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  • The novel that makes George’s point

    Posted On August 15, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    “We must retaliate” said Hari Dixit.

    “No” replied Unni Krishnan, almost in a whisper. “We must stop. If they strike again we are condemning the lives of another million people.”

    Dixit shook his head : “And if we don’t we’ll lose India.”

    “I don’t care if your bloody government falls.”

    “Neither do I. But if we capitulate now we’ll lose our status as a nation. Are the Agnis ready for launch?”

    “And if they target Delhi?”

    “We’ll die” said Dixit.

    Prime Minister Dixit, General Unni Krishnan and the entire Indian government were killed instantly. The Chinese bomb hit the capital between North and South Blocks. Lutyens Delhi was obliterated. It happened shortly after 3.10 in the afternoon on the 8th of May 2007. Two hours earlier at 1.15 a single 15 kiloton Chinese nuclear warhead exploded 185 meters above the Fort area of Bombay. Over 700,000 people died and the city was devastated.

    “They’ve won, haven’t they, Tom?” asked American President John Hastings of his National Security Adviser, Tom Bloodworth. News of the destruction of Delhi and Bombay reverberated around the world. At 5.30 a.m. in Washington the two were in the Situation Room of the White House. The war was over and China had won.

    “Won through their own brutality.”

    “Damn right they have” said Hastings. “They have won because they had nuclear weapons and they used them ruthlessly – just like we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

    This is the terrible outcome of Humphrey Hawksley’s Dragon Fire. It’s a novel and as yet the story is only fiction but the worrying question is : for how long?

    Hawksley’s story has two starting points. The first – a little unlikely but then truth can be stranger than fiction – is a rogue operation by a secret Tibetan military force raised by the Indian government. Unknown to its Indian principals, Tibetan commandos sneak into Lhasa, free an imprisoned but popular monk, provoke widespread riots and violence and leave the Chinese angry and humiliated. This happens on the 3rd of May shortly after midnight. Sixteen hours later General Hamid Khan, Pakistan’s Army Chief, storms into Parliament in Islamabad, arrests the civilian government and takes over the country. To ensure popular support he cuts a deal with the Jamaat-e-Islami. The terms are unequivocal.

    “Give us Kashmir, General ” Mullah al-Bishri, the Jamaat Chief, tells Khan. “If you give us Kashmir you will be the hero of the Islamic world.”

    In the five days that follow India finds itself at war with both Pakistan and China. India suffers serious reverses in Kashmir but its tanks strike deep into the heart of Pakistan at Rahimiyar Khan, threatening to split Sindh from Punjab. Its very survival at risk Pakistan carries out a tactical nuclear strike against the invading Indian armoured corp. The first nuclear war of the 21st century has begun. The time : 5.00 a.m. on the 7th May 2007.

    By 10.00 a.m. there are fears that Pakistan could be threatening an all out nuclear strike against the Indian mainland.

    “Missile launch from Pakistan!” shouted Unni Krishnan.

    “Target?” snapped back Hari Dixit.

    “Uncertain Sir. We won’t know until re-entry.”


    “Not known.”

    “Time to impact?”

    “Estimated three minutes.”

    Of the two missiles fired by Pakistan one is shot down by an Indian interceptor. The second hits Srinagar. It’s a multiple warhead conventional missile. One of the warheads destroys the Badami Bagh cantonment. The other kills 700 civilians in Lal Chowk.

    An hour later American B-52 bombers fly in from RAF Upper Heyford in England and drop non-lethal Tomahawk missiles over General Hamid Khan’s underground control bunker outside Islamabad.

    “As the Tomahawks exactly hit their target there was no fire-ball or wrenching explosion …. Instead, almost farcically, a thin, fog-like foam was dispersed over specific areas. Immediately, it began hardening and within minutes it had become as immovable as concrete, sealing the exits to the bunker like a glue .… It was impossible to know of the contingency plans – if any – Khan had drawn up for this type of attack …. There was no communication from Hamid Khan’s bunker, and, only when the conflict had ended did it become clear what had happened to him.”

    Pakikstan is literally taken out. After the war it becomes a UN protectorate. Hawksley’s story now concentrates on the developing Indo-China crisis. China has already invaded and captured large parts of Arunachal Pradesh and Chinese forces have entered Indian territory via Myanmar. The Americans, the British, the Russians, the Japanese and even the Singaporeans make frantic efforts to restrain the two belligerents but both have boxed themselves into corners from which no escape is possible. In fact, when the Indian army and airforce, freed from their preoccupation with Pakistan in the west, start to push back the invading Chinese in the east, the pressure on Beijing to do something dramatic grows. Chinese ‘face’ is under threat and China must act.

    An Indian Agni missile is launched from Gorakhpur against Chuxiong in mainland China. It carries a 1,000 kilogram conventional warhead. Prithvi missiles, with 500 kilogram warheads, are simultaneously launched from Arunachal. In retaliation, the Chinese hit back with Operation Dragon Fire.

    Russian President Gorbunov telephones John Hastings in the White House.

    “I have intelligence that the Chinese have initiated a nuclear strike against India” he said.

    Hastings was silent for a long time. “Are you in contact with President Tao?”

    “I am.”

    “Tell him to stop.”

    “It’s submarine-launched from the Bay of Bengal. Short of finding the vessel and destroying it, no one can revert the order.”

    “Is Tao sane?”

    As far as the novel is concerned, the question is academic. Historians will have to answer it. The next generation or perhaps the one after will know. The people living in Delhi and Bombay in 2007 died before they found out.

    It’s a harrowing story. But can it actually happen?

    I don’t know but when George Fernandes in May 1998 called China India’s potential threat No.1 and the rest of us laughed he might have had a point we should have listened to more attentively. It’s still not too late but it would be ironic if Hawksley’s work of fiction scares us sufficiently to take a second look at the situation.

    There are certain frightening lessons that emerge from Hawksley’s story. India’s nuclear weapons are of little deterrence against Pakistan. Even when hit with a tactical nuclear strike we are unable – or is it unwilling? – to retaliate in kind. However our restraint does bring the Americans swiftly to our side. It’s the Kargil scenario repeated but enlarged.

    Perhaps of greater concern is the realisation that fear of a nuclear war between India and China is neither sufficient to prevent it nor enough to bring the Russians and Americans into the picture. They believe that if they step-in they will aggravate the situation. So they choose to let the two Asian countries fight it out themselves. Their decision is to permit but contain rather than try to prevent at the risk of expanding. America may have sided with India against Pakistan but it did not against China. Was it helpless or was it unwilling? That’s an interesting question but in Hawksley’s book it can only be answered from the other side of the grave.

    The final lesson is one with which George Fernandes will instinctively agree : ultimately against China India may have to stand alone. If we fail to recognise the threat potential today then, on D-day, we may not be able to stand for very long.

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