Five years ago, 10 militants took a boat into Mumbai and launched a series of attacks on hotels, a train station, a hospital and a Jewish community centre over three days. The attacks killed 166 people and injured 300 others. As the tragic incident continues to roil public memory, Hindustan Times revisits the sequence of events during the attacks and after.
On the night of November 26, 2008, as news channels began to report gunfire battles in Mumbai, Col Sunil Sheroan, heading the 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guards of India (NSG) began to make preparations to move his men out. By 10.30pm, they were mobilising when a call came to stand down.
By this time, Mumbai was coming to grips with the fact that this was not a gang war Mumbai policemen were familiar with but a terror attack. It was a terror assault wherein 10 gunmen spread out in the city with hand-held GPS devices, moving towards pre-designated targets.
Back in Manesar, a sleepy hamlet on the outskirts of Gurgaon in Haryana, NSG commandos were waiting when word came from the cabinet secretary at 12.30am to move into action. Trucks moved out immediately as a complement of 200 men suited up to fly to Mumbai.
What Col Sheoran lacked was the thing he needed most – intelligence. While an elaborate intelligence apparatus existed in Delhi and Mumbai, none of this was given to the man who would oversee the operations over the next three days. Much of it was a structural problem. In the NSG, the officer in charge is a group commander (intelligence), a post that is more a parking space than operational. At this time a senior officer, who had served with the Central Industrial Security Force was holding this post. With no experience in intelligence work, she would be the point person for the NSG to clear interview requests of the director general.
So, Col Sheoran fell back on television channels for intelligence as he asked a junior non-commissioned officer (NCO) to set up several TV sets in a room and monitor them carefully. He was told that the Taj Hotel in Mumbai was attacked. He had prepared an operations group to intervene at one location. Just before getting into a hastily borrowed IL-76 from the Aviation Research Centre, he got a call from his NCO that the attack had spread to two locations. This meant that his operations group was woefully inadequate to tackle the terrorists.
On board, a strange order was circulated to the senior officers. “The terrorists must be captured alive,” they were told, an instruction that went against the tenet of every hostage rescue training manual. The then Union home minister, Shivraj Patil, had already committed a major operational blunder by telling TV news channels that he was flying “200 commandos into Mumbai”. This would be the biggest functional leak during the 26/11 operations.
Upon landing in Mumbai, BEST busses were chosen to transport the NSG men to the terror attack sites. By the time Col Sheoran landed, he was told that he would now have to intervene at three locations instead of two. A hasty trip to Mumbai Police headquarters did not yield any usable information and the men were pushed into the Taj and the Oberoi hotels with hardly any information. They lacked building plans, police cordons and had to operate in the dark as the electricity supply had been cut off. The intervention teams chose to take a top down approach, using a single master key, moving from room to room in a cumbersome process to neutralise the terrorists. This cat-and-mouse game would continue for nearly 60 hours before all of them were neutralised.
While TV channels were getting leaks of intercepted conversations between terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan, the NSG team never received any of this. A joint director from the Intelligence Bureau in Delhi was monitoring the feed coming in, but none of this was shared with the NSG. On the next morning, when the NSG turned towards the third target, Chabad House, they realised that using Indian Air Force helicopters was the only option. The terrorists had blown up the staircases and intelligence showed that the hostages were dead.
Two helicopters with no armour plating were hastily summoned and the pilots grabbed a few bullet-proof jackets from the police in an act of desperation. As the helicopters took off, someone realised that the radio frequency on board and the one being used by the NSG on the ground was different. The lack of communication resulted in commandos from the first helicopter being dropped on top of the wrong building before frantic hand signals from the ground indicated to the pilots their inadvertent mistake.
The NSG men would go on to clear all the buildings with the loss of an officer and a few men, but the aftermath of the event shows that little has changed for them. A hastily drawn up plan to expand the NSG and creating hubs ensured a dramatic fall in quality. Training has been affected, while key requirements such as better weapons and dedicated air-lift capabilities are still pending. Five years later, the NSG’s capabilities to tackle another 26/11 are no better or worse.