out to play cricket.
As the convoy came within two hundred meters, the two men opened the bag to reveal two narrow tubes. The tubes contained RPG anti-tank rockets. Both men took aim and fired within seconds of each other.
Tripathi was looking at a summary on his laptop computer when the lead car in the convoy exploded into a huge fireball, destroying it and the car behind it. Tripathi's driver tried to back up, but the car behind them was almost immediately hit by another rocket. Shrapnel sliced through Tripathi's car, decapitating his personal guard and killing his secretary sitting next to him. Bleeding from a dozen wounds, Tripathi staggered out of the car and fell unconscious.
The surviving commandos rushed to Tripathi and tried to carry him to safety while two men stood guard. They soon saw two seemingly unarmed men in white running at them. One commando stood up and shouted at them to go away, but realized his mistake too late. The two men triggered off high explosives strapped to their waists when they were within a few meters of the shattered convoy. The resultant explosions killed both of them, as well as everyone in the convoy who had survived the rocket attacks.
Throughout that afternoon, similar terrorist attacks were reported across the country- in schools, temples, offices and railway stations. Over 300 people were killed, with the police claiming only a dozen terrorists killed. If the army had been called out immediately, further chaos may have been prevented. But once again, India's famed bureaucracy worked against it. The order to call the army out was given only late that night after much intellectualization over whether the initial attacks were one-off attacks or part of a larger pattern. By then it was too late.
The old man looked intently at the piece of paper in front of him. For several minutes, he did not say anything.
`Sir, what do we say about the attack on Vivek and the Muslim carnage going on?'
The old man got up and began pacing the length of the room in complete silence, as if he had not even heard the question.
`Sir, our cadre are getting agitated. We need to take some action or at least come out with a statement on what is going on.'
The old man now turned to look at his aide. He had been down this road before, and he wanted to shout at the younger man. You fool, don't you realize that a single utterance by us could cause thousands their lives! Instead, he just kept silent.
He had been in this game for too long- and now it was way past the time when he could dismount the tiger he had ridden on his way up in Indian politics. His name was Tarapore and he was an important leader in the party that was Khosla's largest electoral ally. Tarapore's party had long been associated with extreme right views and often accused of communalism. While to its credit, the party had undertaken several schemes of social service, over the years; it had attracted its share of lumpen elements, which seem to be attracted to Indian politics like nails to a magnet. In his younger years, Tarapore had retained an iron grip on the party- but in the last couple of years, his advancing years and failing health had meant that actual control of the party had largely passed to the younger cadre like Vinay Sethi. The new leadership mouthed much of the same political lingo, but lacked much of the genuine ideological conviction that Tarapore and his generation had. This lack of any real ideals combined with the party's extreme views on communal matters made for a volatile cocktail.
`Vinay, there should be no bloodshed. ...'
`Sir, we need some positive statement from you. The youth of the party still look up to you for direction. We would not want that to change.'
The implied threat was not lost on the old man.
`All right, do as you see fit.'
As a gloating Sethi left the room, Tarapore slumped onto his sofa. He tried to assuage his conscience with the thought that he had never really had any control over the Pandora's box that Sethi was going to unleash.
Khosla woke up with a start. He had had a terrible nightmare- one in which the whole world was on fire and a man with a gun was shooting at him. He tried to sit up, but the pain in his arm reminded him that he was not in his bedroom, but lying in hospital, where he had been since the attack the previous night.
He had fallen unconscious after the attack and had been rushed to hospital. The doctor pronounced him extremely lucky as only one bullet had lodged in his shoulder. A minor operation later, he was pronounced out of danger.
After hearing of the terrorist attacks, he had wanted to rush to office, but was restrained by the doctor, who forbade him from going anywhere for another day.
As he switched on the TV in the hospital room, he began to fear that his worst nightmares were about to come true.
The door opened and Balbir Sharma, the Home Secretary, rushed in, looking almost comical with his huge frame draped in the shiny safari suit that was still pretty much the default uniform for India's civil services.
`Sir, it's good to know you aren't badly hurt......'
Khosla cut him off in mid sentence.
`Sharma, I think you have bigger things to worry about than my well-being. Have you seen what's going on- attacks on Muslims have already begun. When the hell will we learn to live together as a country? Have people already forgotten what happened in 1984?'
Khosla was alluding to the communal flare up post the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984, when in an orgy of violence; nearly 3000 Sikhs lost their lives. The proud and patriotic Sikh community had been dealt such a severe punishment for the sins of a couple of its members that the psychological scars still had not fully healed. Then, as Khosla suspected was also happening now, the initial attacks were being led by politicians- showing their loyalty to the fallen leader in a perverse and savage manner. Once the madness began, it was only a matter of time before the common criminals and thugs joined in the murder and looting. Now of course, things were made even more complicated by the well-planned terrorist strikes across the country- that were further fanning the flames of communal violence.
`Sir, there's even worse news. Tarapore's people just came out with this statement to their cadres.'
As Khosla took the paper with his good hand and began reading- he flinched as if from a physical blow. In front of his eyes was a document calling for revenge against the aggression by `Muslim attackers' and the use of `all appropriate measure' to safeguard life and property. It was the blueprint for a communal holocaust.
`Daddy, I want to see a cartoon...'
`Quiet, dear. There's something important going on.'
Karim smiled indulgently as his ten-year-old daughter, Nafisa, walked out, sulking.
All the news channels were full of news of the unfolding chaos in India. Is this what Illahi had in mind? Karim found it hard to believe that his government was behind this- but he knew better than to be so naive. Illahi's first phase had outlined `creating internal disturbances through surgical operations', but Illahi had balked at going into details, not even trusting his Service Chiefs. The whole operation was being masterminded by Tariq's elite cell in the SSG and the Emir's men. This irked Karim, as he and his people would be forced to jump into the fray with little or no control over the factors leading to the war.
`Ash, what's going on?'
His wife, Meher, had walked in. Meher was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, even after twelve years of marriage. It had been love at first sight when they had first met- Karim bewitched by the sophisticated, Oxford educated woman, and Meher drawn to the dashing Air Force officer.
`No dear, I don't think it's anything we should worry about.' As Meher went after Nafisa, Karim wished he could tell her just what a big lie he had just spoken.
`Nafisa, come back, your cartoon's on.'
Karim left the room, wondering just how long he could shelter his family from the carnage that was going to engulf the subcontinent.
... continued ...