Friday, January 28, 2005

Jahangirs Journey - V

I’m livid. More angry with myself than with Jahangir. How did I allow myself to be duped this way? How easily he fed me a few crumbs and snared my neck into a noose. Fine, no gain without pain and all that but to be made a fool of in this manner?

I get back to my cubby hole and think of ways and means of getting my revenge.

It’s not going to be easy tracking him down. As far as that goes, I’m back to square one. And this time he’s not going to be cuddled up in some bed in Srinagar with a screwed up leg.

But I need to get him ASAP.

Therefore, I decide to do something I’ve never done in my 12 years of CT ops in Nagaland, Kashmir, Sri Lanka or with the SAG.

I decide to pick up his sister(s) and thereby snare his neck into my noose.

It’s a very risky proposition and it can get me into very serious trouble but I’m beyond caring.

However, I’ll need to plan things out very, very carefully. I’m sure his sisters are going to be expecting trouble from me and will be taking prophylactic action. So, I’ll have to move fast and move well.

I call for Karan to brainstorm my plans with him and as we’re talking post dinner, working out various contingencies, Man Friday pops his head in and says, “Saab, ladies aayee hain aapse mine.”

F*** ! What’s this now? And who’s this now? And at this time????

I step out and find that this time Man F got his grammar right. My visitors are in the plural, as in there are two of them.

I also find that they are Zarina and Zubeida – beloved sisters of Mr J.

Jeez….think of the devil or rather, plan about lifting the devil’s sisters and here they are.

I’m totally nonplussed.

Before I can compose myself and ask them what they want, they enquire of me as to how I am.

“I’m alive” I growl “No thanks to that SOB you call a brother.”

“Thanks to him, you mean” pipes in Zubeida.

Huh ?

I ask her what she means.

And thence starts the story.

It seems, IF they are to be believed, that after my recent successes with the kills and caches and OGWs, the local HM cadre got suspicious and began sniffing around each butts, looking for a leak.

Finding none, they did a deeper internal audit and found out that Zarina had come to meet me. The finger of suspicion wheeled onto Jahangir but since he refuted it all, Zarina was picked up and tortured by them. She told them she’d come to meet me because I was threatening her and her sister. I had even gone to their school with the regular Army guys. So, she came to tell me not to bother their family.

Somehow, the HM swallowed it but were still looking a bit askance at Jahangir.

And therefore, to kill this issue once and for all, Jahangir engineered the plot to ‘kill’ me.

“You think if he wanted to kill you today, he couldn’t have?” asks Zarina. “The IED could have been detonated under the front of the bus. And you could have been shot while you were lying in the open.”

“Balls” was my response, though in Kashmiri, it comes out as something else.

“That’s the absolute truth” say both the sisters in unison, “And now we want you to keep your side of the bargain and help Jahangir to re-locate outside Kashmir. And we want the money.”

At the risk of sounding like a stuck gramophone record, “Balls” is my response to this too.

“You’ve got to believe us and you’ve got to help us” pleads Zarina.

I tell her that I do not believe their story and there’s no way I’m not going to kill their brother. Being taken for a ride once is all that I can handle.

Our arguments go on and on. They cry, yell, shriek, rave, rant, plead, beg.

That deaf adder fellow in the scriptures would have turned green with envy if he could see how oblivious I was to all their drama.

Realising a while later that this is going nowhere, the sisters reach into their hats and pull out a new deal.

“You give him 30 days. Within these 30 days, he will give you some mujahideen. You kill them. And after that, you give us the money and help us to move out of here.”

A guy called Janwillem Van De Wettring once said that greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it is never enough.

I never knew the guy and never thought much about what he said. But now I realize he’s partially right and partially wrong. Greed does have an insatiable tum tum but it doesn’t have a small mouth. I can say that out of personal experience cos all 184 centimetres of me slipped through that orifice the moment I heard the proposition from the ladies.

“What do I have to lose?” I ask myself. “I give the 30 days lease of life and in case I get nothing, I can always put my plan into effect .” after that period.”

“What the f***?” another part of me pops up, “ What if they missed you the first time and are setting you up for a confirmed kill now? What if they are buying time to disappear? “

Jeez ! I hate these little fellows in my head when they’re not in consonance with each other.

Anyways, I go with Little Fellow A.

“It’s a deal.” I inform the femmes and they buzz off.

TO BE CONTINUED ......

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Jahangirs Journey - IV

Time ticks on. Things happen – some of which I’ve told you about in the days gone by and some, which I will in the days to come.

I live my life – XYZee of the Indian Army and Khalid of the twilight zone.

Jahangir lives his life – Jahangir of the Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaanbaaz of Khalid’s private army.

I do my thing and he does his.

But courtesy Zarina, our paths cross intermittently, though never in person.

He’s a man of his word, whatever be his motivations, and over the next three months, I keep getting information from him off and on.

Some of it is good and leads to success. Some is dated and leads nowhere. Some is good but I botch up.

Whatever, it’s still turning out to be a very profitable relationship.

I get three caches, two relatively minor and one which is huge and amazingly includes, under the ground, a second hand Maruti 800 registered in Delhi. Loads of arms, ammunition, explosives, radio sets are also picked up. Money too, some of which I pocket to inject into the local economy.

Two important OGWs and a few minor ones. One of the big fish, when fried to a crisp brown (not literally, I’m not THAT bad), leads me to a suitcase with Rs 52 lakhs. I get visions of deserting and fulfilling my life long dream of buying a small shack by the sea and becoming a beach bum. But it’s all counterfeit and after making the big fish eat some of it, I set the rest aflame.

But no more kills.

I pester Zarina but with no luck.

Then one night, or rather early morn, around 0430 hours, as I recline deep in the arms of Morpheus, my radio buzzes.

“Jaanbaaz for Shikari.” Its Jahangir, communicating directly with me. Wow !!

“Aaj subah, National Highway par bomb phatega. Milestone 27 ke kareeb.” The radio goes quiet.

F*** !! In fact, double f*** !!!!!! There’s very little time to react. Traffic on the NH starts off early and a bomb/IED going off there may cause very major damage.

I get on the other radio. But the Brigadier is not responding. Neither is his Staff Officer.

I don’t even know whose area that falls in and who’s responsible for the ROP (Road Opening Patrol…the guys who sanitise and protect the road) in that sector.

No choice but to rush myself. It’s far away and I don’t know if I can reach in time. Karan and I take off, running as fast as we can, to the village next to where I live. Luckily, there’s a mini bus standing on the road.

Wowiee!!! It’s even got the key in place. My God is surely with me. We zip off, Karan driving. All the while I’m trying to get the Brig on the air but with no luck.

0515 hours. I’m standing by the passenger’s wala door, working my radio. Finally I get through to the Brig. I apprise him of the situation and the fact that I’m en route. I also inform him that I’m basically in Don Quixote mode, because without any bomb disposal thingummies, I can do sweet f*** all even if I get to the site in time and find the explosive device.

The Brig tells me that he’ll handle it and I should just get there ASAP and contact the ROP commander on the spot. In the meantime, he’ll organize the sniffer dogs and bomb disposal guys.

Whew !! I move and sit on the seat in front, just behind and to the right of Karan, who seems to have taken on a Michael Schumacher avatar.

0417 hours. We’re moving as fast as a battered old mini bus possibly can over a lousy dirt track. 30-40 klicks per hour maybe?

It’s a bone jarring ride and I sure will be glad to get onto a road and then finally get off this damn vehicle.

BANG !!!!!!!!!!!!

F*** !!! Now I know what bone jarring really is.

The vehicles careened off the track and come to a grinding halt. Not a burst tire. That’s for sure. Because burst tires don’t give out the smell of RDX and they don’t result in the back of buses, however mini they may be, getting mangled out of shape.

We’ve gone over an IED.

I look at Karan. He’s bleeding from the head, having banged it against the windscreen, but appears reasonably okay. My knees are hurting like hell…I’ve slid off and fallen forward….and my knees have made a very violent and totally undesirable contact with the back of what’s supposed to be the conductors seat or whatever.

I help Karan out of the driver’s station and push open the door to get out.

Bang!Bang!Bang!

Or should it be …ratatatatat ???

I don’t know how to articulate the sound here, but what I do know is that what’s coming at us is a large number of AK 47 bullets in bursts of 3-4 each.

We hit the ground hard and hug it as close as we can. Look around. Can’t see a thing, but can definitely hear the firing. And it sure is aimed at us, because we can hear the bullets striking the bus.

Damn !! What do I fire back at? I’d hate to be found dead with four fully loaded magazines on me.

We crawl around, hoping to see something and fire back. But there’s nothing. Even the firings stopped.

Sudden silence. And if it wasn’t for the bus off the road and Karan’s bleeding head and my aching bones, I’d think it was all a bad dream.

Oh f*** !!! What about the IED on the NH?

I pull out my radio, only to find that it’s already well on it’s way to the after world and subsequent rebirth as a cell phone or whatever. Smashed beyond any kind of recognition.

We pick ourselves up gingerly and look around. Spotting and hearing nothing and receiving no missiles of any nature penetrating our skin, we head off towards the next village.

Sadly, it’s 12 klicks away and both Karan and I are not in a position to even jog. We kind of limp our way to it and by the time we get there, it’s nearly 0630 hours.

We commandeer a jeep with a driver and head off for KM stone 27.

We get onto the NH and I’m happy to see traffic flowing normally. Good !! That means there’s been no explosion. Which implies that the IED has been found and defused. Yiipppppeeee !!!

F*** !! It could also imply that it’s there, hasn’t been found and hasn’t been detonated yet.

I damn the pessimist within me and tell the driver to get a move on.

We reach KM 27 and I find it choc a bloc full of army guys, including the Brig who’s very keen to know what took me so long.

I give him the short story in even shorter form and ask him about the IED.

It emerges that they’ve searched n re-searched and re-searched every possible inch of the highway from KM 26 to KM 28 and found zilch. So either I got a false alarm or I heard the location wrong or it’s someplace else. Anyways, every ROP guy has been asked to be on high alert and the search is continuing all along the highway. The rest is up to God and we can only wait.

We do so, making use of the time to get a doctor to do the needful with our battered bodies.

The day goes by and nothing explodes. So, it WAS a false alarm.

Which means, Mr Jahangir is playing games with me.

No wonder the mini bus was conveniently parked where it was and no wonder the key was even more conveniently available where it was.

Time for you to die, buddy.

TO BE CONTINUED.....

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Jahangirs Journey - III

We talk details. Loads and loads of things to be tied up.

No one, not even in my organization, to know about him. Just Karan and me.

He will leave forthwith, before the HM get suspicious and re-establish contact with them, stating that he’s back from Srinager, post recovery.

All communication will be through Zarina. Towards this end, I will give her a radio set. But I also give the same frequency to Jahangir, for direct communication in an emergent situation.

No face to face meetings.

All this is ok. But I need a mortgage. What f he vanishes?

“If I betray you, you can kill my sisters”, is his answer.

Easier said than done, but I really have no choice. It’s a gamble, with very exciting possibilities.

At worst, I’ll lose him and a radio set, if Zarina also vanishes.

If things work, he should provide us with a lot. Kills, caches, OGWs.

The co-ord carries on and finally, the bro-sis duo leave.

Time goes by.

I get to know from Zarina that J is back with his group.

Fingers and toes crossed, I bide my time.

9 days later, I get buzzed by Zarina, passing on a message from Jahangir.

“Kal subah, S gaon ke bahar, kuch mujahideen milenge. Agar aap school mein ambush lagaen to faida ho sakta hai.”

That’s it.

I know S Village. A medium sized village with hills to the north. The school is on the northern edge of the village.

Does that mean that the bad guys will be coming down the hill? Or going uphill to move across the ridge line? How many will there be? Can Karan and I handle them on our own?

And other thoughts creep up too? What if it’s a trap? An ambush in the school, ready to hit us when we get there?

Damn ! And I don’t have much time. It’s nearly noon. Tomorrow morning isn’t too far away.

I buzz Charlie and tell him to get his butt over. Pronto. Along with his QRT .

He reacts fast, and by 1600 hours, Charlie is in my location with 8 guys.

I have a rough sketch of S village ready by then. A quick briefing follows.

The plan is that we all will carry out a seemingly routine patrol through S village at last light. On our way out of the village, we will go by the school, checking it out. However, Charlie, Karan and I will stay back within the school while the rest of the guys move away and go locate themselves about 1-2 klicks away in a suitable desolated spot, ready to come to us at short notice. It’ll be dark by then, so no one will be able to count how many guys went into the school and how many emerged. And therefore, the three of us will be securely in place to knock off the bad guys, without anyone knowing we’re there.

If it’s a scenario where Jahangir has planned a trap for me inside the school, our getting there early should beat his plans. And even if he/his cronies are there before us, we’ve got enough numbers and firepower to handle it.

So, all seems okay and around 1730, we set off for Village S.

An hour later, just as it’s getting dark, we enter the village. A walk through and we’re at the school. An L-shaped building, with an office at one end and four class rooms. A play field and a fence all around. That’s it.

We check out the building and finding nothing and nobody, the rest of the guys toodle off, leaving the three of us to settle down in Std II. It has two windows, but it’s dark to see anything. We put a couple of desks against the door and settle down on the floor.

20 minutes later, Charlie is informed by his QRT that they’ve got into an orchard and are lying doggo there. Good.

Now to wait it out and see what the morrow has in store for us.

The night passes by without any incident and we’re up at 0530. Soon, it’s daylight and slowly, we spot some villagers moving around. The two windows of the classroom give us a clear field of observation and fire right from the edge of the village to the lower slopes of the hills. Just as I’d remembered it from an earlier visit.

Weapons cleaned and checked. In addition to out AKs, Karan’s carrying an LMG and I’ve got a Dragunov (a sniper rifle).

God willing, in a little while, we should be able to use them to good effect.

0800 hours. Nothing of interest so far. Only, the number of villagers floating around keeps increasing.

0805 hours. F*** !!!!

A couple of kids has come into the school compound. From what I can spot through the gap in the door, it has all the makings of a cricket match because Std I is opened and two desks pulled out and placed 20 odd metres apart in the playfield.

Damn !! I hope the match, or whatever, doesn’t begin before we finish what we’re here for. I don’t want kids milling around all over the place.

0822 hours. A signal from Karan. I look out of the window.

A man’s come and stood under a tree. This is about 400 metres from us, between the hills and the village. Whats he doing there, all by himself? . Seems like a normal Kilo, in a salwar suit and a jacket of sorts. No weapon in sight. And no suspicious bulges under his jacket.

0850 hours. I observe this guy waving a handkerchief or some kind of cloth towards the hills. I pick up my binos and look in that direction. About a klik away, two persons walking down. Armed. I can clearly see AKs slung over their shoulders.

Cool.

Karan pushes a desk against the window, unlocks the LMGs bipod (a two legged foldable stand) and places it on the desk. I hoist the Dragunov onto my shoulder and get the Kilo’s head into my telescopic sight in order to work out the exact range and adjust my sight. Charlie keeps an eye out for any trouble from an unexpected direction.

“I’ll fire first. The militant on the right” I inform Karan “You take the other two.”

“Ok saab” is his reassuring whisper.

800 metres. 700 metres. 600 metres. C’mon lads. Walk fast !!!

I’m now tracking one of the militants through my sight.

The two get to the tree. As they are shaking hands I fire.

One guys lost his head and before the other two can respond, Karans let loose with the LMG. Down they go.


We rush out. The kids that were outside have scampered off. We can spot people running towards us from the village. Karan moves off to stop them at a distance while Charlie and I go check out the three guys on the ground.

Checked and found dead. RIP !

The cops are called and the corpses taken away.

Ghulam Hassan Mir of Village S, HM. The guy that had come to meet them. He had a pistol on him under his jacket.

Salamat Khan and Altaf Ahmed of Pakistan. Al Badr.

A silent prayer to God, a silent thank you to Jahangir, and we head back. Mission accomplished.

TO BE CONTINUED ......

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jahangirs Journey - II

A lazy bath and breakfast, a few minutes to ponder over how to deal with Mr J and then I’m all set to open the can of worms or, in this case, his head.

Easier said than done, it turns out. I spend a better part of the day with him (the proceedings are not being recounted here for obvious reasons), but at the end of the day he’s given me sweet f*** all.

One, he’s tough. But then every guy breaks after a while, so that’s a non issue.

Two, he knows that I’m not going to kill him.

Three, he believes that since I won’t kill him and will eventually turn him over to the cops, I won’t damage him in any manner that’ll show up on his body.

Four, and essentially the prime reason, his leg still isn’t okay and even a heartless, ruthless guy like me can only go to a point when dealing with a wounded guy.

Anyways, to sum it up, by the end of the day I’m tired but have nothing to show for it.

A good nights sleep and I wake up having decided to raise the ante and get a bit rougher. Humanitarian feelings be damned.

Around noon, by which time some progress has been made and Mr J has given out some tit bits, I get a radio call from Charlie.

He wants to know if anyones come looking for Jahangir, cos surprisingly, nobody has come to him either.

Very surprising, indeed.

Anyways, this gives me some more time with the militant. What he’s given me so far is okayish but nothing very exciting. Some caches, a few organizational details, names of a couple of OGWs, etc. But now that I have time, I’ll let him chill on his own and worry himself to death in solitude and then hit him hard.

I spend the rest of the day pottering around and after dinner, set off with Karan and Jahangir. We are headed for one of the caches he’s told us about. Time for a credibility check in respect of Jahangir Khan, HIzbul Mujahideen.

A 7 klik walk and we’re near Village G. Jahangir leads the way and takes us to a field. At one precise spot, which looks no different from anywhere else in that field, he stops and tells me that this is it.

Karan hands him a little shovel and asks him to dig. He does so and after about 10 minutes, pulls out a steel box from the hole he’s dug. We open it and flash a torch inside.

One grenade, older than my sainted aunt, rusted beyond recognition. Period.

Karan speaks up before I can, stating that we should dig the hole a wee bit deeper, longer and wider and dump this jerk in it.

Exactly my sentiments.

I don’t think Mr Jahangir has got the general idea. So, I make him sit down and I explain.

I tell him that no one in the whole wide world knows where he is. His sister tried her bit with the support of the villagers but achieved zilch. I also tell him that I’ve had enough and that I don’t want anything from him. We are going back and on the morrow, he dies.

All my tough talk still doesn’t seem to have any effect, so I get a bit artistic, using my shiny dagger to do so (details left out for obvious reasons again). He finally seems to get the ‘point’ that I’m serious. Starts yelling and crying and pleading. Says he’ll give me whatever I want. Militants, high value caches, important OGWs, the works.

I couldn’t care a flying f***.

We walk back and I leave him for the night, to suffer his wounds and to worry about the coming day.
Another day dawns. I call Charlie and give him whatever Jahangir has talked so far, asking him to check it out as he deems fit.

The day progresses. It’s afternoon and I’m sitting in my hut, reading Lawrence Sanders and listening to Neil Diamond wax lyrically eloquent about Sweet Caroline. Ah ! The pleasures of a simple, peaceful uncomplicated life.

Man Friday walks in. “Saab, ek Ladies aayi hai.”

Ek Ladies? I have no idea why, but that’s the way our jawans say it. Always in the plural.

Anyways, be that as it may, let me see who this is and what she wants.

Aha ! Who else but Zarina?

“Wheres my brother?” is her opening salvo.

“How do I know?” is mine.

‘Cut out the crap’ is what her expression seems to say. ‘I agree’ is what my expression replies.

She sits down, totally composed and collected. Asks me what I intend doing with her brother.

I tell her that I’ve decided. to kill him.

She says I won’t. I say I will.

She wants to meet him. I tell her she’s got a hope in hell.

She asks me what kind of information I would consider important enough to let him live.

Tell her I’d need him to get me militants, OGWs and caches – big time.

She tells me that’s not possible. He doesn’t know all caches, just the ones he’s used. And they won’t have much in them. He knows the other militants in the area and can give me names but how would he know where to nab them? They don’t live in camps like the army. OGWs. Yeah. He can provide the names of one or two guys, but they’re very low level.

Sigh!! Actually, she’s got a point.

“Fine!” I tell her “You’ve got a point. He’s abs worthless, so I might as well kill him.”

She’s not too happy with that and calls me all sorts of names. Ah well ! I never was a ladies man. So I listen to her without feeling bad about it.

But seriously, I think Jahangir is more of a dead weight rather than being useful. I decide to hand him over to the cops.

It’s almost as if Zarina can read my mind. “No, don’t hand him over to the JKP.”

“Why not?” I’m genuinely surprised.

A bit of silence, a deep breath and I get my answer. “He killed 3 policemen some years ago. They won’t let him live.”

Aha ! That accounts for why there’s been no hue and cry. Jahangir and his sisters are the ones stuck in a tight spot.

“So what do you expect of me? I ask Zarina.

“Allow me to meet with and talk to my brother and then I’ll tell you” comes the reply.

Hmmm !! I might as well see where this goes.

Karan is hovering in the background and I ask him to arrange the family get together.

Four hours later, Karan is back.

“Saab, dono aapse milna chahte hain.”

I roger that, they troop in and lay their cards on the table. All 52 face up.

“If Jahangir ‘turns’, works for you and gets you some results, will you let him go and pay him in order to re start a new life in Jammu?”.

Wow !! I didn’t expect that at all.

TO BE CONTINUED.......

Jahangirs Journey - I

As we are rushing back from Srinagar, Jahangir and his sister Zarina safely ensconced in the back of Charlie’s gypsy, we discuss his future.

The old man in Srinagar has been politely, albeit very firmly, told to stay dad and keep mum. I’m pretty sure he and his family will do that. In any case, they have no clue about who we are. All they can say is that some faujis came and took away a militant. Big deal !!

So, in effect, nobody knows where Jahangir is. Therefore, we can either hand him over to the police or kill him. The latter is a no go, because you don’t kill a guy just like that. But giving him up to the cops has no use either. They’ll dump him in a cell and a year or two down the line; he’ll be out. Then, if he decides to go straight, the HM will kill him and if he gets back to his old tricks, we will.

Sigh ! Wish the guy had fought. We’d have knocked him off and wouldn’t have to worry like we’re doing now. The hassle essentially is Charlie’s. He went way out of line carrying out an op in Srinagar and regardless of the fact that he nabbed a militant, he’ll get his b*** chewed up by his CO and the Brigadier.

Anyways, I tell Charlie that we’ll keep Jahangir under wraps for a while. In any case, we need to squeeze information out of him. Hopefully, he’ll come clean ASAP. Else, we’ll need to make him talk.

Charlie asks me to keep him since he’s worried his CO will find out. But he also wants that he gets to act on all the actionable int that Jahangir spews out.

That’s understandable and acceptable.

But there’s still the biggest hassle : Zarina.

We can’t keep her. And the moment we leave her, she’ll raise a hue and cry with the cops and the press and the politicos that her brothers been illegally detained. She knows Charlie and therefore, he’ll be in thick s***.

Damn !!!! The guy did have a pistol on him. Why the f*** didn’t he use it when we barged in???????

Too many problems.

I make up my mind.

I ask Charlie to stop the Gypsy. It’s about 0330 hours and we’re about 40 klix outside Srinagar. An abs desolate stretch of road.

The vehicle stops. I jump out. Open the tail gate and yank Jahangir out.

I drag him off the road and getting him on his knees, I put my Beretta against his temple.

“Noooooooooooooo” yells Zarina.

I pull the trigger.

Zarina yells louder, as does Jahangir. I’ve fired a round into the ground.

I go back to the vehicle and sit at the back, opposite Zarina.

I tell her that I’ll have to kill her brother because he’s too dangerous to be left alive.

She’s a smart gal. I think she understood my predicament. But she isn’t sure whether I will kill him or not. It’s poker time.

I lay my cards on the table.

“Look. He attacked an army camp. Just for that, he cannot be allowed to live. But if he talks and gives me good information, I’ll let him live and hand him over to the cops. However, if he doesn’t talk, he vanishes.”

Her turn to play.

“You can’t hold him. It’s illegal.”

I laugh, hoping like hell that it sounds normal. “As if I care” I tell her “Nobody knows he’s with me. And who’ll believe you?”

She keeps quiet.

Round 1 is a draw. At least I think so.

We continue our journey and Charlie drops me off near my hidey hole. Zarina struggles to get off with her brother but Charlie drives off with her.

Karan and the Ikhwan take our guest and show him his lodgings – my good old cattle shed.

I’m not happy. I think Zarina is going to talk. I don’t have much time to make Mr Jahangir open his beak. Might as well get cracking on it.

But tea and breakfast first.

“Charlie for Khalid.”

Now what?

“Go ahead.”

“Charlie for Khalid, Zulu dropped off near the village. Am heading home.”

“Roger, out.”

The count down has begun.

TO BE CONTINUED ......

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Combing the Capital - III

07 March

I call Charlie over and we discuss and finalise plans.

2000 hours. We set off for Srinagar. Even Karan and I are in regular uniform. Too many trigger happy security forces guys in the capital, of all hues and types, to take any chances. I leave instructions with Man Friday to take Rashid out at midnight, walk him a couple of klicks, remove his blindfold, untie his hands and grant him freedom.

Later in the night, we’re there. Charlie with 7 jawans, Karan, the Ikhwan and me.

We park the vehicles near a CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) post and walk into a locality of downtown Srinagar called Habba Kadal.

Combing the capital commences

Habba Kadal is a congested locality. Loads of houses/apartments cramped together with narrow alleys running through the area. Essentially, a lower middle class/middle class residential area.

I ain’t very comfortable in these environs. Can get ambushed from anywhere, anytime. But then this isn’t Sarajevo. I don’t think there are going to be snipers perched on the rooftops waiting to get my head in their cross hairs. Nonetheless, I’ll be happy to get out of here.

The CRPF guide I’ve picked up from their post leads us to the address I’ve provided him. After taking us through one narrow alley through another, he deposits us outside a double storied block and makes a hurried retrograde move back to safety.

The neighbouring blocks are much the same and theres no place at all to deploy the men. I’ll just have to leave them out in the alley. In any case, I’m neither expecting an attack on them from anywhere nor do I think Jahangir will be physically in a position to come out with guns blazing.

Anyways, the idea is to nab him peacefully inside.

Towards this end, Charlie, Karan, the Ikhwan and I move to the door and address it with a rap of my knuckles. Oops ! I’ve forgotten. I’m in civilization. There’s a switch for a call bell and that gets addressed with a gentle push.

After a wee while, we hear some movement and the door is opened by a middle aged guy. We barge in before there’s any talk and shut the door. We find ourselves in a little hallway with a staircase going up. On one side is a room, but the door is shut. Charlie and Karan check it out and find a living room of sorts. Devoid of any inhabitant. A door from within that leads to another room, a kitchen cum store, and thence to a little courtyard with toilets at one end and a door which I assume, leads out from the back.

We quickly rush up and get to the first floor. Two doors. I push the master of the house ahead of me and kick open one door. It’s a bedroom with a double bed occupied by a very surprised and scared looking lady. This guys wife, I’m informed by him.

We move to the next room. A boot on the door and it swings open. A sleeping form under a quilt on the floor. As Karan puts the muzzle of his AK to what seems to be a human head under the quilt, the old man yells out, “That’s my son, don’t kill him.”

I have no intention of doing so is what I tell the fellow unless……..he tells me where Jahangir is hidden.

“Who Jahangir? What Jahangir? Which Jahangir?”

While this is going on, the other three move around and come back to me with an NTR.

NTR? Where IS Jahangir? There has to be another room.

The lady is up and about now and is yelling blue murder. We calm her down and leaving the Ikhwan to talk to her, we take the father and son duo downstairs.

But what do I ask them? There’s no room that could’ve been rented out.

Did Rashid Mir take me for a ride?

It seems to appear so. I think this has been a classical wild goose chase.

Anyways, before I go back and re-establish contact with Rashid, I decide to talk to these two guys.

They both tell me they’ve no idea what I’m talking about. There has been no tenant or tenants in their house, ever. So on, so forth.

I realize I’m wasting my time and decide to get out of here.

Just as I inform Charlie of my decision, the Ikhwan, who was prowling around in the kitchen and courtyard, comes in excitedly, holding something in his hand.

It’s a garbage pail. He informs me that it was outside the kitchen and wants me to take a look.

Has the guy gone crazy?

Anyways, I peer in and lo and behold, what do I see?

Lots of usual household muck.

And lots of unusual muck……like blood stained bandages and cotton swabs, empty vials, disposable syringes.

Aha !!

I look questioningly at the old man.

“I don’t know anything.”

Sigh !!

I ask both the guys who put all this into their garbage pail.

“It’s not ours”, says the son.

“My wife is unwell with some gynae problems and is undergoing treatment”, says the father, simultaneously.

Double sigh !!!

A few knocks to father and son fail to evict anything out of their mouths.

I don’t have much time. We have to be out of Srinagar before day break. This isn’t a city you can mess around in with nonchalance. There are rules and laws and stuff.

I grab the sons hand, spread it out on the table and pull out my cutlery. “All fingers go if you don’t talk fast” is what I tell them, the tip of the dagger drawing a little blood from the back of his hand.

The two guys look at me and then at each other. I see resignation in their eyes.

“I’ll take you to them” yells out the son.

I release his hand and he takes us through the courtyard to the door leading out from the back.

Only, it doesn’t lead out. I had merely assumed that. He points to it and says “They are here.”

We got Jahangir……….. alive.

The young man got to keep his fingers…………intact.

Combing the Capital - II

05 March

I spend the morning thinking about how to proceed from here. There’s no way that I just go meet this particular Kilo and he’ll tell me everything. The other option is to ‘pick’ him up and ‘squeeze’ him, but what if he’s abs innocent? Gulzar’s information is 4 times removed and in Kilo Land, that’s 4 times too many.

I decide. I’ll need to get some independent corroboration of some kind. But this guy shouldn’t get to know that I’m interested in him, else he’ll vanish. Need to adopt some other approach.

Off I head to the Ikhwan camp. Luckily, there’s some kind of meeting on and all their ‘commanders’ are present. I join in and get down to brass tacks, asking for information on the attacks on Charlie’s base.

They all take off, going blah blah blah, but not one of those ‘blahs’ is worth the while.

I then ask them if anyone’s got info on any wounded militant and one young guy pipes in to say that he’s heard about it. Not confirmed, but there are rumours that Jahangir has been wounded. He’s from the same village and some relation told him about it during a visit to town.

Wow !!! Jahangir huh? I know the guy. A veteran militant. HM. Belongs to Village M. I’ve been after him but with no luck. Pretty smart operator with tremendous clout in his village and the surrounding area. But he wasn’t in Bomber’s gang. Which means, if it is him, he could now be part of this new Al Badr group. Which is likely, because the Paki’s have been trying to merge the HM with the Al Badr or at least get it under Al Badr leadership, even at the grass root level.

I ask this Ikhwan to come along with me, and bidding adieu to the motley gang, trot off, homewards bound.

The rest of the day is spent picking the young Ikky’s brains about Mr Jahangir.

I learn that he’s lost his parents. Has two unmarried sisters, both of whom teach in the village school. One younger brother, who lives in town and works as a shop assistant. Jahangir leads a reasonably clean life. No bullying, no stealing, no womanizing. Generally hangs around Village M but has a very strong EW network and has never got anywhere near being nabbed. Is much attached to his sisters and vice versa. Other than his sisters, he is close to an uncle, his ‘mama’, who lives in the neighbouring village. Name is Rashid Mir, Village W.

Aha !! I don’t need to look into my little black book for this one. The name Gulzar gave me was Rashid Mir, resident of Village W.

I thank the Ikky for his time. Give him a bottle of rum, which he will sell for gold and send him off, but not before telling him to try find out more about Jahangir’s current status.

Early dinner and I knock off, reasonably pleased with myself. I think I now have sufficient cause to ‘lift’ Mr RM. But before that, I need to do something else.

06 March

Post breakfast, I’m off to meet Charlie. I gen him up on all the khabar and my plans for the future. Thereafter, we both push off to Village M, headed for the village school.

We go meet the principal and Charlie informs him that this school is very high on his company’s civic action horizon and that he plans to do something for them. Only, he’d like ideas from the faculty on how the Army can help so that the funds and other resources are optimally utilized.

The faculty troops in a wee while later, 4 in number, of which only ones a lady. What’s this? I thought both of Jahangir’s sisters taught here. But there’s only one femme, unless the other ones into cross dressing or whatever.

A discussion commences and goes on for about an hour, with none of the participants realizing that Charlie’s talking through his hat (or BPP in this case). Finally, it ends and an agreement is reached that Charlie will build an additional classroom as well as gift some cash for buying books and so on.

The teachers push off and we’re left with the principal. I compliment him on his bright and committed faculty, while expressing my surprise that there’s only one lady on the staff. In an emancipated state like J&K, one would expect more. He informs me that there is another lady, in fact the sister of the one we met, but right now she’s on a spot of leave.

Aha !!! The dots seem to be getting joined. Let’s see what picture emerges finally.

Charlie and I return to his camp and after lunch, I apprise him of my plans for the morrow. Thereafter, I head home via the Ikhwan camp where I pick up a battered old civilian jeep as well as my young Ikhwan friend of Village M.

06 March

Sunday morning, and I’m up with the lark. Well, an early lark, so to speak. Its 0200 hours and it’s time for action.

Karan and I get into the aforementioned jeep along with the Ikhwan and set course for Village W, reaching the outskirts by 0300 hours. Having alighted, we set off into the village, the young Ikky guiding us to the residence of Rashid Mir, Esq.

A knock, silence, another knock and the door opens. Happily for us, and sadly for Rashid, the doors opened by him. A quick, silent grab and we head back to the jeep, and thence, drive back to my hidey hole. I’ve a little guest room of sorts as part of my palace….a little shed that at some point in time housed cattle, and Rashid is dumped there to ponder his fate. Trussed and bound, if that’s the correct term.

The good guys, who include me, go to bed.

I wake up a few hours later and am informed by Karan that our guest is in good health, though not in good cheer. Not surprising at all.

After getting ready, I head downstairs to meet him. A normal looking guy in his 50s. I wish him a respectful salaam but instead of a wale-qum-as-salaam, I get a barrage of queries like where is he, who are we, why is he here, what do we want and such like unimportant stuff. I politely remind him that given the circumstances, the script dictates that all questions will be asked by me and his sole job is to provide answers with accuracy, brevity, clarity and honesty.

He displays belligerence but after a few words and suitable actions, we are both agreed on the fact that he will talk.

“Where is Jahangir?”

“I don’t know.”

Whack !!

“In Srinagar”.

“Who took him there?”

“I don’t know.”

Whack !!

“I did.”

Our discussions go on in this vein till around noon. Thereupon, fearing for his health and well being, I allow him a break for lunch and introspection, after which talks resume.

By evening, Rashid Mir has given me all that he has and I have a fair idea of what transpired. It took time and I learnt a lesson. The youth think they’re immortal and so don’t fear death. The aged know they’re mortal and so don’t fear death. They realise its inevitability.

Anyways, the story, narrated reluctantly by Rashid Mir, goes like this.

Jahangir got injured. He went and hid in the orchards. Uncle was sent for. Uncle arrived. Thereafter, Uncle arranged for a car and took Jahangir to Srinagar. Zarina, one of the sisters, went along. Found a room on rent. Then found a surgeon. Got Jahangir checked out. Uncle returned same evening. Learnt from Zarina via telephone two days later that surgery has been conducted successfully. No further news. Last known, Jahangir is recuperating in the rented room with Zarina playing Florence Nightangle.

Armed with all this information as well as the address of the rented accommodation, I’m all set for progressing the search for Mr J in Srinagar.

TO BE CONTINUED .....

Combing the Capital - I

23 February

“Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid.”

Not the ideal words, voice and tone to be waking up to, but apni apni kismet hai.

“Khalid for Charlie, go ahead.” I mumble, only half awake as I stick a paw out of my warm sleeping bag to grab the little Kenwood.

“Charlie for Khalid, my company base came under attack last night.”

Whattttttt ???

F*** !!! This is crazy !! Charlie’s company is located in an area where these kinds of things do not happen. What’s going on?

I’m more than fully awake now and I quickly get the details from Charlie. Just after midnight, his camp got fired upon from a hillock that overlooks it from the north. No casualties, barring a jeep that suffered some GSW (gun shot wounds) on its bonnet and two store tents that suddenly found themselves reconfigured with a few neat, circular ventilating vents.

Charlie’s lads fired back with LMGs and RLs and a QRT (Quick Reaction Team) was sent off to out flank the attackers, but by the time they got there, nary a soul was around. They found some fired cases, all AK and spotted some foot prints. But nothing that could lead them anywhere or to anyone. A plain and simple ‘fire and f*** off’ op or for those who take umbrage to my less than placid language, a ‘shoot and scoot’ op.

Charlie goes on to inform me that he’ll be working on his neighbourhood to seek out information on this and requests me to also put in my 8 annas bit towards this end.

“Wilco, out” is my response as I sign off, mulling over this event.

Like I said, these kind of things don’t happen in this area. And then, an attack with just AKs? The hillocks too far away for rifle fire to be effective. If the militants had used PIKAs or rockets, I’d understand. And if this was anyways going to be an ineffective attack, then why launch it? Nothing to gain and there’s always the risk of the baddies bumping into a patrol at night.

Anyways, its too early in the morning to tax my limited grey matter and I yell out for Man Friday to charge my batteries with some tea.

Later in the morning, I’m out with Karan headed for Charlie’s location. He isn’t there when we reach but I get to hear the story from some of his jawans. Nothing new.

I then venture across to the hillock, Karan and I pretending to be Messrs Holmes and Watson, sans the homburg and pipe, but come up with nothing.

I head back to Charlie’s location and find that he’s back. He tells me he’s asked around but has got no news at all. The poor guy is all low and blue because getting a camp attacked by militants is a big insult. Sadly, I can do nothing to lift his spirits so after advising him to stay on the alert for a few days to avoid a repeat, I head back to my hidey hole.

The next few days I ask around, but zilch is all I get.

01 March

“Charlie for Khalid.”

Sigh !! Another wake up call from Charlie. Now what?

“Charlie for Khalid, another attack last night.”

Jeez !!!

Similar attack, from the same location. Same reaction from Charlie’s angels. Same result.

Except…..no jeep and no tents got hit. And…..Charlie’s guys have found blood on the hillock, from where the militants fired. The trail leads to a point but then dies. No further leads.

Now this is really getting crazy. Has some militant or group of militants lost their head? What ARE they trying to achieve?

I start my snooping around with renewed interest and vigour. Some crispies are handed out. Some locals are pulled in and questioned….some politely and some not so politely. Ikhwans, cops, BSF, other Army units….everyone’s asked….but with no luck.

Leaping Lollipops !!! I’m beginning to believe the ghost of Bomber Khan is at it….trying to extract some kind of revenge.

04 March

I’m informed that I’m right, or nearly so.

My good and trusted source Gulzar turns up with the news that this whole thing has been engineered by the remnants of Bomber’s gang along with a new lot of HM jerks who’ve just inducted into this area. They’re being led by an Al Badr (another militant tanzeem) Pakistani and want to ‘make their bones’ ASAP.

But what will they achieve by this stand off kind of thingy is my doubt and it gets answered when Gulzar tells me that the plan was for two guys to fire from the hillock, while the rest of the militants laid an ambush for the troops that were sent on an outflank move. The first time they studied the reaction and the second time, they laid the ambush along the route the platoon would take. Sadly for the militants, and happily for our boys, the QRT didn’t follow the same route.

Gulzar goes on to tell me that of the two militants that were on the hillock, ones got splinter injuries from a Karl Gustav rocket. The guy’s knee has been badly jacked and he’s undergoing treatment in Srinagar. The others have melted into the environment.

All this Gulzar has got from another Kilo who knows another Kilo who knows another Kilo who knows the Kilo that took the wounded HM chap to Srinagar. And if I want to know more, I need to get to THAT Kilo. Whew !!!

Financial negotiations get underway and after Gulzar has considerably lightened the little leather pouch I store my crispies in, as well as a few 100 grams of tea leaves that I got from a friend located in the cushy environs of a tea garden in Assam, he leaves. I’m left behind with the name and village of the Kilo that took the militant to Srinagar.

Time to get to work on this gentleman.

TO BE CONTINUED ........

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ramzan - II

A few days later, I'm sent a militant radio intercept from my controlling HQ with a portion highlighted by the Brigadier.

“Kal Khalid mere gaon aaya tha. Pooch tach ki. Aap log fikr na karein. Us kutte ko main jald hi khatam kar doonga.”

This perks me up. Maybe the guy does have a spine. I like his spirit.

The fact that he got irked by my visiting his village means I should go again, and again. Let me rile him up and then maybe he’ll emerge from the woodwork.

A few more visits follow. I make threats all around. I get hold of the entire village and announce to them that Ramzan is a worthless SOB (sorry, this is not being expanded) and that I’m going to behead him personally.

All this to make him react because I’m sure he won’t like being abused, insulted and undermined in his own village.

Slowly, I start pumping in some funds into the village. Kilos love crispies of the 500 variety and I hope to buy myself some ‘sources’.

One morning, as I’m sunning myself outside my hut, Karan turns up with two men. Ones an MM (Muslim Mujahideen, another counter insurgent group like the Ikhwans) chap and the other guy I have no clue about.

I’m shortly clued up about his identity by the MM lad. The man is Salim, he’s from Ramzan’s village and wants to give me information for hard cash. Ah, well !! I have absolutely nothing against a free trade agreement.

The man’s info is that Ramzan visits the village mosque every morning and if I lay an ambush there, I can easily get him. Very nice. Except that the mosque is in the middle of the village and there is no way that an ambush can be laid without getting compromised. I ask the fellow to give me something better. This isn’t good enough. He argues with me. Says that I ought to get into the mosque at night and wait inside. Ramzan gets there early in the mornings and I can easily knock him off. The whole concept is fraught with too much of risk and too many intangibles and in any case, there’s no way I’m going to be firing guns inside a mosque, so I tell him to buzz off unless he wants to talk sense.

Seeing as he’s getting no richer than he was when he arrived, he gets serious.

“Uski ek mashooqa (lover) hai, Saab. J gaon mein rehti hai.”

Village J is close to Ramzan’s village.

He goes on to tell me that Ramzan visits his gal often and it’ll be easy to knock him off there.

“Are the lover’s tryst’s in one house always? Her home or some other?” is my query.

No, is the answer. “Kabhi yahaan, kabhi wahaan.”

Darn these Kilo militants. Why can’t they do up a nice little lover’s lair and get comfortable. Would make life (and death) so much easier.

J again, is a village out in the open. So there are no specific routes for ingress/egress. That cuts out an ambush.

RV with his lover girl at different locations. No fixed schedule. Cuts out a break-in op.

All that I can think of at the present moment is a CASO. And that’s so unpredictable. The night/day the CASO is effected, he may not be in J Village. It may turn out to be a waste of time and manpower and also, will alert him to our intentions.

I should try something else.

I decide to go look up the lady in question and see what I can achieve there.

The next morning finds me with Karan and two Ikhwans in J Village, settled comfortably on the floor in Ms Nazreen’s house. Her parents are around but have no answers. They regret the fact that their daughter has been selected by a militant as his girl friend, but can do nothing about it. They are vehement that he never visits this particular house and therefore, they cannot help me in any manner. A question thrown at them by me asking if they would tell me when and where she leaves home to meet him is answered by silence, though their eyes seem to be saying, “Think we’re fools? Think we don’t value our lives?”

Sigh !!!

The meeting proceeds. Ms Nazreen is on the agenda now. All of 15. A school girl. Unable and unwilling to talk to us about Ramzan, except to admit that he’s seeing her. She’s far too young for me to get into ‘bullying’ mode. I leave her to her fate and we leave.

Something ventured, nothing gained.

I decide to let it ride for a while. Maybe something will crop up with time.

And sure enough, that happens.

Two days down the line, I get a call on my radio from the RR company commander of the area. “ Mike 30 for Khalid. Request meet me at XXX location. One of my patrols has found something.”

“Wilco.” I rush off with Karan.

XXX is located on a track going from Ramzan’s village to the North. It cuts across a thickish grove, through which a nala (rivulet) flows.

What I see horrifies me. Near the nala, a headless corpse nailed to a tree. And at the feet, a head. It’s Salim.

“The patrol found this in the dead man’s pocket, Sir” says the company commander as he hands me a folded piece of paper.

' Khalid, yeh tere mukhbair (informant) ka haal kiya hai. Tera haal is se bhi kharab hoga – Ramzan.'

I feel sad, disgusted, angry.

But the battle lines are drawn.

Over the next few days, all hell breaks loose.

Day One, Salim's family comes to me and cries their hearts out. I feel for them, because I know how it feels to lose someone near and dear, but there really is nothing I can do. I give them some money and ask them to bear the loss with fortitude. Salim is not coming back and they'll have to cope.

Day Two, I get a delegation from Ramzan's village. They tell me that the previous evening he got them all together and threatened to set fire to the entire village in case I was allowed to enter it. I tell them to buzz off since I'm going to visit the village whenever I wish to and woe betide any drama done to stop me. I feel for them, because they're simple folks, stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Day Three. Nazreen's parents turn up. Ramzan has kidnapped her. I feel for them, because I'm a parent myself, but what am I to do here? I assure them I'll do my best to get her back and thats that.

Day Four. I'm feeling for myself. Damn ! This Ramzan character has got on my nerves and if I don't do something fast, he'll gain a psychologically upper hand.

I speak to HPS and get a section of RR boys temporarily from him. I task them to carry out relentless patrolling in and around Ramzan's village. Day, night, good weather, inclement weather, whatever. I want the locals to see us and not him. Let them learn who runs this place.

Karan and I start moving around a lot ourselves in the area. The village, the orchards, the fields, along the nalas. Searching for Ramzan, searching for any information on him, searching for any damn thing that will get him to us or us to him.

I keep scanning the HM frequencies, hoping to get a peep out of him.

I go to Nazreen's school and meet her classmates, hoping to get some news of her whereabouts from them.

All adds up to a big zero.

And then, one afternoon a week or so later, as Karan and I are walking back from town to the village I live in, a little girl from within a bunch of school kids, drops a piece of paper as they cross us.

I wait till they're out of sight and then retrieve the paper. Neatly written on it, in english, are the words ' Mr Khalid Sir. Nazreen is in Ramzan's village. He has hidden her there. Please save her. She is my best friend and I want to celebrate Eid with her. Yours faithfully, Tarannum.'

I can't stop the tears that spring to my eyes. I think of the child that wrote this and of Nazreen and am suddenly reminded of my own children.

Eid is two days away and I make a silent vow to get Nazreen back, come what may.

The next morning, I ask HPS to get the village cordoned by a company and once thats in place, Karan and I move in with the RR section. We carry out a thorough search of every house and are done by late afternoon. NTR.

Damn ! I just cannot understand where Ramzan could have hidden Nazreen. If she's here, we should have found her. And I'm not willing to believe that little Tarannum's information is wrong.

But I've searched every house,out house, barn, toilet. Every damn structure. And I've done it myself. What else can I do? I think of my silent vow and feel bad.

Anyways, moping will not get me anywhere. Its getting dark and I might as well head back, leaving the villagers to prepare for their big day on the morrow - Eid ul Fitr.

As we are heading out and cross the village mosque, the local maulvi and I exchange greetings. He invites me for Iftaar (the meal taken at the end of the day to break the fast, during Ramzan) and while I'm in no mood to make PC with him, I accept out of courtesy.

I leave my rifle and magazines outside with Karan and enter the mosque. The maulvi lives just behind it. As we're walking through the prayer hall, the maulvi draws my attention to a little rug in one corner, telling me how pretty it is. I look at it and wonder whats wrong with him. It's just a simple, drab rug. But then I guess it's his mosque and he's entitled to propreitary pride, however warped it be. I nod my head in agreement to humour him and walk on.

We get to his place. Some polite chitter chatter about how militants misuse mosques, thereby defiling them, a simple meal and I'm ready to leave. As I'm headed back through the prayer hall, I look at the rug again, wondering what in the name of God the maulvi finds exciting about it.

Suddenly my two old friends, intuition and perception, are yelling into my head.

I walk across to the rug and pull it away. Under it is a trap door, snug with the wooden floor.

Immediately, all the locals inside the mosque rush out.

I yell out for Karan and he comes charging in.

I yank the trap door open and before I can take a look, Karan has chucked in a flash bang and jumped in. I follow.

It's a cubby hole. Theres a lantern burning and before I can take in anything else, I sense rather than see, someone lunging to a side. It's a guy reaching for a rifle hanging on the wall.

Sadly for him, he doesn't get there. Karan fires and the guy drops, yelling in agony.

In one corner, I spot young Nazreen sitting on a mattress. Tear streaked face, looking shocked, but happy.

We got Ramzan.

The maulvi got his mosque purified.

Most importantly, Tarannum got to spend Eid with Nazreen.

Ramzan - I

Ramzan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. The month of fasting. The month in which the first verses of the Holy Quran were revealed to Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).

But this is not about the holy month. This is not about fasting. This is not about the Holy Quran.

This is about a militant who called himself Ramzan.

An absolutely low level militant of the HM whose interests lay more in stealing, womanising and bullying the locals rather than in fighting for any particular cause. He’d never been involved in any ops against us and from whatever we knew of him, it would take a lot of positive thinking to weigh him against the cost of a 7.62 mm bullet.

Therefore, while one had heard of him, no one ever seriously contemplated mounting a specific op to get him. The general consensus was ‘galti se mil gaya toh thok dena, else let the jerk die of old age’.

I got to hear of him when an acquaintance of mine, HPS, who was doing 2IC (Second in Command) of an RR battalion in the area, came to meet me.

I was going through an uneventful time and was happy to receive a visitor.

After the initial exchange of pleasantries, HPS asked me what I knew of Ramzan.

"Not very much, Sir. I know his name, his village and a bit of his background which is nothing exciting. What’s your interest in him? He's a low life scum. Not even worth being called a militant." was my reply.

"Well Khalid, my information is that he's been made the Battalion Commander in this area."

I'll be damned !!! Ramzan being appointed as a Battalion Commander. Jeez !! The HM really must be scraping the bottom of the barrel with their finger nails. Not that an HM battalion commander is anything big, but nonetheless, in their hierarchy, it means quite a lot.

I can't get over it and HPS is not amused.

"Its not funny, Khalid. We knocked off the last guy with great difficulty and now this jerk takes his place. You know the pressure on us to get rid of their commanders ASAP and this is one guy no one knows anything about. "

HPS goes on to tell me that his unit has tried putting pressure on Ramzan' s area, by way of raids, CASOs, visits to his family, etc. But all to no avail. They are totally unable to get a bead on him and now want me to help track him down.

Well !! (Between my readers and me, it's a big jolt to my ego to be asked to sniff out a weasel like Ramzan.) "I'll ask around, Sir and let you know." is what I tell HPS.

Having nothing better to do, the next few weeks I ask people about Mr R. The Ikhwans, the cops, locals and my sources. From everywhere, I get the same old story. But I do manage to build up a hazy picture of him. He's a bully. He's ruthless and vicious. He's not a family man. He's lazy. He's very cunning. He's a loner. And he seems to be a bit of a coward. Every time he’s run into a security force’s patrol, he’s scooted without firing a shot.

No pictures available. Physical description: Tall, slim. Long hair. Beard. Jeez ! That could be any militant or or any local. It could even be me - for that matter.

Anyways, I make a visit to his village with a few Ikhwans. His house is a ramshackle two storied building in one corner of the village. A set of old parents. Sullen, quiet. A wife. Looks twice her age. Sad, silent, stressed out. Absolute poverty all around. Not what I'd expect of an HM guy's family. It's obvious that this guy doesn't care for his people. The wife refuses to talk but I manage to make the parents sit across me. My questions elicit no answers that can help me get to him. All they keep saying is “He’s a bad man. Kill him and we’ll be happy.” Now, on the face of it, that bit isn’t surprising. The parents of most militants say that but don’t really mean it. It’s just the typical sneaky Kilo way of keeping themselves out of trouble with the security forces. But here, I sense absolute disgust and resignation to fate.

So, over all I get nothing from his family. Ditto from the villagers. A bit of heavy handed questioning is also tried. Same result - zilch. But I do detect a very strong undercurrent of fear within the entire village.

Nothing to be gained here, I head back.

TO BE CONTINUED ......

Vantage Point

14 October

Gulzar's come to meet me. Who's he? Ah, well ! He's one of my top sources. Around 60 years old. A widower. Ekes out a living by running a small saw mill in his village. He came across me one day when his teen aged son had a close encounter of the nasty kind with the electric saw and nearly lost his arm. Luckily I was around at that time and managed to use my 'issue type' morphine coupled with my rudimentary skills at suturing to help save that arm. Ever since, Gulzar became my friend and then progressed to becoming an invaluable source. Not that he doesn't believe in the free market economy. Takes a lot of money off me, but since most of it is originally HM/HUA/LeT, I don't mind. Easy come, easy go ! Long as it gets me kills, I'm happy.

Ayways, so he's come to meet me. The preliminary exchage of pleasantries and as he settles down on the floor, I ask him what brings him to me here. I generally avoid meeting my sources at 'home'. For their own good health and longeivity.

He informs me that he's got something major up his sleeve, but would like to talk money first. I remind him that the going rates have gone nowhere and the old agreement stands. 10 k for each kill that he facilitates. Payable only ex post facto.

The evil glint in his eyes tells me that he's in the mood to bargain. Which either means that he's very hard up for cash and will try to take me for a ride, or that he's got something really good.

Its the latter.

It emerges that his nephew, a young fellow who generally lives life in the twilight zone, doing odd jobs for the militants, the cops, the Army and himself, has been approached by an OGW to act as a guide for a newly inducted LeT group, all Afghans. This group is currently hiding up in the hills, but needs to come down to civilisation for logistical reasons.

Gulzar tells me that for a sum of Rs 1 lakh, he'll home me onto this group when they're inside a village. He's discussed it with his nephew and if I'm willing to part with a radio set, the nephew will pass on the name of the village to me once it's decided.

I remind Gulzar that Afghan militants are nasty and ruthless characters and are not likely to take kindly to a guide equipped with a radio set. I also tell him that he ought to stop talking rot where the pecuniary aspects are concerned. Theres no way I'm shelling out that kind of money for a couple of filthy militants, Afghan or not.

Well ! He's obviously thought it all out. He tells me that the nephew will keep the radio off and well hidden and only use it once, as soon as it's decided which village they're moving into. After that, he'll throw it away to avoid any risk whatsoever. And as far as the money angle goes, a lakh is not asking for too much. Because there are 7 militants, 6 Afghans and a Kashmiri, and that would make it 70 k in any case. And because his nephew's life is at risk due to chances of being killed along with the militants, he's asking for an additional 30 k.

Hmmm. I can't argue with that.

This whole show gets on the road tomorrow night. So after giving him a radio set, I rush off to apprise the Brigadier. He immediately sends for the CO (Commanding Officer) of the RR unit in whose AOR this bunch of FMs is moving around and we decide that the RR battalion will stay on alert to move and act, the moment I receive the information from Gulzar's nephew. Towards this end, I'll be co located with the RR CO.

All seems pretty much tickety boo and I go off to sleep looking forward happily to the morrow. Hopefully, this should be a neat and clean, copy book op.

15 October

I wake up in a cheery mood and spend the first half of the day cleaning my weapons and generally thinking out all possible contingencies. Can't think of many. If the nephew delivers the name of the village, a CASO should achieve the needful without any hassles.

Post lunch, I drive off to the RR battalion's location. Karan, much against his wishes, is left behind. He's running a bad fever and in any case, with an entire RR unit to do the job, I do not visualise my getting involved in the nitty gritties of the op.

The CO and I sit with the Company Commanders over tea and discuss which are the likely villages the militants can come into. We're all agreed that it'll be one of the 5-6 villages situated at the base of the hills. Graphical layouts of each of these villages are studied and plans made for each scenario, with specific tasking for each of the companies.

Time passes by and just after last light, everyone decides to have a quick bite and relax till the news arrives.

16 October

0047 hours. The radio's buzzing. "Khalid saab, Aslam bol raha hoon, over."

"Haan Aslam, bolo." I whisper back.

"Hum C gaon jaa rahe hain. Out."

Move! Move! Move!

And damn! damn! damn!

C Village is the largest village in the area. Around 500 houses spread over 4 mohallas (localities). A CASO is going to be tough and time consuming.

But we've catered for it in the planning and the RR CO is not bothered at all. He tells me that his unit has done so many ops there that every man knows the village like the curves of his wife.

We move out ASAP and by 0430 hours, are on the outskirts of the village. I watch in silence as the CO does his last minute briefing and coordination.

The company columns move off to their respective objective areas. A, B, C and D to cordon one mohalla each. E to act as reserve.

I move off with the CO's party. We spot a double storied, flat roofed house on the periphery of the village and spotting a wooden ladder by the side, climb up and settle down on the roof. It's a good vantage point. We can see most of the village from here. Communications are set up. Tea is made and served. We are well situated to control ops. Excitement level is high and we sit in cosy comfort, waiting for contact to be established.

Reports start coming in over the radio. Each company reporting. Cordon in place. Checked personally by the company commander. Each cordon as tight as the proverbial rat's butt.

First light. Searches commence in each mohalla. We're tensed up. Contact should be established any moment. From our vantage point, we can see the locals filing out of their houses and assembling outside the village to facilitate the search within. My ears are straining to hear the sound of firing. Should be any time now.

0800. Nothing. Search is still on.

1200. Nothing. All houses have been searched once.

1600. Nothing. A second search has been effected.

1800. Nothing.

It's getting dark. The CO gives me a very nasty look and orders his unit to pull out. He gets the Brigadier on the radio. "NTR. I'm moving back. The info was abs crap."

I resent the bit about the crap, but hold my silence.

We get back to the Battalion HQ and without further ado, I take my leave and drive back. Wondering all the while what went wrong.

17 October

It's evening. I'm still brooding over the op. What a bloody disappointment. Words with, or rather, from the Brigadier haven't made things any better.

Man Friday turns up. "Gulzar aaya hai, saab."

Ah ! Just the man I want to meet. And just the man who's neck I'm going to wring with my bare hands.

"Saab, kya kar diya aapne? " he says as he walks in.

What I said in reply cannot be articulated here due to censors and such like.

"Arre Saab, sab gadbad kar diya aapne. Haath aaye mujahidden jaane diye."

Jaane diye? Haath aaye?

I grab him by the neck and shake him hard.

"You f****** let me down Gulzar. There were no militants there."

" Kya baat karte ho Saab. Allah kasam. Wahin par the."

"Kahan the? Poore gaon ka search hua. Teen baar."

"Saab, jis makan ki chhat par aap aur CO saab baithe the. Uske andar the."

F*** !!!!!!!!!!!!

Gulzar didn't get any money.

I didn't get any militants.

My ego got a kick on it's fat butt.

War in the Wilderness - IV

We enter the village from the southern end. Its a small village, 40-50 houses at best. Surrounded by fields. The village is quiet. Everyones indoors and sleeping. Suddenly, Bravo spots a couple of large sheds. Whats this? Villages don't have these kind of sheds. These are pretty huge with a fence around them. Needs a look see.

We cautiously approach the sheds. As we get close, Karan nudges me. I look towards where he's silently indicating. Yup. I spot the glow of a cigarette. We get down and crawl till the fence. Look again and I see one guy sitting with his back against one of the sheds, smoking. No signs of any weapon.

For the life of me, I cannot make out what this is all about. Are these sheds being used by militants? Is this guy some kind of sentry?

Might as well find out. I whisper my orders to Karan and while Bravo and I cover him from our present position, he crawls off, gets through the fence and approaches the smoker from behind. He grabs him and pulls him away. We wait.

3 minutes later, we hear a low whistle and Bravo and I jump across the fence and sprint to where Karan is. The guy Karan nabbed is on his knees, hands on his head.

"Kya khabar? " I ask Karan in a whisper.

"Saab, yeh FCI (Food Corporation of India) godown hai aur yeh aadmi yahan ka chowkidar hai."

Gadzooks ! An FCI godown? In this God forsaken place? Wonders will never cease.

I question the chowkidar. This place holds grain stocks for the winters. Summer is spent transporting the stuff from the south on mule back. Theres a total staff of 6. One clerk kind of guy, 3 storemen and 2 chowkidars. Barring the clerk, they all live within the FCI complex in a small hut. No families. The clerk is a local and lives in the neighbouring village to the north.

Ok. So thats the background. I ask the guy about militants and get the standard "I don't know anything " answer.

A whack followed by my dagger poking his rib cage has him telling us that there are no militants in this village but he has seen groups of them moving around. He's seen them on both sides of the river and on the hill sides astride the valley. Thats the extent of his knowledge.

Another whack on his jaw, a boot in his belly and a deeper poke that draws a bit of blood, extends this extent.

"Get hold of the Muqaddam." He tells me "He is with them. Militants often visit his house."

This sounds good. I send Karan to get a section of Bravo's lads. Once they arrive, they take over the hut where the chowkidar's compatriots are sleeping. They'll ensure these fellows stay put within.

Its nearly 0045 hours now. We 'liberate' some of the FCI guys' clothing and change out of our Army fatigues into salwar suits.

The chowkidar chappie points out the Muqaddam's house and the three muskeeters head thataways.

Knock! Knock! Knock!

The sound of someone moving within, and then the door opens. A guy, mid to late 40s.

"Are you the Muqaddam?" I ask.

"Yes. Come in" he answers.

These guys don't speak Kashmiri the way I do, the way it's spoken in the Kashmir Valley. It's similar, yet different. But I can understand.

He takes us into a room, lights up a lamp and even before we are settled down on the carpet, a middle aged lady, presumably his wife, is making tea for us.

Whats surprising me is that he's not asked who we are and what we want.

Tea arrives. "You've come from across?" he asks me.

"Across as in? " I ask back.

"From the land of Allah, Pakistan." says the M.

"Yes" I answer "why?"

"I can make out that you are not Kashmiris. I saw you and realised that you are our brothers from Pakistan."

I give him whats supposed to be a sweet smile, though I'm seething from within.

"Whats the news here?" I query.

"News is not good. You should not be here" he says

I give him a quizzical look.

"The Kaffir (infidels) army is moving from Kashmir. They'll be here by tomorrow. The other mujahideen brethren have already moved out." He continues.

I ask him how he knows all this and he informs me that word had come across two days prior. Some Army people in Kashmir were hiring civilian mules to carry loads into Zulu and thereafter, the columns have been spotted moving into the hills.

Mules? Damn!! Alpha or Charlie, or both, must have f***** up. This op was supposed to be pure man pack. Anyways, too late to cry over spilt beer.

"Where have the Mujahids gone now? Is nobody left? We need to meet up with them." I tell the M.

"I sent some mujahids to ambush the Kaffirs. The others have moved into the hills to the east and south. Theres no one left , though there may be some one still at the base in X Village" says he.

"You sent people to ambush the Army?" I ask, trying to keep the anger out of my voice. It takes all I have to stay in control.

"Yes" he proudly replies "I control all Mujahid activity here. One of the groups I sent killed 50 Kaffirs to the south yesterday."

50, my a** !!!!

"Which tanzeem are you from?" I ask, changing the subject before I lose my temper and snap his neck.

He seems surprised at my question. " You don't know? I'm from the Lashkar. Didn't they send you to me?"

Oops ! Seems like I've committed a faux pas. Better cover up fast. "We're from Al Badr. Some Mujahideen we met on our way told us that you are a true supporter of the cause and will help us."

That appears to please him. "Yes. I'm the number one Lashkar man in this area" , is his proud reply.

I ask him about this 'base'. "Its a camp we have set up to train young Mujahideen. Instead of sending them all to your country, we are getting some boys from Kashmir and the South and training them here."

"I want to see this base" I tell him.

"We'll go in the morning. You all sleep here. My wife is making some food."

I can't argue with that. But theres a problem. If the three of us go to the militant camp/base with him, what happens to Bravo's lads? And what do we do at the base? Covert is okay, but the mask doesn't stay on for too long. And if the base has a sizeable number of militants, what will the 3 of us be able to achieve on our own? Barring making the 'supreme sacrifice'?

Jeez ! I can't think.

Anyways, food arrives, and we eat.

"Your men can sleep here. And for you, theres place upstairs" the M informs me, post dinner.

"Okay."

Bravo and Karan are given some smelly quilts and they seemingly settle down while I walk upstairs with the Muqaddam. He takes me to a small room with a bedding laid out on the floor. "You'll be comfortable here."

As I smile at him, he adds "I'll send my daughter up. You enoy yourself."

I snap. And before I can control myself, I've hit him with the butt of my rifle. He goes down, head bleeding. I peer down the staircase and yell out for B and K. They come up. Karan kneels, has one look at the M and pronounces him deceased.

There goes my 'guide' to the base. Damn !!!

I'd intended to kill him, but later. Damn ! Damn ! Damn !

Anyways, theres nothing to be gained here now. We move out of the house.

I now decide to prepone things. No time for recce. No time to wait and check if Delta is in location at Village Y.

I send Karan off to get Bravo's company to the godowns.

They arrive shortly. It's 0430 by now.

A quick brief and we set off.

The plan. Cross the river ASAP. A small party led by Karan to move up and ascertain the precise location of the so called 'base' as also try get whatever information they can on strength, dipositions, etc. Thereafter, Bravo's company, less a section, to cordon the base while the section moves in with me to search and destroy.

Its still dark. We cross the river over a narrow foot bridge and deploy east of the river, about a klik plus from Village X. Karan moves off with his gang.

0545 hours. Karans back. "Saab, ek location nazar aata hai jo camp lagta hai. Shayad is gaon ka school hai. Par, udhar humne do sentry dekhe. Hathiyar ke saath."

He goes on to explain the layout. Three huts. Single story. An open ground in front. Luckily , this complex is on the far edge of the village. Little chances of collateral damage.

Bravo is listening in and moves off with his men to lay the cordon.

Karan and I head for the militant camp with 8 of Bravo's guys.

It's daybreak. The village is waking up and as we walk through, the locals gawk at us. No time to lose now. Speed of move and execution is my only hope for success.

My Kenwood buzzes. Its Bravo . "Bravo for Khalid, in location, out."

Cool. Lets go in now, boys.

A silent prayer and we get into the complex. The LMG guy has already deployed on the ground, and two long bursts at each of those sentries provides them with their final 'good morning' kiss. Only, its the kiss of death.

As we get close to the sheds, firing starts from within two of them. Not too much, though. Still, it's enough to make us go into creepy crawly mode. I get the RL to address them, which he does with pleasure. Four rockets each and the sheds are down, burning. No more firing from within. As we move up to check out the sheds, I hear firing from the east.

"Khalid for Bravo, whats up?"

"Bravo for Khalid. Eastern cordon under fire from the hills. Moving there. Will report situation ASAP."

I leave the section to clear out the burning sheds as Karan and I sprint off eastwards. As we get there, I can see gun flashes in the hills. A look through the binos reveals at least 4 guys in the trees.

I meet up with Bravo. He tells me that he's spotted the guys and plans to go in from a flank and get them while they're held by fire from here.

Good idea. Bravo scoots off with a section pulled in from the cordon and moves off northwards to skirt these bad guys.

About 45 minutes later, some more firing and then silence.

"Bravo for Khalid, 5 militants. Dead."

"Roger, get back."

We hang around the area till noon. Nothing else happens. Guys keep scanning the hills with their binos but nary a movement is spotted.

I get Delta on the set and since he's already in Y village, ask him to move here, bringing the cops with him from the Reserve Police Post.

They arrive by 1500 hours and we hand over the bodies, as well as pointing the cops towards the Muqaddam's house in Village A. They get his body as well as a nice cache of weapons and ammunition.

We peel off thereafter, Delta headed back south while Bravo and I move back to the godowns with a group of very happy and satisfied men. A nice cheery evening is spent there, full use being made of the Government of India's wheat, rice and dal enhanced with a few chickens and two goats set free from the evil clutches of the locals. I'm in no ' win hearts and minds ' mood.

A good, well earned night's sleep and early next morn, we set course for Kashmir.

Two days of brisk, incident free walking gets us home, safe and sound.

My band of brave boys got 12 Lashkar militants.

I got the Muqaddam, a bollocking from the General (followed by a bear hug) and 23 blisters on my feet.

War in the Wilderness - III

25 June - M plus 2

A peaceful albeit very chilly night. I wake up to a hot cuppa tea served by the trusty Karan. 30 minutes to clean self and weapons and I'm ready to move. So are Bravo and his merry men. We take off.

A short climb till the ridge line. 16530 feet. And it's beautiful. Flat, bare, a lovely view to our West of the Kashmir Valley and to the east, my first look at the Zulu Valley. Narrow, green and far away.

And the most fascinating thing. Right next to us on the ridge line, is a little lake. Ok! Ok! Not a lake. A pond.

Time schedule be damned. I strip and jump in as do a few more courageous and crazy souls. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!! Its miserably cold but tremendously refreshing and when I emerge I feel like an abs new man. Feel ready to walk a 100 miles and take on a 1000 militants.

0800. A short halt as the scouts move up to try find a route. I switch on my radio to see if anyone's talking.

"Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid, Charlie for Khalid."

Damn!!! What ever happened to radio silence?

And before I can respond, "Akbar for Khalid, Akbar for Khalid." Thats the General.

What the hell is happening? I'm totally zapped.

"Charlie for Akbar, Khalid not responding. Request advise further action."

Further action? Advice? Whats the General involved for now? Has Charlie gone nuts?

I decide to take the plunge, " Khalid for Charlie, go ahead."

"Charlie for Khalid. We've been attacked."

Attacked? What the f*** is he talking about?

"Charlie for Khalid, we've been attacked, we've been attacked." The young Majors voice is sounding frantic.

"Khalid for Charlie, cool down. Are you in contact?"

"Charlie for Khalid, no, I say again, no. We were fired upon last night. We had halted for the night and they fired PIKAs. I have 8 boys wounded."

Shit !!!!!

Akbar pipes in again. "Akbar for Charlie. Stay put. Choppers coming in for cas evac. Give your position and locate and prepare nearest possible landing site ASAP."

Akbar continues, " Charlie , wait out to you. Akbar for Khalid."

"Khalid for Akbar, go ahead."

"Akbar for Khalid. Mission aborted. Head back."

Aborted?

What IS happening? Is this some f****** nightmare?

"Akbar for Khalid, did you copy? I say again, mission aborted. Head back. Charlie has casualties and Alpha is behind schedule. He's stuck in the hills."

I think awhile. I haven't walked this far for nothing.

"Akbar for Khalid, did you receive?"

F*** you General, Sir !!

"Khalid for Akbar, nothing heard, nothing heard."

"Akbar for Khalid, come in dammit!"

The General goes on and on and finally stops when I switch off my radio set. Everyone be damned.

I'm worried about Charlie and his casualties, but am confident that the General will organise the needful.

But what do I do now? Alphas missing somewhere in the hills far to the north. No news of Delta, but even if he is on schedule, he'll only be on the southern end of the Zulu Valley. Can I go in with just Bravo? What if there really are over a 100 militants?

I yell out to Bravo, " Lets get a move on buddy."

Thats it. Jo hoga dekha jaega. Let not some m***** f******* militants say they scared us away.

We head downwards. Walking fast. Downhill is tough on the knees, but I no longer care. Want to get to Zulu and want to kill those jerks there. Period.

Around 1300 hours, we're back in the tree line and shortly thereafter, come acros a Gujjar settlement. We halt short and the scouts check it out. No danger. We move up.

There are about 2-3 Gujjar families. 18-20 people, all sexes, shapes, sizes and ages. 200-300 sheep, all sexes, shapes, sizes and ages. Seem harmless, both these categories.

But I'm worried. I don't want them slipping down to the village and giving advance warning of our arrival.

"Give us that boy" I tell one of the adults, pointing to a young lad, perhaps in his late teens.

He looks very worried as he asks me why. The lads his son.

"I want a guide down to the village. I'll pay him for that." I inform him.

"Oh ! Okay," is his postive, though a wee bit reluctant, response.

"Fine, we're off. Your son will be back by evening, unless..."

"Unless what?" he asks.

"Unless one of you decides to cut across to the village and talk about us. If that happens, he'll come back without a head."

"Nahi Maalik. We wil not talk about you to anyone."

Cool.

We move on.

Time passes by and just short of last light, I find myself in a little copse on the lower slopes of the feature. Just below us, 2 klix at best, is A Village.

The guys spread out and I tell Bravo to get them to relax. But to be watchful. He deploys sentries and everyone chills.

I can see the village clearly from where Bravo and I are lying under a tree. Theres still some ambient light. No movement can be seen though. Not a soul. If I couldn't see the lights in the houses, I'd say the village was deserted.

"What do we do now, Sir?" asks Bravo.

"What else, Bravo? Lets go explore the village" I tell him.

"The village? But that will compromise surprise Sir, I mean, so many guys and all."

"Relax buddy. Just you and me." I give him a wicked smile.

"Wow. Thats fun. Lets go" is his brave reply.

I whistle up Karan and tell him my intentions. He looks happier than he's done in the past 3 days.

We down some tea and shakarparas and after a quick nap, at around 2330 hours, Bravo, Karan and I enter Village A.

TO BE CONTINUED .....

War in the Wilderness - II

22 June

Spend the morning getting stuff ready for the impending op. Pore over the map. It's a long walk and I'm not at all happy about moving by day. Maintaining surprise is a prime requisite for this op and movement by day is open to getting spotted. Sadly, the terrain is too tough and the numbers too many to be able to make good time by night. I'm not worried about whats going to happen when we get there. Thats because I'm convinced that the number of militants supposedly there is exxagerated. Kilos talk only in multiples in 10, and therfore any numerical information must immediately be divided by that figure. So, IF there are any militants there, I seriously do not expect more than a total of 15-20. Anyways, first let us reach that darn place.

In the evening Karan and I hop across to the RR company which is going to be the launch pad for tomorrows padyatra. We reach by 2000 hours. Bravos already there and Karan goes off join the other jawans. The RR Company Commander has a small hut and Bravo , he and I settle down in it. We talk awhile and after an early dinner, knock off.

23 June - M Day

Up in the wee hours. Weather looks okay. I'd hate to be walking in the rain. I mean I love doing that, but when I'm in civilisation and don't have 40 kg on my back.

Bravo's lads assemble and after a quick check of weapons, equipment, logistical loads, etc we set off.

The RR Company Commander has given us a guide for a part of the way. He knows a little foot track that goes upto a Gujjar settlement. The walk is not too bad and we make good time. Around 1400 hours, we reach the Gujjar huts and take a break for lunch. MREs are broken out and I can see guys sprawled all over the place. No human beings in sight. I bid farewell to our guide and after lunch, we set off again.

The trek is getting tougher now. No specific track now and we are on hit and trial mode. Walk up a spur, then find a very steep gradient, get back a bit, try another approach. Can't be helped. The walk goes on. I look back at Bravo's lads and they all seem in fine fettle. No fatigue problems......yet.

1700 hours. Its started raining. F*** ! Now the climb has got a few more things added to trudge.....slither, slip, slide, etc. No place to halt. We keep moving. Around 1800 hours I decide to call it a day. The rains got heavier, it's getting dark and we're in a location that affords some cover. Bravo issues orders to his men accordingly. A few guys are sent out around us as sentries. The boys find places beneath trees, boulders, whatever to bed down. A few little fires start up and in spite of the rain, the place suddenly seems very cosy. Essentially, it's the tiredness catching up.

Bravo and I study the map a bit and plan out the next days route. Karan gets me a very welcome cuppa tea. Hot, strong and courtesy condensed milk, very sweet. Just the way I like it.

Around 2000 hours, we eat dinner and before I can ever think of my God and my kids, I'm fast asleep, snuggled up in my sleeping bag under a tree.

0100 hours. I wake up with an uneasy feeling. Look around. Bravo's not in his sleeping bag. I can sense a lot of movement around. I tug my boots on and go looking. Find Bravo in a huddle with a few men.

"Whats up, Bravo?" I ask.

"The sentries to the north reported seeing some lights , presumably torches, on the spur to our north Sir."

Thats not good. Gujjars don't move at night and in any case, even if they do for some odd reason, they don't use torches. But then, neither do militants. And theres no other kind of people here for miles in distance and a few thousand feet in altitude.

Bravo tells me he's sent out a small patrol to the north to check.

Thats not good either. Theres radio silence and the spurs too far away to support from here if the patrol makes any kind of contact. But I hold my silence. He's made his call and I'll respect it. In any case, the patrols out and barring keeping my fingers crossed, I can do nothing. Best to wait it out.

24 June - M plus 1

First light is approaching. I'm back in my sleeping bag, though half awake. Bravo informs me that the patrols back. NTR.

I decide to move on. A quick mug of tea and some biscuits and we take off again.

The climbs getting bad. The gradient is much steeper. Luckily, there no rain. We keep trudging on. I'm thinking about and wondering how my other columns are doing. I hate this concept of being in command of guys that are so far placed from me in time and space. I curse the General in my head and walk on.

1300 hours. A quick lunch and move on. I want to get to the ridge line before the end of the day. Only then will we able to complete the descent and be in Zulu by last light tomorrow. Walk on.

The tree line has vanished and we're out in the open. Scenic splendour at it's best. Walk on.

1530 hours. We're negotiating a tricky part of the feature. A very narrow stretch. The columns spread out in single file.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

F***! Whats this?

No space to even take cover. In any case, there is no cover. I look around. Can't see a thing. But I can definitely hear firing. Karans behind me. He draws my attention towards our north. Far away, on the spur running parallel to us, I now spot some movement. Binos (binoculars) out. A group of 6 militants, firing at us. With AKs. Crazy jerks. Those bullets can't reach us from there. Bravo has also spotted them and has by now got an LMG firing at them. Well, even our bullets won't get to them. I yell out for Bravo and tell him to get an RL HE (High Explosive) airburst onto those guys. A minute later.....Boom!

I watch through my binos. The HE rocket explodes in the air over those guys. I don't see or hear them any longer. Walk on.

No further incident and we reach just short of the ridge line by 1900 hours. It's dark and cold. But thankfully, dry.

Tea, dinner, bed. 16000 feet altitude. Aching bones and muscles. A warm sleeping bag. I'm out like a light within a nano-second.In any case, I can sleep easy. No more climbing. Tomorrow, we roll down.

TO BE CONTINUED .....