The SMS was blank.
It was a chilly February evening. Amita Satpathy had been waiting all day for word from her husband. Assistant commandant Pramod Satpathy, 43, was out since the previous night fighting Naxalites in what would turn out to be one of their biggest attacks anywhere in India in years.
“Around 4.30 pm, I received a blank SMS from him. I called him immediately and I could hear clearly that he was gasping for breath,” Amita said, her eyes lined with tears.
“I asked him whether he was okay, but he disconnected the mobile after speaking to me briefly. That was the last time I spoke to him,” she said, matter-of-fact. “At around 1 am, an SOG jawan informed me that my husband had been killed.”
Late evening on February 15, 2008, more than 200 rebels had raided the central Orissa town of Nayagarh, 70km south of Bhubaneswar. Cascading columns of rebels had looted armouries and killed 13 policemen in the deadly assault, when Satpathy, an officer of the Special Operations Group (SPO), rushed home briefly before going into the battle.
Danger was routine for Satpathy, a tall, muscular officer who had gone through several courses in combat and anti-Naxal operations.
Orissa was increasingly becoming a battleground for Naxalite militants, who now have a presence in more than 13 states across the country.
The Maoists had codenamed the Nayagarh attack Operation Ropeway, and according to a booklet published by the Naxals, the objective of the raid was to loot arms. The Naxals had fled with eleven AK-47s, 75 self-loading rifles (SLRs), 250 INSAS rifles, six light machine guns (LMGs), 65 9mm pistols, several .303 rifles and muskets and nearly 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
“I could sense that something was serious as he was armed with an AK-47 and grenades. He even called me to see him in his complete combat-gear, as we don’t get to watch him in his operational attire,” she said.
Then he left for Nayagarh, along with a team of 19 SOG men riding motorbikes.
He said he would be home early. He had to travel the next day to New Delhi to visit a weapons exhibition.
The motorcycle entourage of Satpathy and the 19 men was a stark tale of India's ill-equipped battle against terror in which policemen have to give their lives because they have poor weapons, or no helicopters to ferry bleeding men to hospital, or night vision devices.
Satpathy joined the Orissa Police in 1987 and was handpicked by the elite SOG in 2005 during a career that spanned 21 years. He rose swiftly, and was made the training-in-charge, holding the rank of an assistant commandant.
When not at work, he chased his two passions – gymming and cricket, and spending time with his two children. The 10-year-old son Soumya Ranjan is studying in the Class V; 12-year-old daughter Aparna is in class-VII.
After Satpathy died, Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik has said his family may retain their government-provided apartment for eight years, and has been offered a government job as compensation.
But Amita worries for the two children.
“My husband's dream was to see both of them in the IAS. I don't know whether his dream will come true now,” Amita said. “I haven not yet decided if I want a government job.”As he left for Nayagarh that night, Satpathy's orders were to follow the Naxalites and try to retrieve the weapons.
All night and well into the next morning, the team followed the trail of the ammunition truck. At 10.35 am the next morning, he called Amita, telling her to cancel his trip to Delhi.
Near the Gasma hill in central Orissa, he had found the abandoned hijacked bus that the Naxalites had used to flee, as well as half the weapons.
At this point, the assistant commandant was faced with a choice that could have saved his life. He could wait for reinforcements.
But he knew that every minute they lost waiting would mean more Naxalites — and government weaponry — vanishing into the forests. He signalled to his team to follow and set off into the woods.
Satpathy took down a few of the militants before he fell to their bullets, but the daring operation by him and his men forced the Naxalites to abandon nearly 75 per cent of their seized weapons as they fled.
Two days after he said he would be home early, he was back – draped in the Indian tricolour, in a coffin.