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Monday, September 27, 2021

26/11: It took 5 hrs to decide on sending NSG,find aircraft

To get a sense of how the Centre responded to the worst terrorist attack in history,consider this.

Written by Pranab Dhal Samanta | New Delhi |
June 6, 2009 4:14:28 pm

To get a sense of how the Centre responded to the worst terrorist attack in history,consider this: At midnight,when the decision was taken to send the National Security Guard (NSG),the following had already happened in Mumbai:

The massacre at CST was over; the first fires had been lit in the Taj Mahal Hotel; terrorists had taken over the Oberoi-Trident; Nariman House had been breached. And ATS chief Hemant Karkare,his colleagues Additional Commissioner of Police Ashok Kamte and Senior Inspector Vijay Salaskar were just minutes away from their death.

But it was only a full three hours later that the plane carrying the commandos took off from New Delhi — and it took them four hours after they landed in Mumbai to start their operations.

Emblematic of this response was Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil,the political pointsman whose job was to co-ordinate the Central government’s response.

Patil learnt of the attack close to 11 pm — almost an hour and a half after they began — and,that too,when a family member asked him to watch “breaking news” on TV.

The Maharashtra government made the first formal request for the elite NSG commandos to take on the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists by 11.30 pm.

However,before this formal request came,NSG chief J K Dutt saw images of the attack on TV within the first hour of the attacks,realized this was a terrorist raid and asked his commandos to be ready,according to an interview to Shekhar Gupta,Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express on NDTV’s Walk the Talk.

Dutt said that soon after this,he received a call from Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrasekhar that his men should be ready.

Yet,precious hours were lost. First,on deciding the size of the force to send and,then,in getting them a plane to fly to Mumbai.

According to the crisis management plan put in place for such situations by the Centre,the first response is to call for a meeting of the Crisis Management Group (CMG). This is headed by the Cabinet Secretary and includes the Home Secretary and the Defence Secretary. The Secretary for the CMG is Secretary (Security) who at that point was K C Verma,the current RAW chief.

But the Home and Defence Secretaries were out of the capital and so Verma called Chandrasekhar and informed National Security Adviser M K Narayanan.

The NSA and the Cabinet Secretary rushed to the PM’s residence to brief Manmohan Singh. At that meeting,just before midnight,it was decided to send the NSG. But by the NSG chief’s own admission,the force got the order at about 1 am and it took them two more hours to leave Delhi.

Chandrasekhar was co-ordinating the process of deploying the NSG with Maharashtra Chief Secretary Johny Joseph,who was asked to discuss with the police and give an assessment of how many commandos were needed in the first batch.

It may have seemed like a simple request but the Maharashtra Police was not in a position to provide a clear answer and said that “as many commandos as possible” should be sent.

The Centre persisted on a number and asked NSG how many commandos could be sent immediately. With no precise assessment available,it was agreed that 200 be sent.

While the NSG is always prepared to send smaller groups at short notice,mobilising 200 men required more time. And circumstances like the NSG operations head having to be rushed from a social engagement,and several other commandos not being prepared for deployment,did not help.

It was also decided that the NSG special assault group located for anti-hijack operations near the Indira Gandhi International Airport not be disturbed,just in case there was another threat in the offing. Officials said that arms,ammunition,equipment and provisions had to be taken for 200 men. That,too,meant more time.

With no assessment available about the scenario they could confront during operations in Mumbai,the NSG took no chances and began organising all the special equipment it thought could be useful. This meant using an IL-76,the largest cargo aircraft in the Indian Air Force fleet.

And this was the next crucial delay.

While NSG commandos were being gathered,the hunt started for an IL-76. Bimal Julka,senior joint secretary in the Defence Ministry,was woken up by Verma and asked to arrange for an IL-76.

The Air Force was also contacted,which reverted that it did not have an IL-76 stationed in Delhi but could fly in one from Chandigarh soon.

That didn’t suit the purpose although the IAF was asked to act immediately. Air India was also contacted,which said it had Airbus A-320s in Delhi but needed to get the crew together.

The NSG,however,said it would not be able to mobilize 200 men with arms,ammunition,equipment and provisions in an Airbus A-320.

Two planes could have been organized but within the CMG,members found themselves engaged in needless debates over crew rosters,a sensitive subject with commercial airlines.

As the clock ticked away,RAW discovered that an IL-76 belonging to its air wing,Aviation Research Centre,was in Delhi that day.

At 12.25 am,RAW Chief Ashok Chaturvedi was woken up with a panicky phone call from M L Kumawat,Special Secretary (internal security) in the Home Ministry asking for permission to use the ARC plane. Orders went out to immediately mobilize the crew and prepare the plane for take-off.

Since choppers cannot fly at night,200 NSG men were transported to the airport in buses from Manesar,almost an hour’s journey and it was 2.10 am when they boarded the IL-76.

At 3 am on November 27,the ARC plane finally took off from Delhi. The first briefing to the commandos on what was called “Operation Black Tornado” was done en route on the plane and the NSG task force was divided into three sub-task forces for each location.

The briefing was sketchy as not much detail was available. The IL-76,being a large plane,took just under three hours to cover the distance from Delhi to Mumbai while a commercial plane takes a little less than two hours.

In Mumbai,only some commandos could be transported to the locations of the attacks in choppers,while the rest traveled by bus,which also added to the delay.

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