For almost a week, we had been grappling with a task inside the division operations room, pondering over maps and planning for the final phase of more than a year-long counter-insurgency operations. Stage was set to deal a final blow to the last bastion of insurgents who were entrenched in Thanlon and Parbung subdivisions of Churachandpur district in South Manipur.
Apparently, 2006 was destined for a decisive start, to wrap up the unfinished agenda of the bygone year.
One evening, as we were ready to call it a day, the duty officers walked in and informed me that I was required to meet the chief minister (CM) the following day. Next morning, as I was ushered into the CM's office, he was alone, with no aide by his side. Usually composed, his face this day betrayed that something grave was at hand.
Almost in tears, the CM apprised me briefly of a very serious incident: mass rape in Parbung by the militants, in which 24 tribeswomen were victims. This dastardly act was a message to the locals for their non-cooperation, with the warning of a harsher punishment, if they did not mend their ways. As civil administration was nonexistent in these areas, with the writ of the militants running large, the details of the barbaric incidence were sketchy. "What can the army do?" the CM asked me.
Sharing my deep anguish over the incident, I assured the CM we would act, and requested him to maintain absolute silence about the army's intent. On reaching the headquarters, I discussed the plan with the field commanders. Latest intelligence was gathered through hi-tech reconnaissance means. The operation was due in 72 hours.
The press got the wind of the heinous crime. To maintain the element of surprise, it was fed to the public discretely that for the time being, the army wasn't in a position to strike back because of tactical constraints.
The operation began as planned. Dozen-odd teams started off from different locations simultaneously to engage multiple objectives in a synchronised time frame. It involved an approach of 50 to 60 kilometres of arduous, country terrain, amid hostile environment.
Units had chosen the best men for the mission, which got off to a rough start, as one of the team boats capsized into a river, killing two soldiers. Three days later, on D Day, all teams reached the targets and struck like lightening, catching the militants off guard.
The opening spell witnessed fierce encounters and close gunfights. Within a few hours, more than a dozen militants were eliminated. Lieutenant colonel Rajiv Bakshi made the supreme sacrifice while leading his men from the front. In the follow-up engagements, the militant toll had crossed 20, including all the rapists and their most senior area commander.
The locals, who had lost all hope and almost accepted their fate, couldn't believe that a decade's reign of militant terror could end so abruptly. The victims of mass rape and their families took time to reconcile to the reality; still too paranoid to narrate the horrific tales of long suffering. Embracing the jawans, they wept silently, in the mixed emotions of agony and ecstasy.
"A miracle! God sent his holy angles to rescue us from hell and punish the devils," said a sufferer, in a choked voice. The intricate operation, a real cliffhanger, executed with highest degree of professionalism in the face of heaviest odds, was codenamed "Dragnet".
It was the undaunted spirit of plucky hearted men, for whom the cause behind the mission was so sacred, which made it an astounding success.