Nov 26, 2008 – 1800 Hrs
He has just finished his evening run. He had run 5 kilometers, hard and light on his feet, finishing close to his best time of 16 minutes and 22 seconds. All he had to do now was wash up and have dinner with his squad.
He remembered his instructor’s ‘commandment’:
“Never pass up a chance to eat…. You never know when you might eat next.”
He washed up in the locker room and changed into the standard issue casual t-shirt and trousers. He entered the Mess Hall where many of his colleagues had already gathered for an early dinner – a strict law at the NSG Garrison at Manesar, Haryana.
After eating the usual, nutritious, but bland, dinner, everyone sat around for some time, chatting. He listened while his squad mates talked about their family and friends. He listened quietly, not contributing much, but not missing much either. He was always calm and composed, measured in his talk.
Sure, he had several close friends who he could count on and who could count on him any time, any place. He was always helpful, but never let his guard down. Perhaps, this is what brought him to the notice of his Captain when he was commissioned as a Lieutenant to the 7th Battalion of the Bihar Regiment in 2000. He had served in locations like Jammu & Kashmir and Rajasthan, countering insurgencies. His ability to lead and strategize on the field during action was duly noted and forwarded to his superiors, who were always on the look-out for signs of leadership and commitment towards cause and country.
After the post-dinner chat, he moved to his room to catch up on his reading. He had picked up a few books when he had gone to Bangalore a few months back to visit his parents. He had finished reading all the books, except one which he had started last night.
Nov 26, 2008 – 2200 Hrs
A few chapters down, he decided to call it a night. He placed the book on the only table in the room and was about to lie down on his bunker when his roommate came bursting through the door.
“There has been a terrorist attack on Mumbai….. It’s all over the news!! Quick… come to the Mess Hall” his roommate cried out.
He jumped out of his bed and followed his roommate to the Mess Hall, both running. He saw several others rushing into the Hall like him, eager to know more.
“Mumbai is under attack…. Several gunmen have opened fire at various locations across Mumbai, killing and injuring several people. It is not clear who or how many of these gunmen there are, but reports that have just come in have confirmed that there are some policemen among the people killed…..” said the excited, young girl on the television.
Within the next one hour, the entire story unfolded. As he listened, he learned that these gunmen had targeted some of the most crowded locations in the financial capital of the country and inflicted extensive damage. They were holed up in two five-star hotels in the city. When the hotels were identified as the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel Oberoi Trident, he remembered his last visit to the city. He remembered visiting the Gateway of India and seeing the landmark Taj Mahal Palace hotel in front of the old monument.
Slowly, the entire situation sunk in and everyone knew that soon, they might have a role to play in the events that were unfolding. In spite of this knowledge, no one could look away from the television screen, mesmerized by the sheer audacity and the simplicity with which the gunmen had placed the city under siege.
As though everyone had willed it, the Garrison chief entered the Hall and everyone fell silent. Someone had the sense to mute the television. The chief looked at the men and said,
“I do not have to tell you what is going on. It’s obvious what is going on. All we know about this is what we have seen in the media. Even the Centre does not have more information. We have got orders to handle the situation. Everyone, get ready, we leave in half an hour.”
The chief turned and left the Hall.
Nov 26, 2008 – 2330 Hrs
Most of his squad mates were waiting near the garrison gates. When he joined them, they told him the itinerary for the day. They were to travel to Delhi and then to Mumbai from there.
“Transportation should arrive soon” one said.
Everyone was carrying their weapons of choice and extra ammunition in their bags. They traveled light, never carried unnecessary items. In 5 minutes, two rickety buses stopped in front of the gates. Everyone got on and the buses started moving towards Delhi.
“Delhi in 1 hour and then 2 hours to reach Mumbai – hope we get there before it is too late” he thought.
His estimates were correct – at least initially – and they reached the Palam airport in Delhi in a little over an hour. The entire squad got down and entered the airport which had been cleared for their arrival. Everyone checked their weapons and arsenal. By 0100 hrs, they were ready to fly out. They moved to the tarmac waiting for the plane to arrive.
Half an hour later, they were still waiting for the aircraft to arrive. He walked towards the coordinator and demanded to know what was happening. The coordinator shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“An aircraft is being flown in from Chandigarh. Nothing else is available. It should be here soon.”
Finally at 0200 hrs, the aircraft landed at the strip and the squad moved towards the plane. He saw that it was an old Il-76 Russian aircraft.
“Probably from the mid-nineties” he thought.
Everyone took their places and the plane took off with a shudder. He spoke to his squad mates and recalled and reminded them of the various strategies that they had learned and practiced over the last couple of years to handle similar situations.
Nov 27, 2008 – 0500 Hrs
The plane landed at Mumbai airport. He and his squad mates got down, seething with anger about the travel time taken to reach ‘Ground Zero’. The ancient aircraft took three hours to reach the city, double the time taken by commercial airplanes. The squad exited the airport and got into the city buses arranged to transport them to the contact point. They all crowded in and moved slowly towards South Mumbai. He was going over the different approaches to tackle this situation in his head.
During the plane ride in, they had received information that an unknown number of gunmen had also taken over a building complex in South Mumbai which contained a Jewish center. The gunmen had also contacted news channels and declared themselves to be part of an unknown group called “Deccan Mujahideen”. The local police had prematurely confirmed that the situation at Taj Mahal Palace hotel was over, but latest reports had verified fresh explosions and gun fights at the location.
At the airport, they had met the NSG chief who had explained the entire situation to them:
“This is Operation Black Tornado. We will follow the usual procedures. First we will set the perimeter. Then study the layout of the hotels and the building complex. The terrorists are armed with AK-47s and several grenades. They have been unpredictable and there has been no official communication with them. They appear to have a good working knowledge of the layout of the locations and have taken several guests in the hotels and residents of the building complex hostage. We have received orders to shoot on sight. We will have snipers covering all locations from all possible angles. Their use will be limited though, to ensure safety of the hostages. Their safety is the number one priority.
All right, men… I know the information is limited, but we have to work with what we have. Move out to the buses parked outside and you will be taken to your assigned locations. Good luck.”
The chief divided the Special Action Group (SAG), the offensive arm of the NSG, into 3 different groups to tackle each location. He was the team commander of the squad deployed at Taj Mahal Palace hotel.
On arrival, the squad set out checking the perimeter set up by the local police and the Special Rangers Group (SRG) squads that arrived before them. He was concerned that the perimeter was not set up too far from the hotel and media personnel and the public was crowding the boundaries. He asked his squad to monitor the perimeter and then, moved towards the Command Control set up in a van near the hotel.
There were several men standing near the van with media persons trying to capture snatches of the conversation on their microphones and video cameras. He pushed his way through and saw the chief. There were 2 other men with him; one, he could recognize was a fellow NSG squad commander while the other man was a civilian he did not know. They were poring over some blue prints spread across a small table next to the van, studying the layout of the hotel and possible entry points that the terrorists may not be aware of. He reported the arrival of his squad to the chief and was invited to be part of the tactical planning.
Nov 27, 2008 – 1930 hrs
More than twelve hours had passed since he and his squad had arrived in the city. His men had expanded the perimeter and had cordoned off the area. He could see civilians and media persons crouching behind the barriers, 200 meters from the hotel, as he watched, or rather, heard the battle rage on for the last four hours. Grenade blasts could be heard at regular intervals as well as intense gun battles in the corridors of the first and second floor of the hotel.
He knew that the snipers had taken their positions earlier during the day. They had reported seeing some armed individuals through some of the open windows. But there was no way of telling if they were terrorists or the SAG squad which had gone into the hotel a few hours back. The battle was still raging hard inside and the SAG squad was finding it difficult to engage the terrorists effectively because of the large number of hostages that were still being held inside.
Reports that had come back from the earlier squad confirmed that there were 3-4 terrorists remaining in the hotel. But they were well-armed and successfully using the hostages to their advantage. They would come out of hiding throw a grenade and then back off further into the hotel. They clearly had the upper hand, having apparently studied the layout of the hotel well before carrying out this operation. Lot of the fixtures of the hotel was made of wood, preserving the heritage of the hotel. But the grenades used by the terrorists had caused the old, dry wooden furniture to catch fire and created a smoke screen for the terrorists to operate behind. So the progress of the first SAG squad was slow, checking each room, closet, rest rooms and supply rooms in each floor of the old, huge building.
Some of the squad members were injured and he saw them being evacuated quickly and being treated on the spot for minor injuries and then sent to the hospitals nearby to check for major injuries.
In the meantime, he had also gotten news that the operation at Hotel Oberoi Trident was over and the SAG troops were in control of the location. Several hostages had been killed or injured, but most of them were rescued. However, the situation at the building complex, Nariman House, was bad.
After what seemed like forever, the chief called him to the Command Control. He said:
“It does not look good… they are pushing us back every time we think we have taken control of a floor. They have kept up the attack and keep threatening to kill the hostages. You know that several bodies of hostages have been recovered from the Oberoi. So that is a risk we cannot take. It seems the terrorists have self-injected some psychedelic drugs, which are keeping them awake and on the edge for the last several hours. The team has recovered a number of syringes from the first and second floor. Our men are getting tired. At this point, the East Wing of the hotel appears to be clear. But if this does not end tonight, we will send in your team in a few hours. We will use the same entry points as we discussed in the morning. Tell your men to be ready to move in early in the morning.”
He moved towards the team and called them to a corner reserved for the SAG troops. His team was replaced by another squad to monitor the perimeter. He conveyed the chief’s instructions to his squad and told them to be ready to move in a few hours.
As he saw their faces, he read resolve, commitment and, most importantly, anger, each emotion fighting to show through. He knew he had to defuse their anger before approaching the hotel. He could use anger, but would rather depend on composure. Anger led to mistakes, something he could not afford on this mission. So he spent the next few hours taking them through the plan they had come up with to engage and destroy the remaining terrorists. He asked them to try and locate any loopholes in the plan, forcing them to think and in the process, pushing their anger to the background.
After 3 hours, he could see them composed and ready for the operation ahead.
Nov 28, 2008 – 0500 Hrs
The battle with the terrorists raged on all night in the hotel. He could see that his men were getting restless with each passing hour. He kept them engaged in some or the other activity to placate them, but he knew it would not go on for much longer. They checked their weapons one last time before waiting for the order to move in.
They were all dressed in black Nomex coveralls over black bullet-proof vests and black balaclavas, exposing only their eyes. This had earned them the sobriquet ‘Black Cat Commandos’. Each man was partnered with another, creating a ‘Buddy’ system. Each one watched out for their ‘buddy’, covering their back. All of them carried an H&K 9mm MP5 sub-machine gun with plenty of ammunition. They used soft-penetration, non-ricochet ammunition to minimize collateral damage. In addition, each man was also carrying a Glock 17 or a Sig Sauer pistol with several cartridges. Even though he couldn’t see it, he knew that almost all of them were also carrying poison-tipped knives, which are more effective in a covert operation. But most of them carried it for good luck and preparedness. The snipers in the squad had already assembled their H&K PSG1 rifles with night scope and had taken their positions in the neighboring buildings.
Soon, he and his squad got the order to move in. The team quickly moved into the hotel lobby without meeting any opposition. They moved up the stairs and climbed up to the first floor.
Just then, two terrorists stepped out of a room and spotted the team. The terrorists opened fire instantly and also threw a grenade towards them. The team took cover and returned fire. A fierce gunfight ensued for the next two hours during which the two terrorists were pushed back steadily. The terrorists kept hurling grenades at them on regular basis. Some of them did not explode instantly, forcing the SAG team to stay back and minimize casualty to their team. Eventually, one terrorist was hit, but not killed. The two terrorists backed off and escaped to the upper floor. The team moved towards them and followed them to the upper floor.
On the second floor, they heard shouting and screaming of women hostages who were locked inside a room with the terrorists. As soon as the door was kicked open, the terrorists inside fired towards the door. His buddy was hit in the chest by the sudden round of fire from inside the room. The team fired at the terrorists, forcing them to back off. He ordered his team to evacuate his buddy from the area while he kept the terrorists engaged in a gun battle. His team successfully pulled his buddy to safety.
Meanwhile, the terrorists moved to the next floor, peppering the team with gunfire. He followed them, continuously engaging them in battle. He moved to the upper floor and took cover, but was cut off from the rest of his team. He saw the team following him up the stairs. He knew that if they came up after him, they would be fully exposed to the terrorists. He shouted:
“Do not come up, I will handle them.”
A ferocious gun battle took place between him and the terrorists. One of the terrorists was killed and he moved forward to box them in a corner. But one of the bullets fired by one of the remaining terrorists hit him in the back while another hit him on the head. He collapsed on the floor, severely injured.
Slowly, his team made their way to the upper floor, all the time engaged in battle with the terrorists. They found him and pulled him to safety. However, by that time, he had already succumbed to his injuries.
A squad member called the ground forces and said
“Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan has been killed in action.”
Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan, NSG (Special Action Group)
March 15, 1977 – November 28, 2008