LASHKAR (Harper Collins, 2008)

The sentry took one long, silent look at the dead man lying in the pool of blood. He did not bother to check his breath or pulse. The sentry had seen too many dead men not to be able to recognize death when he saw it. ‘Come on. We need to bury him. Come and help me.’

Bury him? Isn’t he from the Pakistan Army? Do you think it is okay to bury him here?’ Even as he spoke Iqbal realized it was not a very smart remark and his voice trailed off.

The sentry just gave a short mirthless laugh. More like a bark. ‘What do you think we should do? Take him back to Chakoti, hain?’ He gave that barking laugh again. ‘Do you really think those buggers care?’ He waved a vague hand in the direction of POK. ‘They even refused to collect their dead when the Indian Army was handing them over at Kargil.  Just because that would have meant acknowledging that they are Pakistanis.’  The sentry spoke in a very matter-of-fact way yet the anger and cynicism came through loud and clear.

‘Why do you say that? Why are you so cynical about them? You know they are helping us. They train us, give us money, weapons and...’

The sentry’s harsh laugh barked out again cutting off Iqbal. ‘You think they are doing it for us? You stupid bugger!’ He hawked loudly and spat in the corner of the hut. ‘They are doing it because they don’t have the balls for a fair fight. They have lost every damn war with India that is why they have inflicted this endless, aimless jihad on India. They are trying to bleed India by forcing it to fight this constant low grade war.’ The sentry jabbed a finger at him. Even in the darkness his anger was evident. ‘For the college guy that you seem to be you are quite a fucking moron. Can’t you do some simple maths? They didn’t hire you for money, but they know you need it to live so they give you... what? A few thousand bucks... right?... What do they give you if you die? Bugger all... right?’ He made another vehement gesture. ‘But what happens when one of their regular army soldiers dies? They have to pay hundreds of thousands as insurance, gratuity and pension to his family... right?’ He gave Iqbal a long angry glare, ‘Don’t you see? It is all about money. Only about money. Twenty dead mujahideen like us cost them less than one dead Pakistani soldier. Plus they have the comfort of denying that they are the ones who train us and task us to fight their war. They get to fight a cheap war at almost no cost to them. Even the few bucks they throw at us we earn for them by bringing out their drugs.’

‘Drugs?’ There was an incredulous look on Iqbal’s face.

Of course drugs! How do you think the drugs from Afghanistan reach America and Europe? Do you have any idea how many millions of dollars those shit-eaters earn from drugs? Most of it fills the coffers of those fancy ISI generals, CIA agents and our great fearless leaders… a few paltry pieces are also thrown at us to buy arms and ammunitions.’

‘I don’t believe that.’ Iqbal retorted with angry vehemence. ‘You must be mistaken.’

‘Really? You want to go and take a look at the backpack of that guy? Go on!’ He gestured angrily towards the dead man lying between them. ‘You want to come with me to the main camp in the next valley and have a look? Damn you!’ He spat out vehemently. ‘I know what you are feeling. That is exactly how I felt when I came to know how I have been used and abused…’  The sentry stopped suddenly. He threw up his hands in a weary gesture as though the futility of it all had gotten to him. ‘They are ruthless bastards. We are just pawns in their great game. Irrelevant. Expendable. They don’t fucking care who lives or who dies...’ He looked away and a long pause reigned. The pain and confusion starkly etched on his face reached out to Iqbal, overwhelming his mind with confusion. Suddenly the sentry shook himself and returned to reality. ‘Come let us bury this poor bugger… before he begins to stink.’
They carried the limp body out. Iqbal’s mind ached with the cacophony of thoughts that swamped him. ‘Then why do you still accept their support if you know all this?’ Iqbal finally mustered up the courage to ask as they carried the body towards the forest. ‘Why do you continue fighting if you think all this is futile?’

The sentry didn’t answer for a long time. Even when he finally did he spoke really very softly, almost as though he was talking more to himself than answering Iqbal’s question. ‘What choice do I have now?’ His voice was almost lost in the wind and Iqbal had to really strain to make out what he was saying. ‘Back in those days... when the blood ran hot and the cause burnt bright I killed many Indian soldiers. Seventeen... you know...   seventeen operations I have taken part in. My rifle has accounted for many of them. They know about me...’ For one fleeting moment his face brightened with some deeply buried, long forgotten pride. That moment passed so fast that for a moment Iqbal thought he had imagined it. ‘Do you know what they will do if they catch me?’ He spoke very softly. As though talking to himself. There was a long silence. Iqbal could think of nothing to say. The sentry himself seemed to be pondering over what he had said.

They were putting down the body to start digging when he startled Iqbal by suddenly speaking again. ‘The Indian soldier has become hard today. Much harder than they were when the jihad began. These days they are far more willing and ready to pull the trigger than they used to be.’ Pause. The sentry stopped to catch his breath. By now they were both breathing hard with the effort. ‘I guess their patience is running thin. May be they are just tired of waiting to be shot at first.’

The silence returned as they started to dig again. The ground was cold and hard. The chilling cold only made it tougher to dig. The freezing, numbing wind sliced through them as they dug. The ground became a bit softer once they got through the hard outer crust. Luckily they did not encounter any big rocks. Despite that Iqbal could feel the sharp pain in his muscles. It almost overwhelmed the confusion in his head.

‘Do you know what happened once?’ The sentry suddenly spoke again as he paused to catch his breath. Yet again he seemed to be reminiscing more to himself than communicating with Iqbal. ‘We had gone to pick up rations and stores from Srinagar when Indian soldiers suddenly started a cordon and search of the area. I was standing right there... barely ten feet away... when one of our guys panicked and tried to run. He was a young kid barely out of his teens… a new recruit who had just gotten back from training. They shot him down like a dog. They must have hit him at least a dozen times. There was no way he would have lived. He was barely alive... trying desperately to crawl away when one of the Indian soldiers walked right up to him and put one more bullet in his head.’

‘Can you imagine... just walked up to him and... BANG... right between the bloody eyes.’ The sentry gave another snorting laugh. There was no humour in it. ‘Do you know what I heard the soldier say when he was walking away from the boy he had shot?’ The sentry looked at Iqbal, as though he expected him to know. ‘Motherfucking Pakis... the only good ones are the dead ones.’ He laughed again. This time there was a cruel, bitter and manic edge to his laugh. ‘Motherfuckers…’ he said again, in a soft low hiss, to no one in particular. After that the sentry did not speak again. Almost as though he had run out of thoughts, or maybe the words to vocalize the thoughts.

They dug on in stony silence. It took them almost two hours to put the dead man safely under the ground.

‘We have to make sure he is deep enough or wild animals will feast on him.’

Iqbal shivered. It was not just the cold that was getting to him.

Tags : Mukul Deva, Lashkar, Lashkar series, good Indian thriller writers, Salim must die, tanzeem, blowback,