Humphrey Hawksley’s novel was published in the year 2000 in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, and then the subsequent Kargil War. The subcontinent was then considered as the ‘most dangerous place on earth’. Twenty years later, his doomsday scenario holds more relevant and closer to realization that ever before. One might have scoffed at Dragon Fire in 2010 as being too fanciful, but in 2020, the threat of a 2.5 front war seems scarily prescient and if what happens in the novel is any guide, then Indians are in for some troubled times in the immediate future.
With neighbours like Pakistan and China, India can never hope for extended peace. Both these countries are jealous of India’s thriving democracy , economic potential and civilizational values. Pakistan craves Kashmir, which in turn wishes to be independent. China is forever insecure about Tibet, despite India’s recognition of China’s sovereignty in 2003. China also looks askance at Indian influence in Bhutan, and its incorporation of Sikkim, and has evil designs in Arunachal Pradesh. China has turned India out of Nepal. Both are jostling for influence in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Pakistan feels obliged to intervene in Kashmir and rallies jihadists for this cause, while China wants to keep the LAC undefined to keep chipping at India’s land. This all-weather alliance of the Islamic Republic and the Communist Dictatorship wants to keep India contained within the subcontinent.
The action in the novel begins when a renegade unit of Special Frontier Force (SFF), covertly maintained by India, and which draws its forces from among the Tibetan exiles flies an Indian military helicopter into Tibet in a bid to rescue one of their spiritual leaders. This attack on Lhasa prison fans general Tibetan uprising, which is brutally crushed by the Chinese, who promptly blame India for providing men and equipment for this insurrection. China swiftly retaliates through a sleeper cell attack on the Tibetan Parliament in Dharmasala. Pakistan provides tactical ground support for this operation, and also goes onto assassinate the Indian Home Minister in Kashmir through a stinger missile attack by its team of Mujahideens. Seething for revenge, India launches cross border strikes and inflicts token damage to mollify public opinion.
In the meantime, Pakistan’s ISI eliminates a wanted Xinjiang terrorist and offers unrequited help in Tibet, if required, in lieu for Chinese help in Kashmir. China, in turn, restores the Sino-Indian border to the pre-1996 levels, which means that India is forced to redeploy lakhs of troops back on the 2500 km long border. Pakistan seeks and secures DF-21 solid-fuel MRBMs, KS-1 Theatre Missile Defence System and Neutron Bombs (enhanced radiation low-intensity thermonuclear bomb) from China. The stage is set for escalation and the military leader of Pakistan is spoiling for action. Despite India’s action of disbanding the SFF, China expresses dissatisfaction, asks for a fresh border agreement and demands an unequivocal statement against supporting Tibetan independence while turning out Dalai Lama from the Indian territory. India, in possession of satellite images showing the Chinese handover of missiles to Pakistan, toughens its stand, refuses to give in to the Chin-Pak blackmail, and braces itself for war on two fronts.
Armed and emboldened, Pakistan invades Kashmir, and in response India launches ‘Operation Secure Ground’ to create a 10 km buffer on the Pakistan’s side of the international border from Kashmir to Rajasthan. Even as IAF bombards Pakistan’s major military installations and airstrips, Armoury Division pummels areas across the LOC into submission. But ISI-planned explosions rock Indian cities killing thousands of citizens. The Chicken’s Neck corridor is bombed too and as a result the North-east is cut off from the rest of the country.
It is then that PLA launches surprize attack on India from its bases in Myanmar and enters deep into Arunachal. Indian army hits back after initial shock.Pakistan drops a neutron bomb(tactical nuclear strike) upon Indian armoured division on its own soil to halt their march. This battlefield tactical strike leaves India shaken, but does not evoke nuclear retaliation. Rather India makes do with conventional Prithvi strikes but fails to check the unbridled aggression of Pakistan’s Army Dictator who hits Srinagar with Shaheen MRBM.
World Powers become involved by now, even as India faces communal riots in major cities. The talk of 2.5 fronts is real. USA reluctantly comes out of slumber and neutralizes Pakistan’s war command to help prevent a full-fledged nuclear war. Despite the efforts of US and Russia, China refuses to let down its offensive against India, and ends up sinking an Indian naval ship. As India prepares to strike Chinese bases in Myanmar with conventional Agni missiles, false hopes and vague promises made by the US result in loss of time and initiative. Simultaneously China fires a nuclear cruise missile on Mumbai and eventually on Delhi and this effectively seals the fate of the war. During this madness, even India hits China with token nuclear strikes on unpopulated Chedang and Western Hill.
In this melee, Taiwan declares independence but is bombarded by China into submission. US launches token missiles on some Chinese bases in Taiwan and the Five Powers under the leadership of Britain attack the Chinese base at Hanggyi Island (Myanmar) just to remain relevant. Despite their security guarantees, US and Japan are not able to effectively help Taiwan.IN the end, China prevails, Pakistan survives and India is crippled. How the post-War scenario pens out is not made very clear.
Dragon Fire was published in quite a different world- the pre 9/11 era, and yet the geographies, comparative economies, threat perceptions, geopolitical situation and thought-process as well as decision-making of great powers betrays eerie similarities with the prevailing current situation. China acts decisively against India because the Dragon assesses that the elephant must be cut down to size for it to establish hegemony in Asia. It cannot brook any interference or even whiff of it in Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Taiwan. India is bound by its democratic ideals and was burdened by the Nehru-Gandhi viewpoint of the world till recently. Pakistan cannot get over the tragedy of its birth, and cannot exist without whipping up hate against India, and wishing her dismemberment and destruction. The US is currently, as in the novel, in the middle of election season, and facing race riots. Russia aims to sell weapons to everyone concerned, and buy influence and re-establish its old greatness. Russia’s search for relevance and US’s lack of commitment to the democratic cause results in disastrous consequences for India. Europe is more or less silent, Israel was not then a big factor. UNO has no role to play. But no one counts them in anyway.
China finally emerges victorious and unscathed because of its economic might and the business opportunities it provides. She is too successful to be ignored for long. China successfully calls US’s bluff on India and Taiwan and emerges the greatest power in the world. The world moves on after paying lip service to India’s dead. Pakistan manages to pick up its pieces but was neutralized during the war, because being a laggard it was deemed expendable by the US. India, Tibet and Taiwan gain sympathies across the world, but democracies cannot hope to get decisive support from US or UN in times of need is a timely lesson. “Forgive, forget. Life is full of misfortunes”. The world has no time for values, it only respects money, military power and decisive action.
Humphrey Hawksley is an English journalist and author who has been a foreign correspondent of the BBC since 1980s.He is the author of Dragon Fire, Dragon Strike and The Third World War among other books.
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