They're frequently seen guarding the high and the mighty of the land, forming a protecting ring around them with their stern demeanour and mean-looking submachine guns held across their chests. Not many know that the Black Cats, as the commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG) are better known, are among Asia's finest counter-terrorism units, with its cadres trained to handle a variety of tasks like anti-hijack operations.
They made waves around the world earlier this week when they successfully tackled a group of armed terrorists who had taken over two luxury hotels and another building in India's commercial capital of Mumbai, gunning down 14 ultras and capturing one.
In the process, they also wrested the buildings back from the militants, in one case by slithering down ropes from military helicopters and then blasting their way into the structure.
The birth of the Black Cats - so called after their all-black attire - was in rather traumatic circumstances. Then prime minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated in 1984 by her own bodyguards provided by Delhi Police and this pointed to the need for a force for exclusively guarding only VVIPs, apart from performing specialised tasks like dealing with urban insurgency.
But, given their striking appeal, demands started being made by all and sundry for being allotted NSG cover. And, given the propensity of bureaucrats to give in to the demands of politicians, the Black Cats soon found themselves being deployed more as personal bodyguards than on what they were actually supposed to do.
The final nail in the coffin came when Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister in 1984. His minders insisted on a specialised force for the prime minister alone - and thus was born the Special Protection Group (SPG).
Being out of the prime minister's ambit diminished the NSG's sheen somewhat - but along with that came the silver lining: it could now focus on its specialised tasks.
Today, the primary role of the force is to combat terrorism in situations that the police or other central paramilitary forces cannot cope with. It also has an expert wing to handle anti-hijack operations, rescue operations and provide support to the central paramilitary forces.
Modelled on the lines of Britain's SAS (Special Air Squadron) and Germany's GSG-9, the NSG has two complementary elements: the Special Action Group (SAG) and the Special Ranger Group (SRG).
The SAG, which comprises 54 percent of the force, is its elite offensive wing, with its cadres drawn only from the Indian Army.
The SRG draws its cadres on deputation from central police organizations like the Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF).
To maintain a young profile of the force, its troops are rotated and sent back to their parent organisations after serving in the NSG for three to five years.
Aspiring commandos undergo 90 days of training at Manesar, around 50 km from the national capital. Only those who successfully complete the entire course are inducted into the NSG for further specialized training.
The NSG also provides sky marshals for airlines, security to high risk individuals, anti-sabotage checks at venues of VVIP visits, training of state and central police forces in anti-terrorism measures and conducting investigations into IED blasts.
Among the successful operations undertaken by the NSG in the past are:
* April 1986 - NSG commandos storm Amritsar's Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder I. No casualties on either side and no weapons are found.
* May 1988 - 1,000 NSG commandos surround the Golden Temple for yet another assault during Operation Black Thunder II.
* April 1994 - Operation Ashwamedh undertaken by the NSG commandos to rescue 141 passengers from a hijacked Indian Airlines Boeing 737 at Amritsar airport.
* Sep 2002 - Operation Vajra Shakti undertaken by the NSG to clear Gujarat's Akshardham temple of terrorists.