17 June 2019, Kupwara, Kashmir
The window panes in the room shook violently as a grenade exploded just outside the adjoining house. There were sounds of more gunshots, then silence. One of four Para soldiers of the counter-terrorist team in the room peeked outside trying to make sense of the situation. There was some movement outside and it attracted some gunfire from the window of the house where three terrorists were holed up.
Their in-ear radios crackled slightly and then they heard the voice of Rashtriya Rifles Major leading the counter-terrorist operation. “ Delta 1, can you confirm the number of tangos and their positions?”
One Para moved carefully to the common wall between the two houses and attached a Hand Held Through Wall Imaging Radar (HH-TWIR) to it. The small gadget weighing 5-6 kgs developed by Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is used to detect people and their movement in closed spaces from outside. It detects the breathing patterns and heartbeat of people on the other side of the wall using Doppler radar technology.
A message was sent to RR Major outside, “There are at least two contacts next to the common wall. If there are more, they must be in the next room. We are in a position to breach.”
“Roger Delta. We are standing by to enter the house as soon as you breach.”
Lead Para acknowledged the message and signalled the other three Paras to get close. “This firing from outside is not going to work. We’re going to breach the wall.”
The other soldiers simply nodded and moved out to do their assigned jobs. One took a few small bricks of plastic explosives out of his backpack, attached electric detonators to each one of them and placed four of them on the common wall between the two houses.
Blowing up holes in walls of houses in enclosed space was not the first choice of the counter-terrorist team, but they had little choice. The encounter between them and the three terrorists of dreaded Kashmir Islamic Mujahideen had been going on for three hours and they were fast running out of options. A large crowd of local villagers had already assembled a few minutes walk from the encounter site and were shouting militant Islamist slogans. In a few minutes, they’d start pelting stones and petrol bombs on security personnel to help the terrorists.
Some of the protesters were local villagers while the most vocal among them were usually professionals from outside who did it for money, drugs among a few other enticements. With a deadly Islamist terrorist movement going on in Kashmir, corruption in politics and bureaucracy, article 370 and the general supremacist attitude of the locals, there were not too many avenues for employment apart from agriculture and government jobs. So shouting a few slogans and pelting stones on security personnel was an attractive way of earning a quick buck and blowing off their otherwise impotent rage. Some of them would rather be home but they were forced to be there under threats of social boycott, violence and sometimes even murder by the same muslims who claimed to be fighting for the freedom of muslims.
So far, about a dozen Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and local J&K Police personnel had been enough to control the protesting crowd. But it was getting bigger with each passing moment. Already there were reports of mullahs from nearby villages shouting over loudspeakers ordering their followers to go to the encounter site and pelt stones on soldiers.
Security personnel handling the crowd had some riot control equipment like a handful of pellet guns and tear gas shells, but there was a lot of pressure on them from the local administration, journalists and self-proclaimed human rights activists against their usage in crowd suppression. They’d try to milk any injury to the terrorist sympathiser crowd by any means possible for eyeballs, more funding and self-promotion. In addition, the soldiers were implicated in false cases and courts involved to make their lives and jobs tougher.
With darkness approaching fast, there was also the risk of terrorists trying to escape using the crowd of stone-throwing protestors as cover. So something had to be done fast.
The encounter had started at around 11:30 am after the local policemen had informed the nearest RR camp about the movement of suspected gunmen in the southern corner of the village. Some policemen from the Special Operations Group and RR had laid a security cordon around the village and started a house by house search. Local informers suggested that they could be holed up in the house of one Maqbool Butt, a local low-level politician who played for both sides.
There had never been enough proof for his support of terrorist activities being a serious threat. So the local intelligence kept an eye on him and tapped him now and then for leads. His intelligence had usually been on the point and had helped security agencies to neutralise a few terrorists in the last 4-5 years.
His handler, an Intelligence Bureau officer tried contacting him on phone but got no response which raised suspicions. His house was not that far off from where the terrorists were sighted, so an inner cordon was discreetly laid around his house by RR and two soldiers accompanied by a local policeman went to his door to check. They were let in by 19 years old Shaahid, the younger son of Maqbool who seemed a bit nervous and didn’t seem happy when the policeman insisted that they wanted to check. He grudgingly let the policeman in who found his sister and mother sitting in the living room.
He was told that Maqbool had gone to Srinagar along with his older son Tahir to sell his fruit crop and wouldn’t be back for 2 days. The policeman did a quick search of the ground floor but was unable to find anyone. The door leading to the first-floor section was locked and upon asking the son claimed that Maqbool had taken the only key with him. When soldiers insisted that he open the door, he turned aggressive and refused to follow instructions.
In the confusion, one of the soldiers noticed the daughter pointing discreetly towards the roof and mouthing something. Their suspicions solidified, RR soldiers informed their commanding officer of the situation. He ordered them to escort the whole family outside without any delay while he ordered his men outside the house to cover the windows of the house watching over the exit of the double story house.
The women burst into tears when they were ordered to go outside but did what they were told. The two soldiers had to grab Shaahid and drag him out of the house. Once behind the boundary wall, he broke down and informed soldiers that while Maqbool was indeed in Srinagar, his older brother had been taken hostage by three armed terrorists of KIM. He knew one of them as a local from a neighbouring village but claimed that the other two were not Kashmiri and spoke heavily accented Urdu. They had arrived to collect some supplies that Maqbool had in his house and perhaps stay there for some time before moving to some other place. After they had known about the arrival of the Counter-Terrorist team in the village, they had taken Tahir hostage and hid on the upper floor after locking it from inside.
The two women said the same thing and implored the soldiers to rescue Tahir from the terrorists. As far as he was concerned, soldiers had no way of knowing if he was a willing hostage or a collaborator. His father had acted as an informant a few times in the past, so some of his shady activities had been tolerated. But he was allowing his own house to be used as a supply base and shelter for the same terrorists. As far as his utility as an informant was concerned, it was more or less over. It was not that different for terrorists either. Once they knew that Maqbool was under the scanner of security agencies, they’d not even think of using him for anything in the future.
One point which remained unclear was whether the Butt family was telling the truth about Tahir being an unwilling hostage or not. The strategy of flushing out or killing the terrorists inside depended upon this. If he was with the terrorists, the soldiers could have simply attacked with Carl Gustaf’s recoilless rifles and grenades and killed all three of them without too much trouble. But a hostage situation made things complicated.
A local village elder was brought in from his house and given a loudspeaker to convince terrorists holed up inside the house to surrender and let the hostage leave safely. He talked and repeated his pleas for half an hour to no effect. A decision was then made to storm the upper floor of the house and neutralise the terrorists while trying to keep the hostage alive. As soon as the raiding party started to take positions for assault, they were fired upon from two windows simultaneously. One soldier who was moving towards the door was hit in the legs, but he managed to reach for cover behind a brick wall. Four other soldiers who were covering the advance also fired back but had no way of knowing if they had hit any terrorists.
Just seconds after the first volley was over, terrorists hurled two grenades, one of which exploded only meters from another soldier taking cover behind a car and caused him shrapnel injuries. As the encounter dragged on, first a crowd of curious onlookers, then the violent protestors started to form up. Some of the manpower was diverted to keep the hostile stone-pelting crowd away from the encounter site, in case they assaulted the soldiers with stones to help the terrorists escape or inflict casualties.
Sometime after the presence of terrorists was confirmed, a small team of 6 Para soldiers had arrived to take part in the operation. Four of them entered the adjoining house which shared a common wall with Maqbool’s. The occupants of all houses within the firing range had been evacuated, so there was nobody in their way.
Paras (Special Forces) are one of the most active and prestigious units in the Indian Army. Since their formation in 1941, they’ve been a part of every major conflict and counter-terrorism operations in as well as outside India. These soldiers are trained to operate in deserts, mountains, jungles, underwater and are experts in parachute jumps of all types. Every applicant has to pass a 90 days probation period followed by 3.5 years of training which is supposedly the longest training period of all. During the training period, they have to run 20 km with a 60 kg load daily followed by rigorous training throughout the day leading late into the night. Then every week, they have to march 90 to 130 km with a 65-70 kg load and do multiple parachute drops during the day as well as at night. It’s only after almost four years of this hellish training that they can wear the coveted Maroon Beret of Para (SF).
Once the decision was made to breach the wall, they took cover and triggered the explosives. There was a loud bang and a hole big enough for a man to jump through the wall was created. One Para soldier lobbed in two flashbangs for good measure and two of them took cover behind the just breached wall while the other two raced inside. They found one bleeding and disoriented terrorist trying to fire an AK-47 who was killed with one quick burst of TAR-21 assault rifle by lead Para.
After clearing that room they opened the door to a narrow corridor with 1 room to either side and the closed door leading to stairs in front. As they moved in to take positions, one of the terrorists hiding in the room on left rolled a grenade in their direction and the other emptied a whole magazine in their direction. The lead Para managed to kick the grenade in direction of the locked door where it exploded with a loud bang. But he was hit by 3 AK-47 rounds in the process. One grazed his Mukut ballistic helmet forming a deep gash in the hard armour. Another passed through a weak point in his chest armour and hit him in his chest. The third ricocheted off something in the corridor and hit him just below his knee pad. He almost fell to his knees but managed to shoot the terrorist who had fired his AK square in the face with two bullets.
The third terrorist had managed to grab Tahir by the neck and was hiding behind him by pointing his AK-47 with a bayonet at his neck. Tahir himself was shaking and crying profusely, seemingly terrified out of his wits, but otherwise unharmed. His captor was no less shaken himself and was shouting threats in Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent. He suddenly moved on hearing the footsteps of the other two Para soldiers as they entered the corridor. They tried to talk him into dropping his weapon and surrendering but he shouted some more obscenities and stabbed Tahir in the neck. One of the soldiers shot off most of his head in a sharp burst from his TAR-21 in return. Tahir and the terrorist both collapsed to the ground at almost the same time.
A call for emergency medical aid was placed and 2 medics came running up to provide first aid to injured Tahir. They tried to stop the bleeding and carried him to the ambulance waiting in the street. His family members came rushing out to see him and his sister collapsed on seeing him on a stretcher soaked in blood. Calls were made on loudspeakers to let the ambulance pass, but the crowd was slow to respond and a few people lobbed stones at it. Sharp rebukes from the village elders finally dispersed the crowd. But it was too late and Tahir breathed his last a few minutes later just a few minutes before reaching a hospital.
Another ambulance took care of the injured para who was still conscious but losing a lot of blood. Statements of family members and neighbours were taken and it was found out that one of the foreign terrorists, Nassiruddin Boota alias Abu Zubair was demanding Maqbool’s 17 years old daughter to be “wedded” to him. The family was firmly against it and the Pakistani terrorist had brought in his two companions to forcibly kidnap the girl.
Local media published the news about the encounter and deaths but ignored the real reason behind the encounter.
1 June 2019
Military Hospital, Udhampur
Naib Subedar Anil Dahiya was enjoying his evening cup of tea in scenic hospital gardens when an orderly came up and told him that he had a visitor. His CO had called him last night and asked him to expect a visitor without offering any more details. So he was mystified about the identity of his visitor and followed the orderly to the visiting area. The orderly pointed to a man dressed in civilian clothes sitting quietly on a chair and leafing through a magazine and walked out.
Dahiya tried remembering if he had ever seen the man before but drew a blank. He approached his visitor with a puzzled expression on his face and introduced himself. The man rose and shook his hand with a smile. “Good evening Subedar Dahiya, my name is Rajesh Shyoran. Pleased to make your acquaintance.“
He noticed the still blank expression on Dahiya’s face and spoke again, “ Don’t worry, you don’t know me and we’ve never met before. But I do have a proposal for you.” He then looked around the large visiting room and said, “I’d prefer it if we talk somewhere with a bit more privacy like the garden outside. I hope that’s fine with you.”
Dahiya nodded and rose up stiffly. Shyoran saw that and asked as they started to walk, “Please excuse my manners, I forgot to ask. How are you feeling? Getting shot thrice can’t be a pleasant experience at all.”
Dahiya noticed that his visitor knew about his injuries and instinctively touched the right side of his chest. “I am almost fully healed now. First bullet was deflected by the helmet, the second one hit one rib and managed to only fracture it. The 3rd one on my thigh was a slowed down ricochet and didn’t do much damage. I’d not be walking around so soon after the encounter otherwise.”
Shyoran smiled and nodded, “Good to hear that. I also heard that you’re being considered for yet another medal now, perhaps Shaurya Chakra this time. Congratulations.”
Dahiya looked at his visitor and shrugged, “Perhaps. I was just doing my duty.”
By this time they had reached a comparatively quiet place. Shyoran considered that good enough for the detailed conversation he wanted to have and spoke, “Naib Subedar Dahiya, whatever I am going to say to you is completely confidential and you are not to share anything I say to you to anyone. I can proceed further only after getting your approval.”
There are not many people in the world who can say no to a statement like this. Dahiya was no exception and he nodded his approval. “I agree to keep it a secret, but first I need to know who you are and what you want from me.”
Shyoran smiled and spoke, “That’s what the secret is. In simple words, I am here to offer you a job for a unit or you may call it an organisation that doesn’t exist in official records. Its existence is known only to a handful of people on the absolute top and the work it does is never documented or recorded in any archives, except for a few relevant operational details.”
Dahiya didn’t seem impressed, “So are you here to recruit me for something like a black operations unit or is it SFF?”
Special Frontier Force also known as Establishment 22 was formed after the 1962 war with China under the supervision of Intelligence Bureau . Its initial purpose was covert operations behind enemy lines in case of another war with China and initial recruits were Tibetan refugees. Control of the force was later transferred to Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Its operatives are trained for covert warfare, rock climbing, mountaineering, counter-terrorism, long-range reconnaissance patrols and raids on enemy strongholds in tough terrain. There are some elite groups even within already secretive SFF like 4th Vikas, commonly known as Special Group.
Shyoran looked at a bee floating on a flower for a while then answered slowly, “Well, if you put it this way, you can call it a black ops unit, but it’s not SFF. We’re, let’s say a bit more secretive than that. Would you be interested?”
“What will be my job and before that, why me?” Dahiya answered the question with two of his own.
“Well, you are one of a small number of candidates we have shortlisted. You are trained very well. Paras do mould a man to perfection, more or less.“ Shyoran chuckled lightly as if he remembered a private joke. “You have repeatedly shown great skills in shooting, mountain climbing and reconnaissance; you have a sharp analytical mind and you always stay cool under toughest conditions. We’ve done thorough background checks, talked to your seniors, colleagues and even your friends back in your home town. You are exactly the kind of person who fits our needs.
Is that enough or do you need more ego boost?”
Upon seeing Dahiya shake his head, Shyoran continued further, “In a nutshell, your job may not be too different from what you’re doing now. It’ll be just a lot more demanding and will require a lot more skills which we’ll train you for. Also, if you do an exceptionally good job, you may get a medal but there will be no detailed citation.“
Dahiya smiled lightly, “So why should I take this job?”
“Because you’re either crazy, stupid or both. None of the people you’ll work with are normal and between just you and me, most of them wouldn’t fit in well-doing normal jobs anyway. Oh wait, I haven’t told you the fun part yet.” Shyoran sounded almost excited.
“Fun part?” Dahiya asked.
“Yes, there are a lot of fun things. Do you have a minute to hear it?
To start with, our operatives don’t have any ranks. You can be a Colonel or a Lieutenant or a Naib Subedar from any organisation. None of it including your name matters in training or in the field once you finish it. We’ll give you completely multiple new identities, depending upon the situation. It goes without saying that no one outside of a select group of people giving you orders or working with you will know about your real line of work. Even your colleagues wouldn’t know your real name.
Many of your missions will be solo while a few can have 3-4 operatives. We have people from Indo Tibetan Border Police, Assam Rifles, Commando Battalion for Resolute Action, Intelligence Bureau and a few other organisations from all over the country doing all sorts of mostly military-related jobs.
If you accept, then your CO will send you a deputation to someplace like DRDO, HAL or maybe a study leave and then forget about you. You’ll come back if you fail the training or screw up in some way. Well, if you’re lucky you will be able to come back within the training period itself. Failure in the field usually means you are not likely to go anywhere ever. In your case, we can make up something about your injury if you wish.”
He gave Dahiya a minute to absorb the information and then said, “That’s about the most of it. There are a few more details, but I am not at liberty to disclose them unless you say yes to joining us.”
Dahiya looked at his prospective recruiter closely and asked plainly, “If you know so many details about me already, you must also know my answer. Don’t you?”
Shyoran just smiled back.