Citizen Soldier

Raghu Raman

Nine years ago 26/11, was a Wednesday. By the end of the day, many lives would be changed forever, though the bustling city of Mumbai didn’t know that yet.

At 8 in the evening, ten highly trained and armed men landed in South Mumbai and slaughtered their way through stunned streets to their final destinations – Taj, Oberoi and the Chabad house. Over the next 72 hours, they went on a killing spree, shooting helpless people point blank. Some died instantly, perhaps not even knowing what hit them, others suffered excruciatingly before succumbing to their wounds. Yet others watched their loved ones die before their eyes. And a few survived hiding among the bleeding corpses for hours. A part of them died too.

Over three hundred were wounded, many severely, turning their lives into a living hell forever. The dead left behind broken families, bereaved parents, widows and orphaned children. None of them got a chance to say goodbye.

Numerous families lost their breadwinners, hundreds of dreams were shattered. Several policemen and two soldiers were among the dead. They died bravely confronting the terrorists with little situational awareness, antiquated weapons and in one case, fighting an automatic assault rifle – with bare hands. This policeman’s dying action put India on the moral high ground internationally and conclusively demonstrated the duplicity of Pakistan.

Contrary to common perception, both the Police and the Army acquitted themselves highly. Benchmarking the performance of soldiers and police with first world counterparts is only fair, when we also benchmark their respective wherewithal.

The ‘officer to men’ ratio of casualties was high, both in the case of police and the army. Some argue that the police blundered into an ambush. That is the nature of combat. Enemy ambushes succeed, casualties happen. What we need to take pride in, is that the officers led from the front. Security forces casualties included two IPS officers and a Major. All these officers were leading operations that could have been tasked to junior leaders as well. But they chose to lead personally instead.

A veteran encounter specialist was gunned down helplessly before he could even draw his weapon. Had he not been killed in the early stages of the siege, his decades of experience could have changed the game within the golden hours. That was pure bad luck, which happens in war, nothing can be done about it.

The terrorist’s battlefield is the citizenry’s minds. And the battle has to be fought there first. I deliberately chose not to name any of the heroes in the paragraphs above, because I want to question ourselves if we have truly understood the battle of terrorism. If the aim of terrorists is to weaken us as a society, we ought to strengthen ourselves as one. If they seek to drive fear into us by killing 167 souls, we need to tell the stories of valour that soldiers and ordinary citizens displayed.

We need to tell the stories of, off-duty employees, who rushed back to their hotels to help, and in some tragic cases lost their lives. They may not have had the skills or equipment, but they had the attitude. It wasn’t them who failed us.

Our commandoes reached their embarkation areas in Delhi airport well within their drilled timings. Their transport did not.The most densely populated airport of the country lay in front of a nation that can send a mission to Mars, but couldn’t transport India’s elite counter-terror force to the point of decision.

Several hours passed before the NSG was deployed into the combat zone. At that point, the heavily laden troops who had not slept for over 10 hours, weary from waiting, learnt that they had to take on, not one, not two, but three targets simultaneously. With the resources, troops, leadership, standard operating procedures and equipment designed - for one mission at a time.

{In fact, counter-terror experts would instantly recognize that the NSG took on five targets simultaneously and not three! Both Taj and Oberoi were two battle zones each - which just happened to be connected buildings. It is incorrect to club 26/11 as the “Mumbai attacks”. If troops, resources and mindshare cannot be switched between battle zones, then they might as well be continents away.}

A single complement of NSG took on five distinct targets simultaneously. In addition, there was a textbook aerial assault on the Chabad House, coordinated with the Airforce impromptu, not rehearsed for months like the Osama Bin Laden raid.

Barring Chabad House, no casualties occurred after the NSG took operational control. There were several hours when the terrorists were kept at bay by our commandoes, while guests cowered behind plywood doors. All were extricated room by room unscathed, while pitched gun battles were raging in adjacent corridors.

Our troops improvised procedures which have been adopted by first world counter-terror units. For instance, the commandoes needed to lay down suppressive fire while they were extricating guests from the Taj hotel. The usual method is to dominate the target zone with snipers from opposite buildings, but Taj faced the sea! The genius of mounting a sniper on a fire engine perch, swinging in wide arc, firing to dominate the façade of Taj is acknowledged world over by counter-terror veterans.

Volumes can be written about the successes of our troops who fought with what they had, and not with what they should have had. That wasn’t bad luck. It was sheer negligence of the system which sends our troops to battle with one hand tied behind their backs and blindfolds across their eyes.

It was not the lack of bravery or professionalism of our front line combatants that let us down, it was the prevarication and diffusion of the decision making apparatuses and suboptimal combat provisioning that did us in.

The battle of terrorism must first be won in our minds. Terrorists mount operations to convince us of our helplessness. That is not true. Our frontline troops are second to none in the world. What they need is a recognition of what they are excellent at, and help with what will make them amazing.

We need to ask ourselves if we are contributing to either of the two if we don’t even know the names of the heroes and victims of this battle.

Why shouldn’t our children be taught about them? Why can’t public buildings, government schemes, scholarships and endowments be named after them? Why can’t we look after the families of our martyrs better? Why don’t we empathize with the families of the victims, during these occasions and ensure their wellbeing, instead of converting these anniversaries into paeans of safe city projects and monologues?

At the end of the day, the 26/11 attacks were exposed as a Pakistani operation mounted by Pakistani nationals with the help of that country’ active support. This wasn’t established by technical intelligence, communication intercepts, information sources or monolithic agencies.

Instead, it was a police officer - Assistant Sub Inspector of Mumbai Police, Tukaram Omble, who clutched the red-hot barrel of an assault rifle, even as it was spewing lead into his gut, to grapple and capture Ajmal Kasab alive, proving the Pakistani hand beyond doubt.

ASI Tukaram Omble, was also a retired army Naik who rendered his coloured service to the nation, first as a soldier, and then as a policeman. He was awarded the highest peacetime gallantry award of India, the Ashok Chakra - posthumously.

We all know what happened to Kasab during his four years of captivity in technicolor blow by blow detail. but it is ironic that most of us don’t know much about Tukaram Omble or his family.

Every soldier is a citizen in uniform, but to combat terror, every citizen also needs to be a soldier sans uniform.

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