In Suthsoo Kalan, Umar lay dead beside the drain. Security forces mopped up the neighbourhood, and thereafter displayed the weapons recovered from the two terrorists: two damaged rifles, an American M-4 carbine and a Russian M-4 Night Sight11 (M-4 carbines are shorter and more effective than the M-16 rifles the US Army used in the Vietnam war). Magazines, ammunition and a cleaning kit were also recovered from two blood-soaked pouches. Security forces recovered four Chinese grenades as well, and a rusted AK-56 assault rifle with its ammunition and magazines.

The two bodies were covered with a tarpaulin and placed in the back of a troop carrier belonging to Nowgam police station. They reeked with the stench of putrefied flesh, almost clogging the nostrils.

Later that evening, the corpses were driven to an unknown place in north Kashmir and laid to rest. There were no epitaphs or obituaries.

In Bahawalpur, the news of Umar’s killing was received with shock and anger. After his namaz-e-gaybana, or prayers in absentia, Rouf Alvi broadcast an audio message on JeM’s Rangnoor online channel condoling the death of his nephew. In a voice choked with grief, he told JeM supporters that Umar’s life had been cut short but his deeds had become immortal, that Umar’s name would be written among Islam’s greatest mujahideen and that he would attain the highest places in jannat ul firdous, or heaven. Not many of his listeners would know why Rouf Alvi said so; it would be only after the recovery of Umar’s phone that matters would become clearer.

Back in Nowgam, after the police completed all the legal and forensic formalities and extracted DNA samples from the two bodies, Fayaz Ganie and his two brothers were bundled up in a bulletproof bunker and taken to Nowgam police station. On being questioned, Fayaz said he was in possession of a mobile phone in damaged condition. He also told the forces about the third terrorist who had managed to escape. Fayaz’s brothers were let off when they were found to be innocent.

The next day, the police returned to Suthsoo Kalan. At Fayaz’s disclosure, a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 hidden under a pile of cardigans in an almirah in his room was recovered. The make, model and IMEI number of the Samsung phone were recorded in the seizure memo. But in its shattered condition, it did not evoke any serious attention.

No one knew who Umar was at this time, and for months, the phone would gather dust in the haphazardly packed malkhana, or storeroom, at Nowgam police station. It would be another nine months before the phone unravelled the secrets in its memory. Only then would the chilling tale of the planning and execution of the Lethpora attack emerge.

A senior officer from the investigating team later remarked that the discovery of the Samsung phone was sheer luck, kismet.

A day after the Lethpora blast in February 2019, the case was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the elite organisation specialising in the investigation of major terrorist strikes with international linkages. The agency was founded in 2009 after the deadly 26/11 terror strikes in Mumbai. In that operation, launched from Karachi, a group of ten well-trained terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, “The Army of the Pure”, hijacked an Indian trawler in the Arabian Sea.

As they approached the Indian megacity, they shifted into inflatable dinghies and rode the waves to dock near a poor fishermen’s village situated by Marine Drive, where India’s richest real estate can be found. In the historic megalopolis, these mercenaries unleashed a four-day-long dance of terror to inflict death in the streets, hotels, cafés, taxis and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station.

But even six months after the Pulwama attack, the NIA had barely been able to piece together the preliminary stages of the crime, each time hitting a roadblock.

While initial investigations based on forensics and other scientific evidence had given some clues, these were not enough to get a sense of who the perpetrators were. After all, such an operation had to be a well-planned conspiracy that could only have been carried out by a group of well-trained and determined cadres.

By the end of July 2019, NIA’s investigation had come to a halt. No further leads were available. By a stroke of luck, it then decided to look into the details of all recent operations involving JeM cadres. The circumstances, the militants killed and all recoveries made were carefully scrutinised. It was only then that investigators zeroed in on the Suthsoo Kalan encounter and chanced upon the Samsung phone.

The remains of the phone were sent to the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), the government’s premier agency for computer forensics and cybersecurity. Finally, the digital analysis laboratory exposed a vast number of video recordings, about sixteen hours of voice messages, hundreds of texts, and scores of useful pictures. Much of this data was recovered from the phone’s hard drive, but Umar had also saved some old data on the cloud, which took the bloody trail to Kausar Colony in Bahawalpur.

Umar liked to take selfies, pose with others and click pictures of the outdoors: There were photographs of apple trees, paddy fields, village brooks and majestic chinars. One could also make out his medium height and drooping shoulders. Umar was not particularly handsome, with chubby cheeks and a flat nose, and certainly not someone to be noticed in the busy Friday prayer rush at the neighbourhood masjid or in the festivities of an Eid bazaar.

His spritely beard defied his age but emphasised his religiosity. His Urdu was laced with a heavy Multani accent, and his voice was authoritative and commanding. His ability to invoke religion in routine conversations made him sound resolute in his purpose and made it amply evident that he deeply hated India and was determined to terrorise and bleed her.

Until the phone gave up its secrets, nobody had a clue about Umar, or the role he had played in the Lethpora attack.

Perhaps he had promised JeM he would take the secret to his grave. And he was true to his word. Umar was dead at twenty-three, and no one knew if he was carried to the promised paradise of yew trees and honeyed streams by beautiful virgins.

But though the slain do not tell any tales, Umar’s dead phone would come back to life and write a magnum opus. And that would unravel the story behind the Lethpora blast – an attack that nearly took India and Pakistan to war.

As Far as the Saffron Fields: The Pulwama Conspiracy

Excerpted with permission from As Far as the Saffron Fields: The Pulwama Conspiracy, by Danesh Rana, HarperCollins India.