Eleventh hour, p.1
Eleventh Hour, p.1
For Gautam Mengle, my friend and protégé
About the Book
About the Author
Also by the author
Thursday morning, New Delhi.
Raju Kanaujia was a happy man. His wife was at her parents’ house with their two sons. His neighbour was out of town for three months. And his neighbour’s wife was sending him feelers with increasing intensity. He had decided that he would string her along for a couple of days more before paying her a visit to ask if he could ‘borrow some milk’.
As he went about his job, cleaning the washrooms at the Ministry of External Affairs’ premises, he mentally calculated how much money he had left. Affairs were expensive. Even a cheating housewife would demand to be pampered.
If he wanted to get into bed with her, an occasional gift was a must.
Due to his preoccupation, he almost missed the flurry of activity as he exited the general washroom on the second floor. Almost. Kanaujia watched curiously from the washroom door as a short, portly man in a sherwani and fur cap came stumbling out of the conference room, one hand to his face, surrounded by a ring of guards and diplomats. It took a minute or two to recognize him. The man was none other than the guest of honour for that day’s function!
Like a majority of smartphone users, Kanaujia’s instinct was to shoot first and ask questions later. Quickly, he slipped inside the general washroom, held the door open by a crack and pulled out his cellphone as the bunch of men drew closer. As they passed by the door on their way to the executive washroom, Kanaujia captured a perfect frame of the Pakistan high commissioner stumbling by, blood streaming from his nose, crying like a child who had been beaten up by the school bully.
What Kanaujia saw was the culmination of a series of events going as far back as 26 November 2008, when ten terrorists stormed the city of Mumbai and stripped it of its pride. For sixty hours, Indian security forces fought valiantly while everyone else watched helplessly.
Superintendent of Police Vikrant Singh, an Indian Police Service officer from the Maharashtra cadre, was among them. Then a deputy commissioner of police with the Anti-Terrorism Squad, Vikrant was in his office in Nagpada, completing the paperwork on a module of the Indian Mujahideen that he had busted two weeks earlier after months of hard work, when the phones and the wireless started going crazy. For the next ten minutes, he could scarcely believe what he was hearing. At the eleventh minute, he had rushed out of his office, pistol in his holster and spare magazines in one hand, and fishing out his car keys with the other.
Over the next two days, at the Oberoi-Trident hotel, Vikrant exchanged bullets with terrorists hell-bent on destroying the city he loved and saw many of his comrades, senior and junior alike, fall prey to their fire. After the National Security Guard finally stormed the hotel and finished the battle, a bruised, grimy and supremely infuriated Vikrant got into the first police vehicle he saw, drove to the Colaba police station around the corner and locked himself inside the Detection Room. One of the four constables manning the police station, who happened to be passing by, heard a series of loud thuds from within.
Even as he was debating whether or not to raise an alarm, the door opened and Vikrant walked out, his face expressionless, blood dripping from the knuckles of his right hand. He walked away without so much as looking at the constable, who rushed into the room. On the far wall was a freshly formed pit flecked with blood.
Locking himself in one of the washroom stalls, Kanaujia examined the photo he had taken. The man is clearly someone important. Kanaujia had seen him being brought to the building amidst tight security and a lot of very important people rushing to receive him. He racked his brains and finally remembered what the canteen fellow had told him about the cultural programme slated for that evening. It was a ghazal performance to promote friendly relations between India and Pakistan.
He studied the picture again. The left side of the man’s face – the part not hidden by his hand – was definitely swollen and beginning to turn purple. Thanks to the 13-megapixel camera and the ample lighting in the corridor, the photo was amazingly clear. Who the hell was he? Maybe Google could tell him…
Soon after 26/11, Vikrant, thanks to the IM module bust, was transferred to the Intelligence Bureau on deputation, something he had always wanted. He threw himself into the world of surveillance and monitoring like a man possessed, using all his source-building and investigation skills with the sole motive of preventing another 26/11. He found a mentor in his reporting head, Inspector General of Police Shahwaz Ali Mirza, who was not only an intelligence pro but also had keen insight into the way the mind of a radicalized Muslim youth worked.
After four years with the IB, Vikrant was transferred to the Delhi bureau of the National Investigation Agency, another outcome of 26/11. Two years later, Mirza too was transferred to the same bureau as Vikrant’s immediate superior. Both devoted themselves to investigating terror-related incidents and gathering strong evidence against terror accused.
But the wounds of 26/11 never really healed. For nine years, Vikrant had watched in helpless fury as the Indian government kept sending evidence to Pakistan, and Pakistan all but spat on the files. At the same time, both governments kept talking about nurturing friendly relations, promoting harmony and similar rubbish.
Which was why, when he learned that Pakistan High Commissioner Zakir Abdul Rauf Khan was going to be the guest of honour at the MEA’s concert to promote friendly relations between India and Pakistan, Vikrant had immediately asked Mirza to arrange a personal meeting with the diplomat.
‘Absolutely not!’ Mirza had thundered. ‘I’ll be damned if I’m letting you anywhere near the Pakistani high commissioner, with all that fire over 26/11 still burning inside you!’
‘Please, sir,’ Vikrant said. ‘I just want to talk to him.’
‘Yes, and I am the shah of Iran.’
‘With you, I can believe that,’ Vikrant replied, tongue in cheek. Mirza had to laugh. The number of identities he had assumed when he was a field agent for the Research and Analysis Wing were legendary.
After a minute’s silence, Mirza looked at his protégé thoughtfully.
‘This is important to you, son?’ Mirza asked softly.
‘It is,’ Vikrant asserted.
‘I’ll see what I can do. But I’m coming with you. Clear?’
And so it was that half an hour before the concert, Vikrant and Mirza had walked into the conference room where Khan was greeting the other guests. Mirza introduced Vikrant as ‘the talented boy who has cracked all those cases’, and Khan came forward with a big smile on his face.
‘Mashallah!’ he said, placing one hand on each of Vikrant’s burly shoulders. ‘We need people like you, beta. The world is in short supply of honest and dedicated men like you.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ Vikrant said. ‘I hope I am not the only one who dreams of a day when the work I do will no longer be required.’
‘Ah, but you see, beta, there are so many forces of evil working against people like you and me,’ Khan said sadly.
‘As long as we have each other, right, janaab?’ Vikrant said, smiling. Only Mirza knew that Vikrant hardly, if ever, smiled. He stiffened a little.
Khan smiled back. ‘Alhamdulillah!’
‘So, does this mean we can expect some progress regarding 26/11, sir?’ Vikrant asked.
‘Boy…!’ Mirza warned, but Khan, unaware of what he was walking into, stopped the veteran spy.
‘No, no. It’s okay. He is an investigator and this is a question he will naturally ask. You see, beta, the thing with democracy is that it has to take its own time.’
‘Its own time, as in, nine years?’ Vikrant said sardonically.
‘Nine, nineteen, ninety. As long as necessary. Verdicts should be based on evidence, not sentiment, or else how are your country and mine any different from the military rules that we condemn, don’t you agree?’
‘So you are going to stick to that, sir?’
‘That is my nation’s stand, beta. And hence, it is also mine. Till such time as we are shown concrete evidence, this will have to be our stand,’ Khan said, smiling condescendingly.
Vikrant chuckled. Mirza felt a tremor inside him.
‘You find something funny, barkhurdaar?’ Khan asked.
‘Just the fact that I had come here hoping to appeal to your finer instincts. To plead for justice for all those who died and who were left broken that night. They deserve closure, if nothing else.’
‘And why do you find it funny?’
‘Because now I know that there’s only one way to deal with you people.’
Khan turned to Mirza, who was, in his mind, begging for the diplomat to shut his bloody trap before it was too late.
‘Mirza sahab, our young friend is still at an age where he lets emotions get the better of him. It is up to us to forgive him, as life will soon teach him…’
The others in the room never got to know what life was going to teach Vikrant because at that very instant, Vikrant drew his right hand back and swung it with all the force he could muster, delivering a resounding blow on Khan’s left cheek. The force of the burly hand, coupled with eight years of pent-up rage, sent the short, portly diplomat careening into a table laden with sandwiches and cookies, on which he landed face first, breaking his nose.
An hour later, Kanaujia was dialling the number of a local Hindi newspaper that he regularly read.
‘I have something big,’ he told the harassed reporter who answered. ‘I want to know how much you’re willing to pay for it.’
Thursday morning, Bhopal.
Usman Qureshi smiled to himself as he walked out of his cell in Bhopal Central Jail. It was hot outside but the heat hardly bothered him. His mind was somewhere else.
As the prison guard unlocked his handcuffs, Qureshi eyed the four men already assembled in the yard. One was doing push-ups, while the other three were walking briskly. Grinning at them, he stepped forward to enjoy the one hour of exercise the prisoners were granted as respite from solitary confinement, rotating his wrists and stretching his shoulder muscles.
Qureshi came to a halt some distance away from Mazhar Khan, the one doing push-ups, and started stretching. Khan caught Qureshi’s eye and winked.
Qureshi turned towards his other three brothers-in-arms. Shaukat Asad was now sitting on the floor and doing yoga. Before the guard could notice, he quickly raised three fingers of his right hand slightly and then let them drop on his knee. Only Qureshi saw this gesture, and he gave the slightest of nods in return.
Mustafa and Ibrahim Kadir, who were brothers, were doing sit-ups in tandem in one corner of the yard. As they raised their torsos, both of them gave Qureshi a quick thumbs-up before going back down. Qureshi smiled.
‘Mashallah!’ he said.
The prison guard looked at him.
‘Such a beautiful day, isn’t it, saheb?’ he said to the guard, who continued to stare suspiciously.
Around twenty nautical miles off the coast of Somalia, three small motorboats waited patiently, anchored a few metres away from each other. There were five burly Somali men on each. It was well past 1 a.m. and they had been waiting for the last two hours.
None of them showed any signs of impatience or restlessness. They had been told beforehand that they would have to wait a while. ‘We might even call it off if it’s too risky. Wait till 2 in the morning and go back if nothing happens. Come back twenty-four hours later,’ were their instructions.
And hence, the fifteen Somalis, dressed casually in shirts and denims and sneakers, sprawled around their boats, munching on chips, sipping from cans of beer and smoking cigarettes.
‘You think it’s happening tonight?’ one of them asked.
‘We wait and we watch, man,’ his friend replied.
‘Yo!’ a third called from another boat. ‘Over there.’
Everyone looked in the direction indicated by their friend. They could see lights in the distance that were growing brighter. As the freighter came closer, the men on the boats started getting up. Packets of chips were crumpled and stuffed in pockets, cans of beer were tossed out and cigarettes were either stubbed out or stuck between their lips as the men collected their knapsacks.
Several rope ladders were already hanging from the side of the freighter as it drew up alongside the three boats. Four men from each boat clambered aboard while the remaining three turned the motorboats around and zoomed away into the night.
The twelve who had climbed aboard were met by a stone-faced man dressed in black combat fatigues who, without uttering a single word, walked over to four of them who had smoldering cigarettes in their mouths. Calmly, he plucked each cigarette from their lips and tossed them overboard. The men exchanged looks but no one protested.
Monday noon, New Delhi.
The impact of Vikrant’s slap was felt not only on Khan’s chubby face, but in a lot of other places over the following days.
The immediate outcome had been the diplomatic nightmare for the Ministry of External Affairs. Within half an hour of the incident, the Pakistani prime minister was on the phone with his Indian counterpart, having a heated exchange of words. The Indian prime minister, after slamming his phone down so hard that it almost broke, took a minute to calm down and then called the union home minister.
The home minister, after slamming his own phone down ten minutes later, had immediately ordered a central government inquiry against Vikrant Singh.
In another corner of the national capital, a pagemaker with Dainik Awaaz, a local Hindi daily, gleefully put the photo of Pakistan High Commissioner Zakir Abdul Rauf Khan, looking tearful and bleeding from his nose, being escorted from outside the conference room at the MEA building, while Raju Kanaujia happily counted the money that the reporter had given him.
‘It would be a good idea to disappear for a while,’ the reporter told him.
The next day’s edition of the paper got sold out within an hour. Pictures of its front page started circulating on social media and before noon, several national channels were bidding for the picture. The editor of Dainik Awaaz waited patiently as they outbid each other and ultimately sold the photograph to a leading news channel.
An hour later, even as the inquiry against Vikrant progressed, the same photo began flashing on the channel, with the headline claiming to have the ‘inside story’ of what really caused the ghazal programme to be called off. There was another round of furious calls from Pakistan to India and the verdict on Vikrant was decided even before the inquiry had started.
The information and broadcasting ministry tried to intimidate the news channel into taking off the photo, which they had put up as a permanent display on one half of the screen while the news anchor raged on relentlessly beside it. The same anchor revealed, on live television, how the government was trying to pressurize their channel and proclaimed that they would not ‘bow down to the whims of a government that is getting as dictatorial as it is irresponsible’.
In the middle of the storm that was raging around him, Vikrant Singh sat calmly in a small cabin in the MEA building, chewing gum and reading a novel from Peter James’s Roy Grace series. After Vikrant had slapped Khan, a furious Shahwaz Ali Mirza had pounced on him, dragging him out of the conference room and into the cabin with a strength and ferocity that surprised his junior.
‘Fucking stay there!’ Mirza growled before walking out, slamming the door shut behind him.
Two hours later, when Mirza returned with a couple of Special Protection Group personnel to take Vikrant into custody, they found him sprawled out on a chair, dozing.
As the furore over his actions heightened, Vikrant spent the next three days under house arrest while his fate was decided by the top bureaucrats of the country.
On the fourth day, Vikrant was back in the same cabin, waiting to be summoned into the inquiry, reading the fourth novel from the same series.
The door opened and he looked up to see Mirza enter the room. He closed the door behind him and sat down heavily on a chair.
Before his mentor could open his mouth, Vikrant said, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’
‘You bloody well should be,’ Mirza snapped.
Vikrant shook his head.
‘Not for what I did,’ he said. ‘For the trouble I caused you. If I know you – and I like to think I do – you must have moved heaven and earth in the last three days for my sake. I’m sorry for that.’
Mirza sighed. ‘Why, boy? Why throw away a career over this?’
Vikrant shrugged. ‘Some things are worth it.’
It was Mirza’s turn to shake his head.
The door opened and an SPG officer looked in.
‘They want him in there,’ he said curtly.
The inquiry, which everyone in the room knew was a mere formality, was presided over by Principal Secretary Aninda Das of the MEA. Also present were representatives from the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and the Maharashtra Home Department, and a retired director general of police.