D – Day & Night :
When the Earth Shook & The Bombs Fell
The birds sensed it first. With great cacophony they took to flight in panic, flying off in all directions. The animals too sensed it and began running helter-skelter. The domestic animals, mostly buffalos, yanked themselves off their moorings and ran off with the rope trailing behind them.
The first wave of the earth quake hit Sukhna at 0230. It measured 7.7 on the Richter scale. It lasted for around 33 seconds. The tremor was so strong that it broke the legs of the wooden bed and Lt Gen Prakash Singh fell to the ground along with the bed with a thump. He was alone, his wife was on a visit to her native place in Bihar. All electrical bulbs fused and there was complete darkness. He was in the REM phase of deep sleep and hence awoke disorientated in complete darkness. He lay there dazed and hence when the roof collapsed, the support beam fell squarely on him and crushed his head like a broken egg.
The walls of his house collapsed and the roof fell on Brig Sawant too. But a stroke of luck, his bed was against the wall, leading to the garden. Though there was a huge mound of rubble over and around them, his wife and Sawant were trapped in an air pocket with a leg and arm caught below roof beams. The dust made them cough, and in the darkness they lay there not comprehending what had happened to them.
The first shockwave lifted the concrete blocks of the runway and taxi tracks at Bhagdogra and Hashimara airfields and piled them at crazy angles. All hangars and blast pens collapsed inwards on the aircraft parked inside. The air traffic tower, as also all water tanks, simply disintegrated into rubble. At Paro, the destruction of the runway and hangars were worse. The river adjacent to the runway changed course and it began to flow across the middle marker, washing away everything in it’s wake. All aircraft, as well as Apaches parked under the hangar, were destroyed when the hangar collapsed.
In the first wave, just about every concrete structure in Sikkim and adjoining area of eastern part of Nepal and western part of Bhutan fell down. The roads simply disappeared. Check dams broke and rivers changed their course. The worst affected was Kerang, where the quake measured 8,8. The mountain slopes detached and slid down hill. It took with it everything in it’s way. In the Siliguri corridor, the shock was comparatively less, only 7.4. However, because of urbanisation and denser population, the devastation was unimaginable. The ground shook and turned everything to rubble. The death toll was incredible, the magnitude of the tragedy indescribable. It panicked the population and they began to run in all directions, especially because of the previous quake. The peasants were now convinced that the earth was going to split into two.
Their tent collapsed on Pink and Nim and it took them a while to crawl out from under the tent, quite dazed by the strange experience. They went looking for Sen and Vaz and found them staring at their two Apaches with incredulity. The helipad had disappeared. In it’s place there was knee deep concrete powder and steel rods sticking out. The slope towards the town had become a steep gradient. The two parked Apaches had jumped chocks and rolled down the slope. When Pink and Nim ran to their aircraft they found it in a mind boggling ten degree nose up attitude with it’s tail sticking out over a sheer 40 feet drop. But they were amazed to see that their aircraft was absolutely undamaged. Sen was already mobilising their ground crew to push and pull the two aircraft further upslope and to prevent it from pitching tail first into the chasm that led to the engineering yard or what was left of it. Pink and Nim put their fragile hands and shoulders to task, shoulder to shoulder with the men, heaving with all their might.
17 (I) Mtn Bde had marched up the mountains from Paro and had bivouacked ahead of Damtang towards Yadong pass in a cul-de-sac, below a scree slope with aggregate and gravel. When the quake began, the river of pebbles, gravel and aggregate began to slide down the mountain, gathering momentum as it went. It quickly formed into an avalanche, coming down slope faster, finally filling the cul-de-sac like a Tsunami, completely burying 17 (I) Mtn Bde without a trace.
Brig Wongdi was an insomniac and a chronic nicotine addict. He had not been able to sleep due to the strict no smoking rules of the palace. So he had walked out into the balcony and afterwards stepped out into the garden to admire the red and white geraniums in the moonlit night. He felt the tremors under his feet build to a crescendo. He felt the sinusoidal waves lift him and drop him about ten inches at low frequency. He heard the tortured soulful grinding noises from deep within the earth. However he had no difficulty to keep standing, it reminded him of standing on a sea beach while the waves pounded and retreated, the sand sliding from under his feet. The massive hundred year old trees around him fell down but the plants hardly shook. For a few seconds he stood rooted, with his hands on his hips, till realisation dawned. He turned to look at the palace, there was very little left of it standing. ‘My God, the King and Queen are in danger’, he mumbled to himself. ‘I have to get them out to a safe place’. Sonam did not procrastinate. He was a man of action, a life time of reacting to strange situations. He ran to the gate knowing that there would be soldiers there. He had to get help to dig the king and queen out of the rubble. ‘Koi Hey ?’, he shouted in a parade ground voice.
A ‘Tweeter’ in Siliguri was the first to announce the catastrophe. He tweeted, ‘Moses is here, he is parting the mountains, I am off to heaven’. The meteorological office and observatory in Shillong recorded the event on their seismograph. The pen went off the trace paper several times and recorded a broad continuous line instead of the usual up and down line. A night watch met officer in Ranchi airport issued a ‘Notam’, ‘Bad Earth Quake, all flights to Ranchi to check air field condition prior to approaching’. The all night news channel ND TV put out a warning, ‘Earth quake somewhere in the eastern sector’.
Out of nowhere, one more Kilo class sub joined the chase. ‘INS Periyar’ and one of it’s two Corvette escorts were torpedoed in quick succession at 0300 hrs IST. There was much violent high speed manoeuvring by the second Corvet using depth charges,. However, in a pincer movement by three Kilo class subs this Corvette too was torpedoed at 0307 IST. The three ships sank quickly with all hands on board. The Chinese dhow sent an armed boarding party on board ‘Sagar Samrat Ashoka’. They shut all operating personnel in the bunkhouse, set explosives on the rig with delayed fuse and left as quietly as they came. At 0400 hrs IST when Sagar Samrat Ashoka’ blew, it created a huge oil spillage. The oil caught fire with billowing smoke and was picked up easily by Mil Sat in it’s orbit high above the earth. It’s pinging for the transponder messages were not answered by any of the war ships. Automatically an emergency message was sent by Mil Sat to warn Eastern Naval Command at Vizag that there was something drastically wrong happening in China Sea. But it would be CIA, through US embassy in Delhi, who would warn the Govt the next day that the China Sea was on fire and that there was no trace of the drill ship Sagar Samrat Ashoka. The 7th Fleet of US Navy at Manila had despatched a destroyer, as well as long range reconnaissance aircraft, to do damage assessment. No survivors were found.
The two aftershocks, when they came at 70 and 90 minutes interval, were as bad as the original quake. Though each lasted the same time as the original one, they created more catastrophes. The civilian population in Sikkim fled in all directions. The entire 33 Corps was made redundant, barely able to move about, or take care of themselves.
The Prime Minster was woken up by her PA and told of terrible things happening in the east, details not known. She asked for the National Security Advisor (NSA) and was told that he was admitted to the R&R Army hospital with severe Typhoid. She did not think twice. ‘Call Prakash Menon, tell him to come here immediately’. Lt Gen Prakash Menon Rtd PVSM, AVSM, VSM, PhD, Deputy NSA, was an absolutely upright and very youthful old soldier from the regiment of ‘Guards’. He was erudite, sagacious, soft spoken and non pretentious. The young Prime Minster had absolute confidence that the old man would know what to do.
When his mobile rang at his bedside, Prakash was dreaming of a long winded argument for his PhD, ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Limited War’. No matter how hard he argued, and no matter what good sense he conveyed, his wife kept objecting, ‘No Prakash, I don’t agree’. ‘Wake up, wake up’, she said in the real world, poking her sharp nails on his chest. ‘Prakash wake up, the mobile is ringing, it is the PM’s residence’ she mumbled, turned around and went back to sleep. Prakash awoke with a start, with the premonition that the country was at great peril. That the toughest battles that he had fought in Kargil, Siachen and in Sri Lanka were nothing compared to what lay ahead of him. The future of the nation lay in his hands. Fear gnawed at his entrails. But he was resolute and unhesitating. He was confident that he would do his duty, good or bad as per his judgement, but the interests of the country and his fellow citizens would come first and his selfish survival instincts would come last. That was a life time habit. He was a soldier’s soldier, a thinking one. A greying and withered Lion, perhaps tamed and seasoned like a lamb. ‘I still have sharp teeth and claws that automatically extended when in peril’, he mused. He trooped to the toilet in good humour. He would not go and meet the PM without shaving. Afterwards he dressed in a simple shirt, tie and a tweed coat. He then dug around his cupboard and pinned his miniature medals to his chest. If he was going to play an old soldier, he reasoned that he may as well be dressed for it. He also went back to the toilet and pocketed his toothbrush and razor. He knew that it would be quite a while before he came back home, if at all he could come back home. He tip toed and left home without waking his wife, he did not like melodrama. He drove his own battered car at a moderate pace to Race Course Road, to the PM’s house, where his destiny beckoned to him.
At dawn, the Chinese began to do heavy artillery, long distance shelling of Nayoma sector. In the cover of darkness they launched two pontoon bridges over the Indus and a Chinese mechanised infantry regiment crossed over at Demchok. They over ran the ITBF post and rapidly set course for Tashigang. Within two hours, before the Indian army could react, they had over run and captured the lightly defended advanced landing ground. Two Y-9 (C130) aircraft landed immediately afterwards and discharged reinforcement to hold down the air field. The mech inf regiment moved on at high speed towards Dungti and Nayoma. Another mech infantry regiment, with a long baggage train of tracked and wheeled vehicles began to cross the river after building two more pontoon bridges further downstream towards Tashigang.
Early morning a well balanced Sino Indian artillery duel recommenced in the general area ahead of the Bum La Pass. The Chinese also began to send occasional Dong Feng DF-15 tactical ballistic missiles at Tawang, Zeminthang, Bomdila, Sepla and Koloriang. The Indian army responded immediately with Bhramos and Prithwi missiles at pre designated targets in Tibet. The ‘tit for tat’ war went on all day. Towards late afternoon, a Bde sized Chinese force was spotted descending into the Sumdorong Chu valley.
There was chaos and anarchy in Sikkim and in Siliguri corridor. The civilian population started to run away, in all directions, using any means. It started as a trickle, a few in panic. The panic spread rapidly and soon the entire mass became dynamic, cluttering and choking mobility and free passage. The entire police force went missing. The leadership of 33 Corps lay under rubble, none to organise rescue operation. The army was in disarray, with no control of even their own men. Telephone lines, cellular as well as microwave communications became dysfunctional. The radio spectrum and satellite communications got jammed with SOS and panic calls, every one asking for help and advice on what to do. With whatever junior leadership that was available, in penny packets in the mountainous terrain, cut off from each other, the army went looking for their own men and to voluntary provide ‘aid to civil power’ when they felt they had the resources, and if there was any sensible civil power left. The civil power was the first to run.
The Chinese predawn air strike on Chabua and Tezpur was less than successful because the two airfields were covered with early morning fog. The bombs fell ineffectively in the tea gardens around the airfields, killing many plantation labour, mostly women picking tea. The C-in-C Eastern Air Command at Shillong ordered immediate closure of all civil air traffic east of Bagdogra. Calcutta FIR was asked to re-route all international east to west flights through the Nagpur / Chennai corridor. He ordered IAF on immediate Op Alert and all ORPs to be manned. He ordered urgent tactical and photo reconnaissance to be carried out over entire Sino Indian border along Arunachal as well as Siliguri corridor by Su-30 and Mig-29 assets. As an afterthought, he said, ‘I will talk to the Chief later, but have the survey done to a 50 km depth into China. Tell the boys that I don’t want them to start a war, engagements if necessary, and only for self protection’. Afterwards he remarked pompously to his Chief Of Staff, ‘I say, this feels like war’.
The Army Cdr Eastern Command commandeered a civilian Gulfstream-V business jet aircraft from a businessman friend and took off from Calcutta on a reconnaissance mission in the Siluguri corridor and over Sikkim. After a two hour flight, when he landed back at Calcutta, he was completely overwhelmed by the devastation and the magnitude of the crisis. Nothing that he had ever done before, or trained for, had any relevance to what he now had to do. He called the Army Chief immediately, on his mobile, before he got down from the Gulfstream. Without mincing words, he gave him the brief run down and the magnitude of the catastrophe. ‘Sir, the earth quake has completely devastated Sikkim and Chicken’s neck. 33 Corps seems completely written off. I am told there was a Chinese airstrike on Air Force airfields in the east this morning. Tawang is reporting heavy arty battle. I presume that the earth quake is an unfortunate coincidence with what seems a potential engagement with the Chinese in the east. I request permission to impose Armed Forces Special Powers Act in my area of operation, I really have no choice’.
The Army Chief responded with alacrity, ‘I am aware. There is something terrible happening on all fronts, north, east as well as the west. I am on my way to meet the DNSA and the PM. However, go ahead, this is an unprecedented national crisis. Unless I call you back, assume that you have AF SPA and do whatever is necessary, you have my full support’.
The Army Cdr Eastern Command turned to the young eager pilot, and his equally young and impressionable female co-pilot.
‘I am acquiring this aircraft and the two of you as govt property , under the special powers act’, he said. ‘You will be under command of my staff officer here. Go where he tells you to go. Do what he tells you to do. He will arrange anything and everything for you, whatever you need’. He then turned to his young Staff Captain ADC.
‘If you find any obstruction from any quarter, request once, order the second time under AF SPA, and if that also doesn’t work, shoot them in the head. Is that understood ?’, he stated in a mild tone but with absolute authority.
The staff captain squared his shoulder, puffed out his chest.
‘Absolutely clear, Sirrrr’, he said sombrely, with full comprehension of the situation and calamity that faced the Army Cdr.
‘Take the Gulfstream to Ranchi’, the Army Cdr ordered. ‘Go at once. Bring Gen Dhiren here to see me. I will call him and he will be at the airport when you land. Now Go, Go, Go’.
The clock went backwards by 20 yrs. The Army Cdr suddenly felt young and virile, just like when he was in command of the elite National Security Guard commando. He turned and ran towards his staff car, and Military Police escorts, standing by on the tarmac. ‘Go, Go, Go, take me to the CHQ as fast as you can’.
By the time Prakash reached the PM’s house, the three service chiefs were already there, along with the Secretary RAW and Director IB. Immediately afterwards, several key ministers of the GOM, summoned by the PM, also arrived. They hastily assembled in the conference room where the PM huddled with her husband and two young children.
‘I say what is happening, why aren’t you guys doing your job ?’, the PM’s husband interjected pointing his finger at the three chiefs.
The three service chiefs looked at Prakash for support. Prakash simply shook his head, silent counsel. The PM’s husband, a business man, was a thoroughly spoilt, supercilious and pushy person. There was loud silence. The quiet and affable Defence Minister coughed, retightening his ‘Dhoti’, revealing his striped underwear. The Home Minister turned his back and started to study a large MF Hussain painting on the wall. The Finance Minister, the oldest member in the group and most respected, dragged out a chair and sat down with a thump.
The PM stood up. She was a frail woman, rather tall even in her bare feet. She was wearing a fashionable pair of below the knee black trousers that accentuated her larger than usual bare feet. She usually walked around bare feet at home. She wore a simple white Armani tank top, her hair coiled carelessly on top of her head and pinned there with a pencil.
She stood like a colossus, silently looking down on her husband and children with her hands on her hips. There was four generation of politics and national leadership in her genes. At that moment she looked amazingly like her illustrious grandmother.
‘Bob, for once I want you to listen to me’, she said impassively, her voice soft and modulated, but as cold as ice. ‘Take the children and go somewhere else’, she said. ‘When I need you, I will call you. And if you interfere in matters of the Govt Of India again, I will ask the security to lock you up in Tihar’. She waited till her husband and children left the room. She then walked to the head of the conference table, pulled out a chair and sat down.
‘Gentlemen, please sit down’, she said politely, the dimples on her cheeks accentuating her usually cheerful and charismatic face. ‘The country seems at peril. So tell me, what is your advice for the Prime Minister ?’
Prakash signalled to the Air Chief to begin. The CAS was the current Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The CAS spoke quietly, scratching his morning stubble. He was brief and to the point, asking the army chief, as well as the RAW and IB for clarifications once in a while. The Chief of the Naval Staff sat quietly.
The churlish and imperious Minster of Industries interjected. ‘So what you are saying is that the bloody Pakis and the bloody Chinese have attacked India simultaneously..... and more or less at the same time there is a bloody earth quake that has paralysed the bloody army in the bloody Chicken’s neck. Next you are going to say that we are going to have the Bloody Bangaladeshi’s and the bloody Nepali’s and probably the bloody Butanese also attack us. Is there any more calamity that you can find early this morning ? So why didn’t you stop all of them from attacking us ?’.
‘Easy’, the Fin Minster admonished, putting a hand on the Industry Minister’s arm to restrain him.
The Home Minister was an astute man, with a clinical and legal bent of mind that had been preoccupied with terrorism from the west for several years. ‘I say’, he interjected. ‘The hostilities in the eastern sector seems mild compared to the west’, he pointed out. ‘I am not militarily wise mind you, but I think the immediate crisis seems to be in the west. I think the Chinese are only needling us simply to divert our attention and military assets from the west. We need to focus on what is to be done to stop Paki aggression’.
‘What is your reading of the situation ?’, the PM asked the Defence Minister.
‘Ayyo, I am zimbly confused’, he stated without guile.
The PM turned to the RAW and IB chiefs. ‘What about you ?’ she asked.
The Director IB shook his head and the Secretary RAW spoke on both their behalf. ‘We have had no intelligence warning. This is quite a surprise. However, we will try and give you a more meaningful brief by this evening’.
The PM turned to the Fin Minister for wise counsel. ‘It seems we have no choice but to declare war on Pakistan as well as China at the same time’, she said with profound sadness, she could guess the consequences.
Prakash cleared his throat.
‘Sorry’, the PM nodded. ‘I forgot to ask you’ she said simply.
‘Madam Prime Minister’, Prakash cleared his throat again. ‘The first thing that we need to do immediately is for the GOM and yourself to shift to the bomb shelter. I have already sent word to clean up and establish adequate communication link there. Do not go public yet. We have yet to do a complete damage assessment and establish motives or intensions. There is nothing to be gained from declaring war immediately. There is no hurry, at least not now, may be later this afternoon. Give each one of us time to evaluate, plan and think this over so that we can give you meaningful advice. The Air Force and the Army are already doing defensive actions. Mobilise the National Disaster Management Teams to Sikkim like we did last time. I am glad that the parliament is not in session. The IB to send out teams immediately, collect and bring all MPs that they can find to their bomb shelter. As quickly as possible we need to shift the Govt Of India to a safe place, after that we decide what best to be done to defend the country’.
‘I agree with him completely’, said the Fin Minister, looking around, brooking no arguments.
‘Very well’, said the PM. ‘I adjourn the Govt till four O’clock this evening. When we meet again, I would like to see a firm plan of action from each one of you in your own area of responsibility’. She pushed her chair back and got up to leave.
‘Madam’, Prakash interrupted. ‘Should I make arrangement for your husband and children ?’.
The PM stood on one leg, her head cocked, hip thrust sideways. She thought for half a minute. ‘No’, she said eventually. ‘The children and citizens of this country are the first priority of a Prime Minister. Personally, I do not wish to go and hide in a bomb shelter when the country is exposed. However, I understand the need for the Govt to go into hiding. At this moment my husband and children will be treated like all citizens. The Govt has to find a way to protect all of them’. She walked out without much ado to her private quarters.
‘Momy has to go away for a few days’, she told her two children hugging them to her chest. ‘Dad will take care of you’, she said. ‘Be good, God be with you’.
Immediately afterwards, as India was beginning to prepare for another routine working day, the PM was whisked away by her security staff in an unmarked armoured CRV with tinted glass to the Nuclear shelter for the Govt Of India with restricted access only for her cabinet colleagues and the top echelon of the Govt Of India. The other dignitary who was brought in a similar manner to the same shelter was the Vice President, now officiating as the President. Later in the day the Speaker and Members of Parliament were taken one by one to a similar shelter at another location.
The Govt Of India did not declare war, at least not on the first day. It caught the rest of the word by surprise. A resolution was tabled in UN Security Council by the representative of the Republic of Gabon (Africa) urging Pakistan, China and India to resolve their border crisis peacefully and to prevent inadvertent or purposeful use of nuclear weapons. Both members from China and India abstained from voting, akin to a ‘vito’ of the resolution.
To be continued ...........