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Black cats turn 25

The National Security Guards is facing a shortage of officers even as it upgrades its weaponry and training methods. Manish Tiwari reports.

india Updated: Nov 10, 2009 22:46 IST
Manish Tiwari

When terrorists struck in Mumbai last November, it took the National Security Guards (NSG) 10 hours to reach the scene of the attack.

A year later the chief of the elite commando force says his men “can reach anywhere in big cities within half an hour of getting


Formed: In 1984, after Operation Bluestar
Motto: Sarvatra Sarvottam Surakhsha (Everywhere the best protection)
Work: Paramilitary law enforcement, counter-insurgency, armed response to civil unrest, counter-terrorism, special weapons operations.
NSG men are called “black cats”, modelled on Germany’s GSG-9
Strength: about 14,500
* After criticism of the time taken to reach Mumbai from its base in Manesar (Haryana) during November 2008 attacks in
Mumbai, the government of India set up a hub each in Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Chennai
* After analysing Operation Bluestar in 1984, the NSG was formed after the need for a force specialised in counter-terrorist operations was felt


NSG Director General N.P.S. Aulakh’s claim is a reflection of a new level of confidence of the force, which has seen a series of changes since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks that left about 200 people dead.

When the NSG was alerted about the attack, it took an hour to reach Delhi airport from Manesar, 25 km from the airport.

Since the helicopter available with the National Security Guards (NSG) could not fly in the dark, the commandos travelled in trucks to the airport.

An old plane came from Chandigarh, nearly 250 km north-west of Delhi, at 2 a.m. to fly the soldiers to Mumbai.

When the commandos reached the scene of attacks in Mumbai, almost 10 hours had elapsed since the killings by terrorists had started.

Despite the involvement of top government officials such as the cabinet secretary, this delay rattled the government so much that it led to the resignation of the then Home Minister Shivraj Patil. The NSG is under the home ministry and the
premier organisation as regards fighting terrorism.

Then began the upgrade measures. The government took steps to improve security preparedness, including the creation of a hub each in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai, to reduce the kind of delay that had happened in the case of the November attacks, and procuring sophisticated weapons.

The NSG has stationed commandos each at the four hubs and a task force at Delhi airport.

“The force is prepared and equipped to handle any terrorist threat,” Aulakh said.

Two regional centres — in Hyderabad and Kolkata — are also being set up. The two will have the capacity to station 5,000 commandos each.

Now comes the moot question: Can these steps pre-empt a terror strike?

Former Delhi Police Commissioner Ved Marwah, who is also a security expert, said: “The country requires a national counter-terrorism agency that can analyse intelligence inputs, investigate terrorist cases, carry out operations and guide states on terrorism-related matters.”

Security expert and National Maritime Foundation Director C. Uday Bhaskar said: “In the past one year, there has been a lot of articulation and rhetoric, but the capacity enhancement has been modest. Whether it’s Mumbai or the Rajdhani hijacking, we need measures to pre-empt attacks. That hasn’t happened.”

* April 30, 1986: Attack on Khalistani militants who took over Golden Temple, during Operation Black Thunder
* May 12, 1988: Attack on Khalistani militants hiding in the Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder II
* July 15, 1999: Rescue of 12 hostages held by armed terrorists who had stormed an apartment complex in Kashmir and killed four people
* September 25, 2002: Operation Vajra Shakti — freeing hostages held by terrorists who had killed 26 worshippers at Akshardham Temple in Ahmedabad. They suffered their first combat death in this operation. A second commando, who was seriously injured and was in a coma, died after 18 months.
* November 27-29, 2008: Operation Black Tornado and Operation Cyclone to flush out terrorists and rescue hostages after multiple attacks in Mumbai. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Gajender Singh Bisht of the Special Action Group lost their lives during the operations against terrorists.

However, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who has been taking keen interest in upgrading capabilities of the NSG and other security forces, is satisfied with what has been achieved.

“We’ll defend India ... everyday we are adding to our capacity to deal with the terror threats,” he said while addressing NSG commandos at the 25th raising day ceremony last month.

Aulakh too is confident: “We are as good as the best force in the world in terms of the quality of manpower and training.”
The government is providing the force sophisticated weapons, including night-vision devices and those that can help commandos to see through transparent objects.

Aulakh says the country’s strike force in counter-terrorist operations is not only prepared for newer challenges like “train and metro rail hijacking”, but has been fast upgrading its capabilities and equipping itself with latest technology from Austria, France and Switzerland.

After the Operation Bluestar in 1984 (an operation against Punjab terrorists in the Golden Temple), the government created the NSG on the model of a German elite commando force, GSG-9.

The force has nearly 14,500 specialised people.

In 2002, the elite commandos carried out an operation to free worshippers taken hostage by terrorists at a temple in Ahmedabad.

But is the force prepared psychologically to tackle serious threats? “Our acceptance standards are very high. The officers and soldiers are put through various physical and psychological tests,” Aulakh said.

A major problem the force is facing is a shortage of officers.

Since the Army itself is short of staff and is expanding, the NSG isn’t getting the number of officers it needs.

“We are not getting officers from the Army. But we are still getting replacements,” he said, adding that at the level of jawans there is no problem.

“Since we are setting up hubs and regional centres, we would also require more officers and jawans in the days to come.”

Official sources told Hindustan Times that the government was sending a team of officers from the Union Home Ministry and the NSG to Germany this month to interact with the GSG-9 on training methods and drills.

Also, French elite anti-terrorist force GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group) has also offered special training on a reciprocal basis. “We are considering the offer,” Aulakh said.

With the state police not being able to handle more than law and order problems, the importance of the NSG will only
increase in combating insurgency and terrorism.