They are India’s Men in Black, the “Black Cats”, nicknamed after their black nomex coveralls, and balaclavas. They may not have the toys of Will Smith or Tommy Lee Jones, but with their specialised equipment and training, they far more deadly.
They’re frequently seen guarding the high and the mighty of the land, forming a protecting ring around them with their stern demeanour and mean-looking H&K MP5 sub-machine guns held across their chests.
Not many may know the commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG), but mention the word Black Cats, to any Indian, and there is instant recognition. The NSG are among world’s finest counter-terrorism units, with its cadres trained to handle a variety of tasks.
Wresting the buildings back from the militants, one room at a time, rappelling down ropes from military helicopters and blasting their way into the structures, gunning down 14 terrorists and capturing one.
The NSG was established under the National Security Guard Act of 1986. The act was in response to the 1984 Operation Bluestar; the advance of Indian military to remove Sikh separatists who had seized control of the Golden Temple. The operation involved a significantly large number of military combatants; casualties, numbering in few hundreds, also involved civilians. The temple also suffered heavy damages. The operation highlighted the need for a force specialising in counter-terrorist operations with greater efficiency.
Given their striking appeal, all bureaucrats and politicians, started demanding NSG protection. A point was reached when “power status” was measured by the number of Black Cats in the person’s bodyguards. The Black Cats found themselves being deployed more as personal bodyguards than their official purpose.
The final nail in the coffin came when Indira Gandhi’s son Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister in 1984. His minders insisted on a specialised force for the prime minister alone – and thus was born the Special Protection Group (SPG).
Being out of the prime minister’s ambit diminished the NSG’s sheen somewhat – but along with that came the silver lining: it could now focus on the specialised tasks for which it was originally created.
Today, the primary role of the NSG is to combat terrorism in situations that the police or other central paramilitary forces cannot cope with. It also has an expert wing to handle anti-hijack operations, rescue operations and provide support to the central paramilitary forces.
Modelled on the lines of Britain’s SAS (Special Air Squadron) and Germany’s GSG-9, the NSG has two complementary elements: the Special Action Group (SAG) and the Special Ranger Group (SRG).
The SAG, which comprises 54% of the force, is its elite offensive wing, with its cadres drawn only from the Indian Army.
The SRG draws its cadres on deputation from central police and paramilitary organizations like the Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF).
To maintain a young profile of the force, its troops are rotated and sent back to their parent organisations after serving in the NSG for three to five years.
The cadres of the NSG are intensely proud and determined; bound by a strict code of duty and honour, in many ways reminiscent of the Samurai and their code of Bushido. I remember a story my father recounted to me, which demonstrates this pride and determination.
He had the priviledge of sharing the dais with General S. K. Sunderjee during a Rotary convention. Gen. Sunderjee was Vice-Chief of Army Staff, to General A.S. Vaidya, during Operation Blue Star. For their roles, Gen. Vaidya was assassinated, and Gen. Sunderjee was under the highest level of protection against the death threats.
During the function, the electricity failed, and the 1,000 person hall, was plunged in to darkness. The standy-by generator restored power and lights in less than 10 seconds, but by then, Gen. Sunderjee was completely surrounded by his protective NSG ring. Later, my father had a chance to speak to the commanding officer of the NSG protective detail, and complimented him on the swift and silent action. The officer replied “They [the terrorists] have already taken one [Gen. Vaidya]; if we let them take him [Gen. Sunderjee], we will not be able show our face anywhere. We will not even be able drown ourselves in atonement.”
Aspiring commandos undergo 90 days of gruelling training at Manesar, around 50 km from the capital New Delhi. Only those who successfully complete the entire course are inducted into the NSG for further specialized training.
The NSG also provides sky marshals for airlines, security to high risk individuals, anti-sabotage checks at venues of VVIP visits, training of state and central police forces in anti-terrorism measures and conducting investigations into IED blasts.
Among the successful operations undertaken by the NSG in the past are:
- May 12, 1988 — assault on the Golden Temple during Operation Black Thunder II
- April 25, 1994 — rescue of hijacked plane Indian Airlines Boeing 737 during Operation Ashwamedh
- October, 1998 — major combat missions in Jammu and Kashmir
- July 15, 1999 — rescue of 12 hostages held by armed Islamic terrorists who had stormed an apartment complex in Kashmir and killed 4 people
- September 25, 2002 — Operation Vajra Shakti to free hostages held by Islamic terrorists who had killed 26 worshippers at the Akshardham temple in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. They suffered their first combat death in this operation. Another commando, who was seriously injured and was in a coma, died after 18 months.
- November 2008 — Mumbai terror attacks. Operation Black Tornado, Operation Cyclone to flush out terrorists & rescue hostages after multiple attacks across Mumbai, India. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Havaldar Gajender Singh of Special Action Group(of NSG) laid down their life and attained martyrdom while fighting the terrorists from Pakistan
Please join me in saluting Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and Havaldar Gajendra Singh, both of the 51 Special Action Group of the NSG and more of their colleagues who have perished to protect Mumbai, their names as yet unknown; post a comment.
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