14TH MARCH + 1700 HRS
“Sir, we must act! Now!
“But there is no proof they are involved!” The Prime-Minister responded yet again. Dr. Ravoof watched in silence as the members of the PM’s cabinet fought each other to be heard. Half the group advocated declaration of war against Pakistan. Another half fought against it citing lack of evidence on Islamabad’s involvement. Ravoof had heard both arguments enough time already. He knew the pros and cons of each side. As the External Affairs Minister for the Indian Government, he had held this position and served this PM long enough, through the war with China and the fluid geo-political turmoil thence.
He did notice one major difference between the last time and this one, though. Former Defense-Minister Chakri’s absence was conspicuous in this group meeting. His voice had been one of solid action during the China war and of stoic patience in the face of near-death and chaos. All these characteristics had made the man a legend of sorts within the senior members of the government.
He was probably more responsible for us surviving the war than perhaps any other single person…Ravoof thought to himself as he maintained his silent glance and kept his calm in the chaos of the room. Of course, Chakri had not been a legend just for his wartime actions…
There were many in the government who had stated after the war that Chakri had far exceeded his stated mandate as Defense-Minister. When the realities of the pre-war Indian involvement in the Tibetan rebellion had surfaced, Chakri had become the focal point of those that looked to find a scapegoat. Special-warfare teams built around soldiers of Tibetan ethnicity had been infiltrated into Tibet during the rebellion to help bring down Chinese control over the region. They had succeeded enough to scare the Chinese into conducting a desperate and precipitated military response…
And what followed was the most brutal war between the two Asian giants…Ravoof sighed and leaned back in his chair. The man had exceeded his stated mandate…but not his personal one!
After watching his country slide down towards impotence under past governments, Ravoof could never bring himself to blame Chakri for what he had done. It had been three years now and he still
could not bring himself to do it.
But others had. Leading the charge for his removal had been the PM himself, who saw Chakri as an affront to his own authority and as a convenient scapegoat to offer to those in the government and the media who demanded someone’s head on a platter for the Tibetan covert operations. And so Chakri had resigned his position under unbearable pressure and returned to his house in the outskirts of the city, to hide out from the floodlights of the media and his enemies in the government. He had been forced to become a relative nobody on the political scene despite his accomplishments for the country…
Ravoof frowned at his own conclusions.
The PM had survived the war in a condition better than when he had started it. Having taken the credit for Chakri’s actions as his own, he had conveniently buried his own glaring deficiencies on matters of national security that had almost cost India its war with China. Riding on popular belief that he had led the country to victory, he had been reelected to office with popular majority of the votes. He had broad authority as PM like which his predecessors had dared not dream about…
And yet at the core of it lay a weak and vindictive man. A man who had shown time and again to falter under chaos, to stick to ideology when the time required pragmatism. And one who offered flowers when the situation demanded the stick. As one of the most senior members of the government, Ravoof had a front seat to this man over the last four years. And for that very reason Ravoof had used his vast diplomatic skills to ensure that a situation never rose that would put this PM to the test he knew he would not pass. Well, the Pakistanis put paid to that effort today! And now with Chakri no longer present to keep the ship heading the right way…
“Sir, if we do not act in response to his massive attack, neither we nor this party will survive in government even for a month!” Bafna, the new politically appointed Defense-Minister, knew which side of the bread to butter, even when his country’s life hanged in the balance.
“Not to mention invite additional such strikes against other cities,” Basu added from the side of the conference table occupied by the Intelligence experts. Unlike Bafna, Basu had no time for politics. His mandate was clear: country first.
The PM rubbed his eyes and looked at Basu: “Do we have any proof that the Pakistani government is involved in the attack? Any proof at all? I can’t very well declare war on that country because the terrorists who are based there carried out an attack, insidious as the attack may be!”
“Depends really,” Basu replied, keeping his calm.
“Depends on what?!” Bafna asked testily.
“On what you consider the ‘government’ over there to be!” Basu replied sharply and continued: “You want proof that their government made this attack a part of their five-year plan down from the level of Prime-Minister? Of course they didn’t! That’s not how covert operations work! What did you think? That they were going to come up and own this attack as theirs? They are cunning, not stupid!”
“You watch your insinuations, Basu!” Bafna shouted back with pointed fingers. He had always seen Basu as another one of Chakri’s leftover people in the defense establishment, and as such, someone who was not on ‘his side’. Bafna, like the Prime-Minister, was not one to think of their country as the side that mattered…
“Enough!” Ravoof entered the fray, silencing both parties. He then turned to Basu: “We know that this operation was probably handled by lower level operatives on the ground and certain senior level individuals in the Pakistani military. There is no other way that these attackers could have gotten their hands on a nuclear device. So…” Basu leaned back in his chair, his arms folded, “what we need to understand is that this is not a court of law. We cannot and should not expect clear cut evidence to appear that will make the decision clear for us.”
“So what exactly are you saying?” the PM asked with a confused look bristling with irritation. Ravoof ignored the obvious condescension.
“Simply that there are only three alternatives for us,” Ravoof said as he brought his fingers out. “One, we capture, arrest and bring to justice the people involved with the attack. This includes the capture of key militant leaders from within Pakistan. Two, we accept the fact that Pakistan will never even acknowledge that the nuclear device used was its own. And hence will not hand over to us the military people involved in the attack, even if they were acting rogue. In this case we have to be prepared to punish Pakistan and its government as a whole. Or three, we count on Islamabad being reasonable and pursue the course of relative inaction while we try and convince them to come straight.”
“That third option will bring down this government! Make no mistake about it!” Bafna added dryly with a glance shot to the other senior ministers in the room as Ravoof leaned back in his seat. The PM looked lost for words for several seconds during which everyone became aware of the silence in the room. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the PM looked at Basu and the National Security Advisor sitting next to him.
“Do we know who did this attack? Can we go get them?” Okay, here we go…
Basu thought as he leaned forward in his seat: “We know the group that carried out the actual attack, sir. It’s very clear that the Lashkar-e-Taiba is the group to which the attackers belonged. It was carried out by a team lead by one Anwar Afridi. Needless to say, he’s dead. Makki, who is the group leader, is in Pakistani custody and more of a figurehead than real. That leaves Muzammil as the real leader calling the shots. His group has already claimed responsibility for the attack and is warning of more if we do not immediately begin to pull out of Kashmir.”
“Needless to say, we cannot pull out of Kashmir!” Bafna interjected.
“Cannot, or should not?” Ravoof added neutrally, but the sting found its mark…
“Should not!” Bafna corrected rather expressively.
“Anyway,” Basu continued, moving his glance back to the PM: “cutting past their religious and political rhetoric, we can expect that the Pakistanis will keep them employed in a conventional role only at the moment. More attacks in Kashmir to drive their points home to us, for example. But non-nuclear.”
“Keep in mind,” the NSA added, “that LET is merely a proxy for the actions of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. They are the ones keeping things in calibration. If we get our hands on Muzammil, we are likely to find out just how high up their attack goes.”
“And we may not like what we find out,” the PM said in conclusion. “But if the only other plan is to strike Pakistan as a whole, I will rather take the option of grabbing Muzammil and put him on trial for terrorism!” No surprises there…
Ravoof thought and shared a momentary glance with Basu. The PM then turned to Basu and the other intelligence officials: “Find out where that ******** lives and come up with a plan that we can act on!”
“Sir,” Bafna interrupted, “I should warn you that such a plan is both risky politically as well as militarily. For one thing, carrying out this plan could take a long time, during which we will appear to be doing nothing. The public and the media will not accept it. By the time the plan is actually executed, we may not even be in Delhi to call the shots! Also, assuming that the operation goes off without a hitch, the Pakistanis will be crying bloody murder and that will trigger a war in itself!”
The PM sighed and rubbed his eyes in frustration.
“So what do you suggest?” Ravoof asked.
“I suggest we act now! We inform Islamabad to either hand over the terrorists or we will begin air-strikes against their terror camps in occupied Kashmir.”
“Are you insane?” Basu shouted. “You want to tell them in advance that we will be attacking the terror camps? You realize that if we do that, the camps will be nothing but deserted buildings by the time our missiles reach there? And the Pakis will allow it! Why not? They get to lay waste to northern Mumbai with a nuclear warhead and all we do is strike empty buildings in the mountains!”
“At least it will show the public we are doing something!” Bafna shouted back. “And if Islamabad knows about it then the chances of the strikes spilling over into total war are nullified.”
Basu rubbed his forehead with his right hand as he spoke: “Is that really what you want to do? Pretend
to be doing something as opposed to doing something real?”
“It’s better than the iffy plan of grabbing Muzammil from his residence near Lahore without causing war between the two countries!”
“I would prefer,” the PM added, “to not put the democratic government of Pakistan in a situation where their only recourse is to shelve our deep peace initiatives to pacify their populace. The same way I would not like to be led into a war by my militaristic ministers! A second time!!
The room went silent on that last note. Ravoof noted that last phrase and it revealed to him the level of distrust the PM had developed for those in his government who advocated military response to national security problems. Even when the latter were correct to demand such action, it put them at a disadvantage and in disfavor with this Prime-Minister. A man could burst an artery in frustration but would be unlikely to budge the man to take solid military action when offered a flimsy offer of a peaceful alternative. And as such, Ravoof did not envy Basu and the NSA at all…
The strategic course of action now decided, the PM ended the meeting to let his ministers and military officials start working on the details. Ravoof grabbed Basu by the arm as they left the room into the corridor. Despite Basu’s curious looks, Ravoof said nothing until they were out of earshot of the departing people, most of whom were anyway too busy to notice.
“You know, as well as I do, that these strikes against the terror camps will not yield anything worth a damn,” Ravoof said dryly.
“So?” Basu replied, almost having accepted the sad truth of the matter.
“So,” Ravoof responded, his voice calm, “this matter is more important than to be left to politicians looking after their own skin. How realistic are our chances for grabbing Muzammil?”
“If we can nail his position while he is on the move, then we should be able to do it. But the government will never authorize it.”
“Not if it fails, of course!” Ravoof added with dry humor. “Come on, Basu. This is right up your sleeve. Think it through. You are being offered a virtual blanket of ‘clean-and-surgical’ to do what you and your boys do best.”
Basu smiled as he caught on. Of course he could not even think of such action without senior members of the government supporting him. That was what Chakri had done for him in Tibet three years ago. They had shared a common vision about China and the intersection of the two vision had made possible everything that had followed. Basu had never been officially named in the investigations, though only for lack of proof. He wasn’t the country’s external intelligence go-to guy for no reason! And Ravoof was certainly no Chakri, but he only needed to be close enough…
“One other thing,” Ravoof added as he turned to head his way: “Make it quick and dirty! We owe this one to the citizens of Mumbai.”