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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Mumbai Attacks : 59 hours of death.


9 pm is a good pack up time for the city that never sleeps. So, I had finished work and wanted to meet a ‘source’ for an informal meeting. Around 9.30 pm on the night of 26th November, I had caught a taxi from Mohammad Ali road for CST railway station. The cab would have hardly moved a few metres when an informer phoned me to tell that there was firing at the Leopold Café in Colaba area of South Mumbai. He said that it seemed like a scuffle between a few groups as a result of which two people had started firing at everyone in the cafe. Around 100 rounds had been fired already. 100 rounds!! I got a little worried and concerned. The shootouts during gang-wars in Mumbai were not used-to experiencing 100 rounds of fire. Mostly the shooters would escape after firing 5-6 bullets. It looked like something other than a gang-war to me. I immediately phoned the bureau and hollered for an OB Van and a reporter to be deployed at the Leopold café and ordered my cab-driver to steer me to the spot.

On the way, the first default action was to call up the regional Deputy Commissioner of Police Vishwas Nagre Patil to confirm the news but his phone was off the hook. As the taxi neared the MRA Marg Police Station, just before Crawford market, I saw a few armed policemen running towards a police van and sitting in it. I assumed that they were being sent off to Colaba too.

Just ahead of the police station at the MRA Marg is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station. I heard some rat-tat-tat sounds coming from the direction of CST, however dismissed them for firecracker sounds. But as my taxi moved closer, not only did the noise become more clearly audible but also more alarming and cautioning. The moment I crossed the main entrance of CST, I was shocked to see the scene in front of me. Hundreds of people were running in different directions. Some had huddled up on the sides of the main road. I could hear loud screams. This is when I understood that the rat-tat-tat sounds were not that of firecrackers but of bullets. Just then a friend called up to inform that an incident of firing had been reported at the Oberoi Hotel at Nariman Point. Now my doubt was cleared .Mumbai had been attacked by a group of terrorists and they were targeting crowded areas and the important spots of the city.

As I moved forward, I observed that the road from Regal Cinema to Leoplod Café was jam-packed.  I surrendered my taxi at Regal Cinema and started walking towards Leopold’s. A loud furore had fired up outside the café. Blood had splattered on the roads. Some people wailed and abused the police authorities, others blamed the government. I saw a set of people carrying dead bodies and a few others helped in rescuing the victims. The scenario inside the café was scarier. Blood stained bullet shells lay on the floor with scattered tables, chairs and broken alcohol and soft drink bottles. Bullet marks on the walls of the café terrified me. I had been to Leopold’s a couple of times in the past with a few friends. It’s a bustling place with a power to attract many-a –crowd, but the sight in front of me was making it difficult to comprehend if this was the same café I had visited in the past.

By this time my colleague, reporter Sachin Bhide had reached the spot with a cameraperson. First and foremost, we tried to probe the happenings at the cafe from all possible eye-witnesses and asked them if they could share whatever they had seen on camera. On their consent, we took their bytes and shot a walkthrough describing the scene. The eyewitnesses told us that two men of age 22-23 attacked the café. They had bags on their backs and both attacked from guns that looked like AK-47s. They had mostly attacked foreign tourists and had stormed in the direction of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

 In the direction of the Taj? Would they be upto something similar there as well? I ran with Sachin and his cameraperson towards the Taj Hotel which is just a lane behind Leopold Café. I had directed the Ob Van to situate near the Taj as we had to uplink the footage we had recorded at Leoplod café to the head office in Noida. I found the Ob van parked at the Apollo Bunder side of the Taj. I handed over the tape to the Ob engineer, asked him to send the footage to Noida and ran towards the main entrance of the Taj. There was silence at the main gate. Neither were the Sikh door attendants visible at the foyer nor was noticeable the usual energy that buzzed at the entrance of this grand heritage hotel. It looked lifeless. I had suspected that if the terrorists had attacked the hotel, then an equivalent commotion and chaos would be obvious. But there was complete silence here. However, a police van was placed a little ahead of the main gate from which constant sounds of wireless communication could be heard. So, to end the mystery about a possible attack, I decided to open the glass door of the main entrance and was shocked out of my wits. The reception area was soaked in blood. Dead bodies lied scattered in all directions, mostly of foreigners. There were two dead bodies in the passage which connects the old Taj with the new Taj. I also spotted three hotel staffers in their pure white-recently turned-red uniforms among the heap of dead that lied on the floor. It was palpable that this too was the act of the same assailants. I asked my cameraman to start rolling. But he did not have a tape. He had only brought one tape with him when he had hurriedly rushed to Colaba, the same tape which we had given to the Ob engineer after recording the episode at Café Leopold. I asked the cameraman and reporter Sachin Bhide to stay near the main gate and decided to bring the tape back from ob van myself. Meanwhile, I received phone calls from eye witnesses and familiar police officers to learn that episodes of firing were taking place at CST and the Oberoi hotel too.

While returning from the ob, I ran close to the walls of the old Taj. Suddenly an explosion rocked the building. The terrorists had thrown a hand-grenade in my direction followed seconds later by another. This time it was accompanied with 3 rounds of firing. I escaped the splinters of the grenade by inches but my spine felt the heat of the flare-up.  This was the scariest moment of the night for me. Just then, I received a call from the Noida Office to give a phono –a phone account of the firings and related episodes in Mumbai. All my fears, tension, anger and sorrow faded out instantly as now, huge work pressures gripped me. What became clearer to my mind and preoccupied me for the rest of the night was that Mumbai had witnessed a huge crisis and I had to commit to my work and be able to deliver the best coverage. As the bureau chief, I had twin responsibility of co-ordinating with all my reporters along with covering the terror attacks at the Taj. All reporters of the bureau were asked to report back to work. Some had taken a u-turn on their own after they had learnt of the on-goings. I received a great deal of help in co-ordinating the bureau from Rajesh Kumar at the assignment desk of Mumbai. He was constantly in touch with all reporters.

Finally, I reached the main gate of the Taj tower with the tape. By now a big police van with over 20 policemen had reached the Taj. They had instructed my cameraman and reporter Sachin to move away from the hotel. Other news channels, some print- photographers had arrived and a couple of ambulances had begun backing up at the Taj.  We re-located ourselves at the parking lot and started capturing the visuals of the haulage of the dead bodies. Suddenly another grenade was lobbed and this time the vibration appeared to come from the south-western side of the old Taj. This was the same side of the hotel where our Ob van was parked and I learnt that the bomb had exploded just 10 metres away from the van. I ran towards the van. The driver and ob engineer were trembling in fear .I told them to stand away from the van and only when a reporter needed to uplink his or her footage should they go near the van. At this time, reports of a blast in a taxi in Wadibunder near Mumbai Port had come in. 3 people had died and 10 had been injured in this explosion. Just later, a low-intensity blast was reported in a taxi in Vile Parle area of suburban Mumbai. I deployed reporter Mayur Parikh to go for the blast at Vile parle and asked reporter Mangesh Chivate to cover the Wadibunder blast case.

In another phono, I updated the viewers of Star News- “By now it is clear that Mumbai has been attacked by a group of terrorists. The assailants have targeted crowded areas of the city. There are reports of firing at CST railway station, Kama Hospital and Oberoi hotel and information regarding low intensity bomb blasts in Wadibunder and Vile parle is also trickling in. At the moment I’m reporting from the Taj Mahal hotel in Colaba where a group of terrorists has killed many people after slaughtering diners at the Leoplod café. I have seen over half a dozen dead bodies in the blood filled reception area of the Taj. A total of the number of dead cannot be estimated at the moment. The terrorists are still present in the hotel. I can hear alternate sounds of firing and bombings from within the hotel. Police officials have reached the spot and victims are being rescued.”

Eventually the Bomb Squad of the Mumbai Police reached the Taj and started investigating the surrounding area with sniffer-dogs. We had shifted to the area across the Taj where everyday; thousands of pigeons are fed by tourists and visitors. We perched next to a tree. The dog reached the tree after sniffing the nearby bushes and cars. It barked and sat next to the tree alerting the members of the bomb squad. We detected a black polythene. The dog had indicated the presence of a bomb in the polythene. We were asked to move away immediately. The area was cordoned off as the bomb squad prepared to deactivate the bomb. This illustrated that the terrorists had planned their moves very cleverly. They had known that hotel would be enveloped by police officials in no time. And so, they had planted a timer-bomb outside the hotel to slay a good number of policemen..

Because of the incoming phone-calls and the anxiety to capture the scene at the hotel,
I never realised the gravity of my own circumstances even when I stood next to a bomb.  This was the second time I had escaped death in half an hour. There would have been no trace of me had the bomb exploded. The bomb was disabled, but a question that kept crawling in my head was that how did a bomb reach the main entrance of the Taj if the terrorists had entered the hotel from its back side? To find out, I had to wait till the next day.

Meanwhile, the presence of the police force outside the hotel had started increasing. I could sense that our ob van would be in police field within no time making it difficult  for us to reach the van and uplink footage. I decided to move the van to a place which was neither too close nor too far from the Taj. Such a spot was the Gateway of India. I asked the ob van to be moved there. Within a few minutes, I had realised the importance of taking this decision at the right time as now the terrorists had reached an upper floor of the building and started tossing grenades where the OB had been parked earlier. Eventually the hotel was enveloped by the police from all directions. It would have been very difficult for a reporter to reach the ob van had we reserved it in the same side of the hotel. Whereas, after repositioning the ob at the gateway, we could give live output of the hotel, in a wide frame. Seeing us, a few more channels moved their ob vans next to ours.

We were hoping that the Mumbai police would soon get the hotel out of the tentacles of the terrorists. Due to the constant co-ordination with all reporters of the bureau and repeated chats, updates, phonos and walkthroughs, I had not kept track of time. Time had flown.

Reporter Ganesh Thakur got to the OB van after covering the attacks at CST railway station. He updated me on the superiorly pathetic site at the railway station. He shared that the terrorists had first fired at the platforms meant for mail expresses and then proceeded to target hundreds of innocents at the local train platforms. Ganesh and his cameraman Bhupendra had captured the pandemonium at the CST from the over bridge above the local platforms till a few bullets struck the indicator hanging a few inches above their heads as a result of which the video camera had slipped from Bhupenda’s hands. Two terrorists raced in their direction when Ganesh decided to leave the spot and re-locate themselves at a school called Anjum-E-Islam and continued shooting the incident. While listening to this heart-quaking story, I received a call from a doctor friend at the Bombay hospital. “Jitendra, hear me out, some ex-police commissioner of Kolhapur named Kamat has been shot dead.”
“Not Kamat, he’s Ashok Kamte and he’s presently the additional commissioner of Mumbai Police.. .but is he really dead? Do you know what you are saying?”
“Yes dear, his dead body is in front of me, a bullet pierced his brain.”

This call sent shivers down my spine. I didn’t want to believe what I’d just heard. I was disheartened. I’d last seen Kamte when he released tear-gas at the protesting MNS workers who disapproved the arrest of Raj Thackeray, a regional political leader who thrives on linguistic politics. I broke the news of his death to the Noida assignment desk with a very heavy heart and gave a phono on the channel declaring him dead. As I mourned Kamte, Mayank Bhagwat rang me up to astonish me with another bewildering report.
“ Jitu bhai, (brother Jitendra) its being suspected that Mr.Salaskar has been shot dead…and to add to the unfolding tragedy, I have heard that he was not alone, ATS chief Hemant Karkare has been killed too.”

“What are you talking? Are the terrorists capable of killing the ATS chief of the city? I don’t believe it, please cross-check, only then can we break this news.”

Within a few minutes Mayank called again “Jitu bhai the reports are true, Karkare Sir is no more and Salaskar has been killed too. I have informed Noida office.”

I was shaking uncontrollably… I could not believe how three senior police officers of Mumbai police were killed in a matter of few minutes. The last I had met Vijay Salaskar was a few months back at my own wedding reception. I recalled that he was drenched in sweat when he had entered my reception party with a bouquet in his hands. “Jitendra, I’m sorry dear, I got late. I had got caught up with work. There was a lot of traffic on the way due to Raj Thackeray’s rally.” He had also said that he didn’t want to eat and had only savoured an ice-cream that night. The last photograph in my wedding album is with him. I remembered that photograph a couple of times that night.

A few months after my marriage, I had spoken to Vijay Salaskar on phone when after the dismissal of encounter specialist Pradeep sharma, I had filed a special report on the existing gang war within the Mumbai police. This was the last time that I ever heard his voice. He was sounding upset and had requested me to reduce the frequency of the telecast of my report. In my report I had highlighted the existing ‘groupism’ within Mumbai police and that how one clan was another’s enemy. One of these groups was headed by Inspector Pradeep Sharma and the other by Salaskar himself. Both were good friends, started their careers together and had worked jointly for many years. But soon after, they had become bitter enemies. Pradeep Sharma alias Baba had been a successful encounter specialist with a monstrous number of 112 encounters to his credit. He had qualified the police force entrance test together with Salaskar alias Maharaj in 1983 and was appointed sub-inspector. They worked together in the early 90’s, carried out several encounters and arrrested many criminals. But this friendship was not destined to last forever. Differences cropped up between them to the extent that they separated and made their own camps, killed each others’ informers and sent close aides of one another behind bars. This war between the two officers had percolated deep into the system that each had a bunch of his favourite crime reporters too. Some journalists were dear to Sharma while others were Salaskar loyalists. Obviously the two officers shared exclusive news stories with their respective group of reporters only, as these stories would sometimes be against the other camp. I had kept myself away from indulging in any clannish behaviour. As a journalist I had received support from both these officers. Despite the negative stories that I had filed against both these officers, their attitudes towards me had never changed. Both knew that I was only doing my job.

Salaskar’s death came as a big shock for the entire police force of Mumbai. Nobody had vaguely imagined a death of this kind for a man who’d had made over 60 gangsters succumb to his bullets. I grieved over his death and the loss it beckoned for the Mumbai police, but again work related anxiety didn’t allow me to express any sentiment for too long.

After the reports of the death of these three officers, I understood that the attacks were not trivial; the enemy was informed and carried brutal weapons.

As the calamitous evening unfolded, I received another phone call from a friend named Avinash who’d reached St George’s Hospital in search of a relative. He described the horrific state of affairs at the hospital to me. GT Hospital and St George’s Hospital are the two nearest hospitals from the Taj, Nariman house and the Oberoi Trident. There was utter chaos at both. As the buildings of St George’s hospital and CST station are adjacent to each other, most casualties from CST were being brought to St George’s. But the hospital was not equipped with adequate number of beds, doctors, medicines or injections. Victims screamed outside the operation theatre. The morgue aided accommodation of just 20 dead bodies, but the hospital had been flooded with over 50 bodies within an hour of the attacks. Distressed family members and relatives of the dead and the injured searched for their near and dear ones. No systems were in place for the correct identification of the deceased. When the apparatus did begin to function, there occurred miscalculations in the qualification of people and many living victims were pronounced dead.

Pranali Kapse reported from GT Hospital. The scene here was worse than St George’s. Pranali had been taken in as a TV journalist only a year and a half ago and it was here at GT hospital that for the first time in her life she had seen such an enormous number of dead bodies. Ambulances off-loading the bodies presented the raw sight of human intestines hanging behind the vertebrae of the dead. Actually when a bullet strikes from the front, human organs flip out of the body with the bullet from the posterior side and blood oozes out from the front. Pranali identified the body of Vijay Salaskar that lay in a corner of the hospital. The white sheet covering his anatomy had turned red. Everyone in the hospital was astonished to see the state of the encounter specialist of the city. The circumstances at the hospital caused tears to roll out of Pranali’s eyes.

We stood approximately 150 metres away from the Taj but were not in a safe zone. We could hear the alternating sounds of gunfire and IED blasts echoing from the Taj. The terrorists were armed with AK-47s and we stood within their target field. Bullets of diameter 7.62mm used in the AK-47s can attack a target as distant as 300 metres and these weapons can fire several hundred rounds in a minute. Suddenly they opened fire in our direction. The assailants had observed lights discharging from the video cameras of reporters who were engaged in recording their walkthroughs. Fortunately no one was injured. The police ordered all TV crews to turn off their mount-lights and the photographers were asked to not use flash lights. I had escaped death yet another time.

Mayank Bhagwat called up again to report an episode of firing near Metro Cinema junction. A police official named Arun Chite had stood next to Mayank and was urging everyone to move away from the junction. Just then 2 terrorists arrived in a Qualis jeep and sprayed bullets. Arun Chite who stood 3-4 steps away from Mayank was shot dead in no time. 3 bullets had ripped Chite’s body as Mayank had a narrow escape. A bullet had also injured a cameraman representing E TV. It was found out later that this Qualis jeep was a police vehicle driven by Vijay Salaskar before the two killed him and seized it.

After speaking to Mayank, I observed many missed calls on the screen of my mobile phone. Most of them were from home. I assumed that my family had begun viewing me reporting from the Taj. I called up home. Everybody was tensed. I informed that I was safe and that I would return only after the operation subsided. I advised them not to move out of the house the next day.

I had no clue about the fact that the updates and visuals broadcasted by us were being of great use to the National Security Gurads (NSG) who were to soon take charge of the operation. The role of TV channels came in for much criticism in the aftermath of the carnage as news channels suffered many allegations for frivolous work. But subsequently, NSG chief J.K. Dutta’s interview to an English magazine made me feel proud. On the night of 26th November, the first attack on Mumbai was reported at 9:30 pm but the Cabinet Secretary had given formal orders to the NSG to leave for Mumbai only at 11:30 pm. Even though the orders came in late, Dutta’s team of commandos had prepared a synchronized strategy for the operation as they had been watching the news channels. It was on the basis of the constant updation of news and screening of latest visuals that the NSG analysed that this attack was not an underworld related gangwar but a terror attack of a superior magnitude. They could scrutinize the weapons carried by the terrorists and demarcated the areas of the terrorists’ presence. While watching the news, Dutta had also phoned the DGP of Mahrashtra AN Roy who could not confirm the exact number of terrorists. So it was our coverage that helped` Dutta make his basic calculations, direct his commandos and compute the amount and type of arms and ammunition they needed to load themselves with. Dutta left Delhi once the official protocol was taken by the Cabinet Secretary.

Whenever a big incident such as these attacks occurs, rumours of all type get circulated. This time too many false stories were being gassed around. Some said that the terrorists had made prior bookings in the two hotels they attacked while others said that they worked as waiters in these hotels till they acquired their arms and ammunition. Another one that made its way to the ears of many was that the terrorists had plans to blow up the airport and the taxi blast which occurred near Vile Parle was a result of a calculation failure as the attackers could not reach their final destination on time due to Mumbai traffic. Thousands of such stories get fabricated by eyewitnesses, sometimes police officials but mostly it is an act of a novice journalist. Most of these rumours are contrasting to the real situation. Floating in a galaxy of these rumours can get very complicated and taxing for a reporter who is already struggling with the tension of delivering accurate and timely outputs. What to believe and what all to ignore? Nothing can be aired on the channel before the news is cross-checked and verified from reliable sources. Breaking incorrect news can be very hazardous for the reliability of a news channel.

The number of police officials outside the Taj kept increasing by the hour. The sounds of ravage now seemed to be coming from the upper storeys. Suddenly we observed that one of the rooms of the hotel had started spewing smoke and within no time this smoke was replaced by a full blown fire. Wails and screams started to accompany the sounds of gunfire. The hostages begged for help urging to be saved from the attackers. These shrieks were agitating me. I was getting perturbed thinking if the terrorists were burning the hostages in cold blood? Nobody knew what was going on inside the hotel. The bouts of sporadic firing and the fire in the majestic hotel were the only two giveaways to the horror. Within sometime five fire brigade engines arrived at the hotel. The fire-fighters climbed up the Taj from the outside and tried to extinguish the fire. People from the lower floors were being rescued using sky-lifts. Some entrapped guests were tried to escape the hotel by tying themselves with bed-sheets and curtains and crawling down from the windows of the hotel. The aluminium ladders brought by the firemen could only reach to the 3rd level of the hotel. The fire brigade officials had received the first call from the police at 10:35 pm to extinguish a fire at the Oberoi Trident. 7 fire engines and 8 water tankers were released for the same .The terrorists had set the lower lobby of Kandhar restaurant on fire which was quickly brought under control by the firemen. Later that night half the force was diverted to Colaba. The firemen complained that they had nobody to guide them at the Taj unlike the Trident where Commissioner of Police Hasan Gafur was himself administering the operation. After talking to these firemen I realised that there was no co-ordination between the defence forces, rescue services and the relief agencies. Be it the 1993 blasts or the 26/ 7 deluge or the 2006 train blasts, never have the policies designed in seminars on disaster management been applied to use. This time was no different from the past and I knew that the same committees would re-convene to design a few more policies after these attacks too.

I was cursing the system when I heard a fireman howl profusely. He was weeping and moaning in Marathi (regional language of Maharashtra state) “I could not save them, why did I take up this profession? I cannot justify my salary... that man implored me to do something but I could not help him.. I couldn’t save his family. .i never wanted to see a day like this”. Obviously the fireman was in a state of shock. His friends tried to console him but to no benefit. Actually the room that had been set ablaze by the attackers hosted the wife and children of the general manger of the hotel Karmbir Kang. It was their screams and cries that we could observe at the Gateway of India. Kang was begging and pleading every police official and fire-fighter to rescue his family because he had the twin responsibility of evicting every guest trapped in the hotel and helping his own family. It was because of Kang’s assistance that a lot of guests were rescued, but unfortunately he could not save his own wife and children. By the time the firemen extinguished the fire in their room, Kang’s family was lost. This fireman was holding himself responsible for their death. In the room next to Kang’s family, Sabina Sehgal, a journalist with the Times of India was also shot dead by the terrorists.

Despite all the flaws that existed in the co-ordination between different forces, the firemen had done a commendable job. These brave hearts were constantly on the go and aided the rescue operations without putting on any bullet proof jackets. They continued to display their valour regardless of the fact that they could easily be spotted by the terrorists. They did get attacked. A grenade burst right next to a fire brigade which was involved in the rescue of the trapped hostages. Sharpnels hit the driver Mohanlal Sanle. The vehicles suffered a few damages too but no fireman was brutally injured. The team did not loose focus even after Sangle had been injured. Throughout the night the perpetrators kept igniting fires in different rooms of the Taj and the firemen displayed exemplary courage and put out the blaze.

Close to this time, I received an SMS from a friend confirming an encounter between cops and two terrorists near Girgaon Chowpatty. The terrorists were trying to flee to Malabar Hills in a stolen Skoda car. These two were the same terrorists who’d had earlier attacked at the CST and then killed Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte. One terrorist was declared killed in this encounter.

My political correspondent Nilesh Khare was stopped from going to the bungalow of the depuy CM RR Patil. His car was blocked and a police official put a revolver to Nilesh’s head in order to stop him from taking the car forward. The car, driver, camera and equipment was checked thoroughly and despite a clean-chit he was not allowed to proceed towards the Deputy Chief Minister’s bungalow. Nilesh had been sent to the Deputy CM to get a confirmation on the various reports that had trickled in from a mixture of sources and for the official declaration of the number of casualties in he attacks.

The government had released its first statement at 2 am. Speaker of Maharashtra State Government, Bhushan Gagrani spoke to the media from the 6th floor of the Parliament. He indicated that there could be 16 terrorists in the city who had invaded from seawaters. No verification was made on the number of dead and injured. The deaths of Hemant Karkare, Vijay Salskar and Ashok Kamte were also not ascertained. However the leading channels had confirmed their deaths and televised the news. On being asked about the deaths of these three, Gagrani said that they’d only been injured.

Nilesh had received a phone call from the Government’s information office that the CM and the Deputy CM would address an urgent press conference at 5 am. The CM had cancelled his official visit to Kerala and returned to Mumbai after learning about the attacks. He was meant to inaugurate the houses donated by the Maharashtra government to the Tsunami victims on the 27th of November. During the conference, one could easily identify that the CM was much stressed. It was here that for the first time the Government had declared the 3 heroes of Mumbai police dead. Vilas Rao Deshmukh had made this declaration with moist eyes. It was a day of many firsts. Never before had any political reporter seen the CM so dejected.

My phone was engaged throughout the night on the 26th of November. I was either gathering information from my sources or busy co-ordinating with the bureau and the head office to be able to present constant updates. I realised that my wife had been trying to call frantically and observed some missed calls from her. I called back at once.

Me: Are u not watching the news?
Wife: Of course I am. Are you the only reporter there?
.Me: There are many of them but I can’t move from here. I will return once the operation ends.
Wife: When will it end?
Me: I don’t know. Maybe a little later.
Wife: But we have to catch a train to Lucknow in the morning. How do you think will we manage?
Me: What are you talking? Do you still think we are going to Lucknow? I can’t leave Mumbai even if the operation ends in the morning. There will be many follow up stories to cover.
Wife: What kind of a job is this… she disconnected the phone in disappointment.

My wife had been eagerly waiting for the morning of 27th of November. It was the first time that she was visiting her maiden-home after our wedding. She has 2 elder sisters. My father-in- law had prearranged a very elaborate sacred prayer which was recitation of holy epic Ramayana with his 3 sons-in-law. The other two sons in law lived in Kanpur. I and my wife had to be present at this functiom on the 30th of November after attending my uncle’s daughter’s wedding in Lucknow on the 29th. I was supposed to go on leave from the 27th  of November  till the 1st of December. But the attacks had ruined my plans. And this was not the first time an insurgent incident had demolished my plans with my wife.

The whole nation had glued its eyes to the television. Nobody had ever witnessed a more horrifying reality show. News channels had replaced sports channels and entertainments shows in almost every household. My wife is an English teacher in a primary school. We had got married just 7 months ago, in the month of April. She had no idea about an average day in the life of a crime-journalist before she got married to me. I had no time-table or fixed working hours. Whenever I would sit to chat with her in my free time, my phone would ring at least a couple of times. Many times a single phone call had made me rush from home to a trouble laden location. Whether it was the violence caused by the Sikh community protesting against the Dera Sacha Sauda or the agitation by the supporters of Raj Thackeray’s party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) or the police encounter with Rahul Raj (a youngster from North India who hijacked a city bus), my wife would almost collapse when she saw me cover these stories. She would often suggest me to take up a desk job, but each time, I’d have the same answer to give to her that I derived great satisfaction in reporting from the field and that I was known for my crime-reporting. She was beginning to understand slowly.

Immediately after I finished talking to my wife, I received a call from my mother. She’d reached Lucknow to be able to help in the preparations for the wedding. I’d got mad at my mother when she asked me if I could make it for the wedding.

Me: how can you ask me if I can make it? Are u not watching the news?
Mom: I’m watching and I know that you wont be able t make it. But everyone here is expecting you. Sarita(the bride) wishes to see you, so I thought to check with you.
Me: No I cannot. Maybe I can catch a late night flight on the 29th if the operation subsides. But I can’t catch the train in the morning.
Mom: Ok. Take care of yourself. Don’t be over-enthusiastic. I’m scared for you.
Me: Ma I’m outside the hotel and I’m safe. There are many that are trapped inside, held as hostages whose families don’t even know if their dear ones are dead or alive. Believe me ma, you’re lucky that your son’s alive.
Mom: You’ll never change. Do whatever you like.

Later that night, the marine commandos or the MARCOS had replaced the Mumbai police officials and taken charge of the rescue operations. Both uniformed and casually dressed policemen now took position outside the hotel. I assumed that the operation would come to an end in the morning and realised that it was morning already. The sun had shone. I looked at my wrist-watch, it was 6 30 am.


Chapter 2
27 November: Never should such a morning ever come again.

“Spirit of life” had met its anti-thesis last night and I had no idea how time had flown. I was constantly engaged in giving phonos, updates, walkthroughs and co-ordination with the rest of my reporters as they fearlessly completed the tasks assigned to them. Everyone had only one worry; the coverage should not get affected. We were not the only ones who were worried to acquire the fastest visuals and information. Every other reporter from each rival channel shared the same insecurity. News channels were competing against one another but we had strict orders to not put anything on-air before its verification. Our aim was to telecast authentic anecdotes and we did not televise any visual which could let out the defence strategy being used by the forces to the attackers.

Nobody jogged in front of the Taj this morning. One could only spot either defence personnel or policemen and media professionals around the Taj. The very striking sounds of laughter emerging from a laughter club that greeted every passer by a good morning were replaced by the sounds of combat. Every morning the area opposite the main entrance of the Taj is flocked by thousands of pigeons. The birds had kept up the custom despite the disturbed ambience, but there was nobody to feed them their breakfast this morning. Rather, each round of fire would scare them to fly away. The jetty services at the Gateway that took hundreds of tourists to Elephanta, Alibaug and Uran had also stopped plying. I received a call from the head office in Noida to give a chat on the morning after the attacks with the Taj in the background. I described the events of the previous night in a sequential manner and updated the viewers on the fresh developments in the story. The operation had not finished yet and the terrorists had holed up in the hotel. I had been awake since Wednesday morning and the dark circles under my eyes had now become darker. But I was not feeling sleepy. A few well wishers called up after viewing my chat in the morning bulletin “You haven’t slept the night, take rest if you can.” “How long will this operation go on for?” “You don’t seem to be feeling very well.” I thanked everyone for their concern and reassured them that the operation would come to an end in sometime.

None of my team members had slept the night as everyone worked with the common agenda of delivering the best output possible. Some local residents had dropped by and offered us water and biscuits. “Please eat something; we have been watching you cover the operation since last night, we feel like contributing too. We will feel good if you ate something”. It was evident that the average Mumbaikars felt the need to contribute in their own little ways. I picked two pieces of biscuits, thanked them and requested them to offer some eatables to the policemen too. It was 10:30 am when I ate these two biscuits after having eaten a small snack from a road side stall at 8 pm on Thursday.

The previous night had left behind a trail of shock and the entire city was terrified this morning. The whole of South Mumbai, especially Colaba was completely shut. As the day progressed, the number of media persons camping outside the Taj increased. By now, a lot of international news channels and agencies had also reached the Taj. The open space outside the hotel had filled with media persons. Many politicians tried to use this opportunity to campaign. Many ministers of the ruling party, a few from the opposition and a certain municipal-corporaters had turned up with their party members. They were eager to speak to TV and print journalists and didn’t leave a stone unturned to make it obvious that they wished to get publicity. We decided to give them a pass. Some regional channels meandered around them for getting their comment. We had decided that we would only speak to the CM or the Deputy CM or any such person who’d have some earnest information about the attacks. We didn’t want to become the mouthpieces of politicians wanting to get limelight or the opposition parties that sought to criticize the Government. Some politicians tried to grab attention of the reporters by appreciating their work. “Good job”, “You are not any less than a commando”, “take care.”. etc

Correspondents from different bureaus of Star News were also transferred to help us. National editor Deepak Chaurasia and national bureau chief Rajan Singh came in from Delhi and Chief of Bureau Ahmedabad, Brajesh Kumar Singh and Venkatesh Chapalgaonkar, Bureau Chief of Pune joined us for the coverage. Operations were taking place at three places. I was present at the Taj with reporters Sachin Bhide, Ganesh Thakur and Avinash Degaskar. Together we had covered the Taj from all sides so that we could capture each and every activity of the terrorists and no combat step of the security forces could be missed. Umesh Kumawat, Mayur Parikh and Upendra Rai were reporting from the Oberoi Trident. There too, the reporters had covered the hotel from all sides. The Nariman House at Colaba, which is the cultural centre of the Jews was also attacked by two terrorists who’d held a few people as hostages. Subodh Mishra and Vilas Athawale had placed their cameras in nearby high rise towers. OB vans were installed at all these locations so that footage could be uplinked as soon as it was captured. All reporters and cameramen at these three locations were within the target fields of the attackers. I started strolling around the Taj in anticipation that I might come across a known police official who could give information from inside the Taj. Around this time, Umesh Kumawat called up to inform that the NSG (National Security Guards)commandos had reached the Oberoi and that they were going to reach the Taj soon. Within sometime, tall and sturdy NSG commandoes reached the Taj and penetrated the hotel after a few discussions outside. A long silence prevailed after the commandos entered the Taj. It seemed as if the commandos had captured the terrorists immediately after their entry in the hotel or as if the terrorists had fled. Members of the press had started assuming that the operation had come to an end. Many had phoned their bureaus to inform that the formal announcement of the operations termination could soon be made. Media persons had begun to laze when a sudden uproar was caused due to a fresh round of firing within the hotel. These sounds of firing were different from the sounds of gunfire we had heard the previous night. These were more terrifying. And all of a sudden it appeared to me as if I was witnessing a war. The NSG had kick-started their operation and the terrorists were offering counter attacks.

These attacks and counter attacks continued till late afternoon but no information had seeped out of the hotel. At this time, latest information came in that the police had found the boat which the terrorists had used to enter the Indian state. The attackers had disembarked at a fishermen’s colony, exactly opposite to the Badhwar Park Railway Colony in South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade. Since I had designated an adequate number of reporters at the Taj, I decided to shift to Cuffe Parade with my cameraman.

This slum near Badhwar Park smelt of dried fish. Most of the area here is covered by the hutments of the fishermen except a small patch where the fishermen anchor their boats. It was there that two policemen sat and I guessed that it was the place I’d come looking for. I met and interviewed a fisherman named Laxman Khamba(name changed) as he narrated that he had seen the terrorists arrive in a small boat. He revealed that a total of 10 young boys had entered the city from this very locality the previous night. They appeared to be 20-30 years old. All of them had worn t-shirts and carried large sized bags. They had arrived in a yellow coloured engine-boat. Such inflatable boats are mostly used for water sports. Khamba was shocked to see them as the local residents were only used-to seeing fishermen in that side of the water body. Then who were these boys? Khamba had quizzed one of the boys as to whom they were only to get an angered look and a monosyllabic answer “student”. They hadn’t replied to any other query and only stared back irately. Khamba had suspected the hand of these boys in the attacks and given a detailed account to the Cuffe Parade Police station, where the engine-boat had been shifted.

The information given by Khamba was vital as it explained how the terrorists had entered the country. Now the agenda was to capture visuals of the motorboat that lay in police custody. It was set aside in the corridors of the Cuffe Parade police station. Not too many police officials were present at the police station when I reached there with my cameraman. Vidya from Aaj Tak news channel and a few other reporters had reached the police station too. Everybody was arguing with a constable who wasn’t letting the press capture the visuals of the motorboat. “Please don’t irritate me. I haven’t slept since last night, I cannot let you photograph the boat, it is the only evidence we have.” he said. We tried to convince him but to no advantage. On seeing that the reporters were reliant on him, he took a step forward in expressing his angst against journalists “You will leave after taking the photographs but I will loose my job. You talk of co-operation but we policemen are always your soft targets. You people trash our esteem, you call us corrupt, you call us careless and useless, but you have no idea about what all we face… we do not go home for days, cannot eat meals on time, we are always under pressure.. Its like walking on a rope in a circus, one error can make you loose your job. So many of our officers have died since last night. They were slain on the job. Why don’t you take note of all these things? Why should we co-operate with you?”

These statements of the constable reflected annoyance of the lower ranked members of the police force. Every journalist sympathised with him. But everyone had come to the police station with the plan of capturing the visuals of the motorboat and this constable played hindrance. Senior Inspector , Assistant Commissioner of Police, Deputy Commissioner of Police were all contacted but no-one answered. Journalists were deciding to leave the police station premises when a police officer entered on his bike. This police officer had good personal relations with the press. He was shocked to see a huge number of media officials. “How come you all are here? The operations are on at the Taj and the Oberoi”. “We want to shoot the boat in which the terrorists had arrived, but your constable is not letting us.” A reporter said angrily. “It’s kept in the back, please escort all of them and let them shoot. Don’t give them any stress” the officer admonished the constable. On receiving orders from the officer, the constable took the yellow motor-boat. It was a small vessel but could accommodate 10 people. But the thought which bothered me unstoppably was that how could they manage carrying their bags filled with guns, ammunition, magazines etc in this small boat? The engine of the boat was kept separately. It was a Yamaha engine. The nagging constable was now posing with the boat and requested to be filmed.

This boat was used by the terrorists in the last fraction of their travel. All other specifics and information related to the boat were first exposed by our reporter Umesh Kumawat. He found out that that the terrorist Ajmal Aamir Kasab, who was caught alive in an encounter at the Girgaon Chowpattty had been hurt in his hand and hospitalised. It was here on the hospital bed that Kasab had narrated the story of his arrival in Mumbai to Assistant Commissioner of Police Tanaji Ghatge. Kasab revealed that after training him and his accomplices, his leader Jaki ur-Rehman alias Jacky Chacha had accompanied them on a motor boat named Al-Husseni which they had boarded near the Karachi harbour. They navigated this boat and moved towards Porbander in Gujarat and hijacked a Gujarati fishing boat near the India-Pakistan border. This boat was called Kuber. Jacky Chacha returned from here. There were 5 Indian sailors aboard Kuber at that time. The attackers killed the crew of four and dumped their bodies into the sea and forced Captain Amarsingh Solanki to sail to Mumbai. Every attacker was equipped with GPRS devices and satellite phones; therefore reaching Mumbai was not difficult. Once they were 12 nautical miles from Mumbai, the head of their group Ismail killed Amarsingh Solanki by slivering his neck and hid his dead body in the treasure box of the boat. From here they cruised in the yellow boat which had been identified and held in reserve at the Cuffe Parade police station. Eventually, the coast guard had traced ‘Kuber’ and found the body of Amar Singh Solanki..

I descended to the Taj and uplinked the shots of the boat. It was afternoon and the intermittent cross-fire between the police and the attackers was on. Deepak Chaurasia was giving live updates from the shore at the Gateway of India. I decided to move to a lane at the back of the Taj. There was absolute silence here. Only armed policemen and army men stood in position. Everyone’s eyes had reddened due to lack of sleep but they looked active and directed their awareness towards the Taj. They wore bullet proof jackets as the terrorists could have attacked from anywhere. The vibes transmitted stress. From here I glanced at the large number of reporters who stood at the Gateway. I could hear their murmur and sounds of their chats and phonos. Many onlookers had also gathered. But the panorama here in the lane behind the hotel was absolutely different. It looked dead as a graveyard. But I could certainly see poise in the eyes of the police men who seemed desperate to avenge the attacks. I angled my camera towards the Taj and sat in a corner. I chanced upon the days newspaper. Every page of the news paper told the tale of the hell that had broken loose on the financial capital.

The front page carried the photograph of Kasab and his accomplice Ismail. Another picture of the blood sprayed floor of the CST station depicted the anguish of hundreds of innocents. I developed goose bumps as I scanned the photographs of the dead police officials and naïve citizens. Had I stopped at the CST station last night, mine could have been another face in this collage. The terrorists had killed the oblivious travellers very brutally. I stressed on Kasabs picture and found it difficult to comprehend that how a lad who could pass off for a boy next door may well have such cruel intentions. I had no choice but to believe. The AK-47 in his hands and the demonic grin on his face suggested that devils had entered Mumbai on the previous night. I saw an image of a hospitalised Kasab too and gathered much such information that I had not known or had overlooked. I was immersed in the newspaper when our operations manger Uday rang me up “Jitu bhai, I have brought food, please reach the OB van parked at the Gateway and eat lunch.” The idea of food made me feel hungry or else I hadn’t thought of eating after consuming those two biscuits in the morning. I asked Uday if he had offered food to all our reporters and crews and was told that he was delivering it one by one to every body.

“But I don’t have assistance of any other reporter on this side, we might miss a story if I move from here, why don’t you tell Avinash Degaskar to finish eating and replace me at the back of the Taj. I will budge once he’s here.” Avinash relieved me and I went to the Gateway with my cameraman Gajanan. They had brought in vegetarian Biriyani for everyone. Uday had struggled a lot to be able to bring the food till the OB van. From Regal Cinema till the Gateway, he had been stopped, checked and questioned multiple times. I was very hungry and started eating instantaneously, but I could not go beyond 4-5 spoons. I didn’t feel like eating. I had also begun to fear that I might get sleepy after consuming rice so i stopped eating and reached the OB van to charge my mobile phone. Keeping two mobile phones came very handy in this situation. I had been constantly using my phone since the previous night which led to the rapid discharge of the batteries. So to bail my self out, I kept shifting my SIM card from one instrument to another and put the discharged phone for charging in the OB. Many of my reporters and journalists of other channels had kept their phones for charging in our Ob van. There were scores of phones but only two chargers. Hence everyone would charge their phones for a bit and ran to the OB van when the batteries started to flicker. 

Unremitting firing continued in the Taj. Many political parties and NGOs stationed their ambulances outside the main gate and as a dead body would get taken out of the hotel, it would be moved to a hospital in these ambulances. I met many old friends in the group of journalists standing at the Gateway. They now represented a diverse range of channels and newspapers in different parts of the country. I resolved their queries about the geographical topography of south Mumbai and reviewed the detailed profiles of Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Vijay Salskar for them. I also shared the phone numbers of some important police and government officials. In the middle of this conversation, we all heard the clatter of a helicopter. This was the Indian Navy’s Sea King which had borne flight from the neighbouring naval base INS Kunjali. The defence forces wanted to conduct aerial operations at the Taj and the Nariman House. But it returned after taking 3-4 rounds. It wasn’t possible to carry out an aerial operation when the sun had begun to set.

This evening at the Gateway was very scary. On a regular evening foreign and general tourists would visit the Gateway, local residents would come for jogs and walks. One could find the ancient Victorias (horse carts) parked on the main road opposite the Taj and spot a lot of interfering tea and chick-pea vendors. If you looked at the sea, you could spot a lot of motorboats decorated with small bulbs that served as venue for many theme parties. But none of these were visible this evening. They had been replaced by police vans, ambulances, fire brigade engines and Ob vans of various news channels. The only souls present were uniformed defence personnel, police officials and media persons.

I had been wearing a blue Fab-India shirt since Thursday morning which had soddened in sweat due to an overdo of running around. The dust on the roads and the smoke billowing from the Taj had blackened the shirt further. I wasn’t getting as edgy and restless due to sleeplessness as I was getting because of this shirt. I had started smelling of bad odour. I felt like going home to take a bath, but it wasn’t a good idea to leave the spot when the operation was on in full force. So, to feel better, I walked up to the OB van, filled a bottle of water and emptied it on my head. Deepak Chaurasia noticed me and said “Jitu, why don’t you rest for sometime? I’m here and so are other reporters. You are here since last night. Why don’t you go to my hotel room and rest for sometime, it’s nearby?” Deepak’s suggestion sounded correct, but I thought it was risky to leave the spot as the operation could have ended anytime.

“Thanks Deepakji, but I feel I should not move from here”.
“Please don’t compel yourself, just rest for sometime.. you never know how much longer it might go on for. Such encounters in Kashmir go on for weeks sometimes. I’m keeping an eye and am in touch with my sources in the central agencies. You go and rest for sometime as we don’t want you to fall sick.”

I could not say no to Deepak. I decided to leave the Taj but went straight to my maternal grandmother’s house instead of Deepak’s hotel room. Her house was in Masjid Bunder area of South Mumbai, around 20 minutes from the Taj. My wife had also reached there with a couple of my clothes. From the Gateway, I walked up to Kalaghora and thereon took a cab for Masjid Bunder. My family was watching Star News and Deepak Chaurasia was giving a live update. My relatives were happy to see me but expressed concern on seeing my state. My eyes were red and the dark circles had become darker. The Fab-India shirt had gathered layers of dust. I straight away went to the bathroom and stood under a hot shower for half an hour. The bathing made me feel better and relieved but my body was fatigued and I had begun to feel sleepy. Till the time I was busy, I did not think about any physical ache, but now that I was a little snug, I judged that my body had given up. My head, back and feet hurt terribly. I ate 2 chapatis and vegetable and popped an asprin to suppress the multiple aches that had raided my anatomy. My grandmother strained that I slept the night and resumed work from the next day but I contested her suggestion and told her that it was not feasible for me to stay home the whole night. I decided to sleep for two hours. She didn’t argue with me because she had assumed that I would not be able to wake up once I’d sleep. I feared the same and hence set an alarm for 1 am. I put my phone for charging but did not keep it on silent thinking that my informers might call up. I was trying to sleep but the phone rang within 10 minutes. I answered with a heavy voice. It was Shivam from the Noida assignment desk.

“Sir xyz channel is flashing Breaking News that the operation has abated at the Taj. Can you please check? I have asked Deepak to check as well.”
“Ok. I will find out and leave for the Taj.”
“Alright Sir. Try to check fast because another channel has started to flash the same news too.”

I didn’t crave to sleep after attending this call and immediately called up a source who was at the Taj itself. He told me that the operation was very much on. Three terrorists were alive and that the NSG was still battling it out with them. While talking to him, I could hear the sounds of gun shots. I requested my source to ring me up immediately after the operation ended and dialled Shivam.

-Shivam both those channels are flashing the wrong update. The operation is very much on. One can still hear firing sounds outside the Taj.

 -Yes you’re right sir, we have just heard the sounds in Deepak Chaurasia’s live. Those two channels have stopped flashing the wrong news now.

I tried to sleep again. It wouldn’t have been more that 20 minutes that Shivam rang me up one more time.

-         Sir once again a couple of channels are playing the same news-of the operation having come to an end. No firing sounds have echoed in a long time. I guess the operation has wrapped up. Can you please check?

I called up my source again. He said “Why don’t you take rest. I will call you once the operation comes to an end, Don’t worry.”

How could I not worry? The operation coming to an end would not just have been the nations but the world’s biggest news. I dropped the idea of taking rest and reached the Taj. There was continuous firing throughout the night. The terrorists set fire to many areas in the heritage hotel and the firemen used their latest gadgets to deal with the situation. International reporters kept increasing in number. More and more people started flocking to the area. Some by standing slum boys teased a female CNN reporter. Few had come drunk. Whenever she attempted to speak in front of the camera, these boys would start imitating her and stood behind her, awaiting their TV debut in a foreign land. They also indulged in an occasional pushing. She was helpless. Since the city’s entire forces were deployed in the operation, there was apparently no manpower left for crowd control. The reporters didn’t jump into the matter as it could have led to missing important shots and they knew that restless masses could offer assault and could damage cameras. Eventually the CNN reporter had to pick up her camera crew and camp elsewhere.

Chapter 3: the day of maximum action

Two nights had passed and the bloody-battle hadn’t come to an end. I had given countless phonos and updates on both my Hindi and Marathi networks throughout the night. Reporter Vilas Athawale called me up to inform that the commandos were to perform an aerial operation at the Nariman House this morning. He needed more cameras to capture the visuals of commandos flushing out the terrorists from this Jewish cultural centre. I decided to leave the responsibility of Taj’s coverage to my team and proceed to Nariman House which is positioned at a distance of just a kilometre and a half from the Taj, but it took me half an hour to reach there. The security forces had cordoned-off all the roads surrounding the Nariman House. I produced proof of my identification to the policemen and tried to explain the purpose of my presence in the area, but they didn’t allow me to move forward in the direction of the building. There was little I could do but I didn’t want to give up. I surrendered my vehicle some 500 metres away from the Nariman House and started walking into the surrounding narrow municipal lanes to reach a building parallel to the Nariman House, a 50 year old, typical old Mumbai construction that did not have a lift. We climbed up its 6 floors to reach the terrace. I was out of breath but nonetheless, worried more about whether I will be able to shoot the commando operation from here.

I focused straight towards Nariman House. The Naval forces’ Sea King was strumming above the Nariman House. I was lucky to reach at the right time. The NSG’s men-in-black had taken position in almost all buildings surrounding the Nariman House and pointed their snipers in the direction of a certain window behind which the terrorists had held an Israeli couple as hostage. (Actually they had killed the couple by this time.)A long rope was thrown from the helicopter and almost half a dozen commandos rappelled down from the carrier on to the terrace of the Nariman House. One commando had accidentally slipped from the rope and hurt his right foot. But he did no leave his weapon and hopped to a corner to take position. I gave a phono on the channel that the Nariman house had been stormed by the fast-roping NSG commandos and we could expect a more rapid action against the terrorists.

The helicopter re-appeared on top of the Nariman House and another half a dozen commandos slid down. The terrorists fired at helicopter but thankfully it had moved away from their range. The operation had picked speed immediately after the descent of the commandos. The firing became more fervent from both sides. The NSG commandos offered grenade attacks. I had shot the entire episode from just 200 metres away from the Nariman House. This was the most thrilling but also the riskiest assignment of my career. Knowing that they were covered from all sides, the terrorists fired in all possible directions and we had stood well within their target range. 

I reached the ob van parked near the Nariman House with the first tape of the visuals of this aerial operation. Vilas Athawale had also reached the Ob van with his set of visuals. The ob engineers had brought some biscuits which we ate between sips of water. Reporter Subodh Mishra also arrived at the OB van with his tape. He had shot the operation from the North of the Nariman House which also happened to be straight in line of the aim of the terrorists. He had recorded the direct confrontation between the commandos and the attackers. The terrorists had lopped a grenade towards him as well. After uplinking my tape, I once again climbed the 6 floors of the building atop which my cameraman shot more of the aerial operation. I saw that Umesh Kumawat had also reached the terrace of a nearby building. We eventually had a total of 4 cameras to cover the operation from different directions. Installation of a large number of cameras was imperative because of the aggressive and unpredictive nature of the action at the Nariman House. I looked down from the top of the building and saw that police vans, ambulances and fire engines stood on stand-by. I also spotted a young foreigner outside the Nariman House who was incessantly engrossed in a phone call and appeared to be very distressed. Some young kids on our terrace made fun of the gentleman who trotted the lane restlessly. An elderly resident of the building shooed them away as he brought us some water. He informed me that the young, fair gentleman was of Jewish origin and was associated with the Israeli consulate. He had been in touch with the hostages inside the Nariman House over phone but could no longer talk to them and that is why he was so grief-stricken.

Electronic media’s role in the coverage of these high-risk counter-terror operations was declared unrelenting by few. On the morning of the 29th, the News Broadcasters Association had dispatched messages to editors of 30 news channels requesting them to telecast the operation with utmost sensitivity so that the process or the hostages would not get jeopardised. NSG Chief JK Dutta was especially upset about the live telecast of the operation as handlers of the terrorists could view the live coverage of the operation and discuss it with the terrorists inside the Nariman House. Dutta informed the chief of Intelligence Bureau P C Haldar that the magnitude of the combat offered by the commandos fell and the ability to surprise the enemy had reduced as the location, strength, movement and strategy of the commandos was being given away and the attackers could ambush the commandos. As far as the Taj was concerned, the channels shot from a distance and no commando action was visible clearly. One could only capture the fire on the dome of the iconic hotel or the smoke billowing from the building as the combat took place inside the hotel. Visuals from the Nariman House were clear but they we were showing them 15-20 minutes after they had been shot so that the terrorists would not figure the commando movement. During this time, terrorists Babar Imran and Nasir had contacted a certain news channel which is famous for presenting news based on superstitious stories, occult sciences etc from the Nariman House. The terrorists informed the news presenter that they were avenging the killings of their religious-brothers in Kashmir and Gujarat with this insurgency. The channel thought of itself as one of the cat’s whiskers after the attainment of this interview and telecasted it repeatedly. Later the broadcast ministry had sent a notice to them and asked for an explanation.

I was asked to march to the Oberoi Trident as Upendra had to leave for the office of Mumbai Port Trust and Mayank would have been left sole in-charge. With the help of his sources at the Ports, Upendra aspired to be the first one to shoot the boat named Kuber which was seized by the terrorists at Porbander. I followed the orders given to me and reached the Trident. Here too, the scene was horrifying. A fierce battle raged between the security forces and the terrorists. Blasts and heavy firing could be heard continuously. Media persons gathered outside could see guests peering out of the windows. The hotel was surrounded by the police force from all directions and a hoard of onlookers had gathered behind the police barricades. The trapped guests were being evicted from the Express towers side gate of the hotel. There were both Indians and foreigners among the trapped. Some cried, others came out shivering, a few had blood all over their clothes and many came out saying prayers. The moment anyone was rescued, all media teams attacked the person like a bunch of ravenous vultures. They pushed each other to be able to capture the gesticulation of the salvaged. Some really enthusiastic young reporters jutted their boom mikes in the face of  rescued hostages. How would the victims of such a shocking experience of two days speak anything? I felt ashamed standing in the group of media persons. It felt as if the reporters were telling the victims “You have escaped the terrorists, but how will u escape us?” I didn’t blame them because they were doing what the system of this business expected them to do. A system which was insensitive, that propelled cut throat competition and needed self-censorship. Television journalism had boomed in the last 6-7 years, but it could not define its limits. Everyone did whatever they felt-like in the name of free press.

Another embarrassing act on part of the media-clan on this day had made me feel equally ashamed when a few respectable TV channels had not verified a rumour that had sparked off and declared that CST station, GT Hospital and Metro Cinema were under terrorist attacks again. News channels had frightened the city all over again.

I received a call from the Noida office around 1 pm that a rival channel was flashing news of fresh attacks and mayhem at the CST station. I didn’t believe them because after the attacks on the 26th night, its security had been heightened, there was a strong presence of defence forces and there were hardly any passengers at the station. CST station and most other parts of South Mumbai had converted into silent cemeteries hence I found it difficult to digest that the terrorists could strike at CST again. I was about to call up the railway control room to check when the channel’s managing editor Milind Khandekar rang me up and reprimanded “Why don’t we have the news on the CST firing? All the channels are flashing it.” I told him that it hadn’t been confirmed and that I didn’t think any such event could have happened. I told him that I’d check personally if they could wait for 10 minutes. He thought 10 minutes could cost prove perilous for the channel but he agreed to wait for me to confirm.

I and my cameraman left immediately for the CST station from the Lion Gate side. While I was on the way, I received another call from the Noida assignment that a leading channel had flashed reports of fresh firing at GT Hospital, Metro Cinema and the Parsi Dairy near Marine lines. I urged them to not put up anything till I confirmed the news. As our car crossed The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), I observed a huge pandemonium. People ran away from the roads and entered different buildings to save themselves. A few policemen who looked like new entrants in the force ran from the old RBI compound towards the new building and shut themselves up in a garage. They were terrified. During the entire coverage this was when I felt most scared. The environment suggested that firing did take place at the CST. We were heading in the direction from where people were running away. My driver started trembling and advised me not to advance-“We can be shot at. I am scared” The cameraman hesitated from saying anything but I could read it in his eyes that he wanted to restrain. We all were petrified but had no choice. I told the driver that he may not accompany us till CST and could go back after dropping us at the main post office few meters away from the station. I and my cameraman got off from the car and began to walk towards the CST. There was great presence of police officials outside the police station, however, we did’nt hear  any gunfire. Just then the additional Director General of Police (Railways) KP Raghuvanshi arrived at the CST. He had worn a bullet proof jacket and the security guards around him were fully alert. I discovered that Umesh Kumawat had also left the Nariman House and dropped by to confirm the news of fresh firing. The large presence of the police force at the CST suggested that something definitely had transpired here. I started to believe that the news of fresh attacks was true and felt guilty of not having broken the story sooner than the rival channels. I thought we had not been concerted enough and felt defeated.

In a dejected tone I asked a police official “What happened here? Was there another episode of firing?”

“No ..No.. there was no firing, the DFMD had fallen down which led to all this chaos.” He said and started talking on the phone

 I felt relieved. But I could not understand as to what the DFMD was? I asked a constable. “Brother what is a DFMD?” DFMD ? He scratched his head. Every second was precious as I had to update my boss Milind Khandekar on the matter at the CST. I stared at the clueless constable in fury and walked ahead when another policeman stopped me and pointed at the doorway of the station. “See that, that is DFMD, it is acronym for Door Frame Metal Detector.” The door shaped metal detector installed at the entrance of the station by the railway police for the scrutiny of the passengers is known as DFMD. The same police official made me understand the sequence of events that had turned out. According to him, a constable had accidentally fired from his rifle which led to the passengers think that terrorists had struck again. As a stampede hurried out, someone pushed the DFMD. I fell down and the passengers at the station confused the noise it made for sounds of attack. The police commissioner of the Railway gave a quote saying that there was no firing at the CST. However, he did not confirm the news of the accidental fire. Once again, I received a call from Milind-“what happened about the news of firing at the CST?”

-“Milind ji the reports are wrong. There has been no fresh attack. The metal detector had fallen and the people confused its racket for a fresh round of terror attacks. Umesh is taking a byte from the Railway police commissioner.”

-“Ok but what about the other spots? Many channels are flashing news vis-à-vis firing at GT hospital, Parsi dairy etc. Our channel hasn’t aired anything yet.”

Please wait for some more time, these spots are all very close from CST, I will set out immediately.

After disconnecting the phone I approached the GT Hospital from its back.This was where the attackers had killed Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte. A lot of policemen stood here. I asked them if any firing had occurred.

-“No, not at all. You TV people are telecasting that there has been firing at the hospital. We have searched the entire hospital. There is no terrorist here. No doctor, patient or nurse has heard any sounds of gunshots.”

I took a breath of relief. News of firing in the hospital had also turned out to be untrue. Similarly, there were no attacks at Metro junction or Parsi Dairy.  

I had understood the matter. I dialled Milind Khandekar-“There has been no firing at any place in Mumbai today. All those channels are running the wrong news. Actually these four spots CST, GT Hospital, Metro Cinema and Parsi Dairy are very close to each other, within a stretch of 3-4 kilometres. When a furore broke out at the CST after the DFMD fell, people ran to GT hospital where observers thought that the hospital had been attacked. Terrified masses fuelled panic and ran in the direction of Parsi Dairy and Metro taking the rumour to these places as well. This rumour spread and channels carried it without bothering to find the real version.”

“Ok so we will open the 2 pm bulletin with your phono. Please narrate the truth to the country.”

The next bulletin opened with my phono and I informed the viewers that there was peace at GT Hospital, Parsi Dairy, Metro Cinema and CST. As we broke this news, all those channels that’d been running the news of fresh attacks dropped their story at once, without any explanation or apology. After this disgraceful episode, the Maharashtra Governmet had put police pressure on cable operators and blacked out a few news channels for a couple of hours.

In the afternoon information filtered in that the operations at the Trident and Nariman House had abated. NSG constable Gajendra Singh had died in the operation at the Nariman House. The serurity personnel outside the Taj too were happy to hear about the conclusion of the operations at the other two locations. But the Taj was still held at ransom. Close to the evening, the NSG acquired total control over the upper floors of the Taj and the terrorists now headed towards the lower floors. By 6 pm, the terrorists were forced to come down to the first floor although they continued to fire and throw grenades. A window exactly in front of our video cameras started emitting smoke and eventually fire. The terrorists had set a room on fire again. All news channels showed a live telecast of this episode. Many onlookers had also gathered behind the reporters. Suddenly there was a blast in front of us and hit the tripod of an international news crew. It caused a chaos within seconds. The mass of bystanders started to run helter skelter. All members of the press immediately lied down on the road. As the terrorists confronted the commandos, some gunfire had got directed towards the media too and one of the bullets had rubbed off on a woman’s shoulder. People from the crowd took her to a hospital. Now that the nozzles of the terrorists’ rifles were directed towards the members of the press, it was advisable to report from positioning horizontally at the ground. But I had a problem. Next to me lay a senior TV journalist who is very fond of chewing tobacco and within the last few hours he had painted the ground at the Gateway red. How could I lie down and report from a place like this? Taking a bullet to my chest seemed like a better option than rest lying in this hell. I continued to sit with the mike in my hand.

.

During a commercial break on the channel, I moved my eyes from the camera to discover that the famous TV journalist who had spat all over the place had lied down on his own stains and that his shirt had an all new design on it. Policemen and other media members started to scream “lie down..lie down … do you want to die?” I was in a huge dilemma. Lie or die. Thankfully just then my cameraperson Ajit Kadam realised why I was puzzled. He immediately threw a few pages of a news paper at me and smiled at the famous TV journalist nodding his head in the negative. I felt comforted as I spread the news paper on the ground and stretched myself on top of it. Seeing my effort, all press persons and police officials understood the matter and laughed at him. After giving a few live updates from in from the Taj, I once again reached a back lane of the Taj anticipating that I might meet somebody familiar who could give me fresh updates from inside the hotel. A local public bus was parked in the street and two NSG commandos stood next to it. They had been brought from the Mumbai airport to the Taj in this bus. The commandos looked tired; their eyes had turned red as they had not slept for two continuous nights. Isn’t it paradoxical that our cricket team gets to travel in an AC coach after returning from a foreign land even if they loose the match; and here a commando who could loose his life in this encounter was made to travel in a simple bus used by the local Mumbaikars for daily travelling? One commando looked at me with a smile and spoke in a ‘Haryanvi’ accent- “You are Jitender from Star TV?”
“Yes”
“Did you telecast that our major has died in the operation?”
“Are u talking about major Sandeep Unnikrishnana?”
“Yes, he died while saving an injured commando.”
 “How? What had happened?”
“In a confrontation on the first floor, one of our commandos was hit in a round of fire by the assaulters. He fell near the staircase and could not move. The staircase has a way going on both its left and right sides.Regardless of personal safety, Major tried to help the injured commando and chased the terrorists who, meanwhile, tried to escape another floor using the staircase. Two attackers fired at the Major who continuously engaged them. In the encounter that followed, he was shot from the back by a third attacker, got seriously injured and succumbed to his injuries.He was not just our Major, but a friend too.” The commando’s eyes had moistened while he narrated the selfless bravery of his leader. I hesitantly asked him as to why did a lot of them join the forces? Was it for the love of their country or just for a job? The terrorists fought fearlessly because they were fanatical and brainwashed against India, but how and why did you get ready to risk your lives?

“See Jitenderji, I don’t know who’s here for a job and who all are here for the love of their nation. But I can tell you that whoever has joined the force has done it on his own will, knows that he will have to face such situations many times and that he can loose his life. As far as I’m concerned, I believe that we all have to die one day, so why not die a death that is remembered by everyone? Like our Major. He died a death of dignity; he died fighting for his country.” As a few seniors approached him, he shook my hand and left.

By this time the entertainment head of Star News Vibha Kaul Bhat had arrived with her team members Siddharth Hussain, Nishima Jaitley, Soma Vaidya and Joita Mitra. Due to this teams coming, the reporters who’d had been working from before had started to laze a bit. This team had only covered news related to films, TV serials or the glamour world until now. Vibha had in the beginning of her career, experienced the feel of crime reporting but her team was present on a crime-scene like this one for the first time. Covering this attack was nothing less than covering a war and they were pretty excited about it. These reporters had decided on their own that they’d work as crime reporters for the next few days. Soma had found and interviewed a girl who was an eye witness to the killings of Karkare, Kamte and Salaskar. Anchor Shazia Ilmi was also in Mumabi at the time of the attacks and she had also joined the brigade of  crime reporters to look for various stories. Shazia’s biggest contribution was the interview of Vijay Salaskar’s assistant Arun Jadhav who was admitted in Bombay Hospital. Jadhav was present in the same Qualis car in which the three Salaskar, Kamte and Karkare were shot at. Because Jadhav had sat in the rear seat and had pretended to die, the terrorists missed him. When the terrorists had surrendered the Qualis and seized a Skoda , that is when Jadhav had called the police control room to inform about the three officers . It was on the basis of his information that the Skoda was stopped at a nakabandi (police checking point) near Girgaon Chowpatty where Kasab was caught and Ismail was killed. Jadhav had narrated this entire incident to Shazia.

This was the first interview on any TV channel of an eye witness who had seen the death of the three police officers this closely. After the telecast of his interview on Star News, hundreds of journalists had run to Bombay hospital to interview Jadhav.

The evening had set in but the operation at the Taj had not finished. I was feeling restless. Sleep and tiredness had set in. Colleagues suggested that I went home and took rest. I appreciated their suggestion because after that, other reporters too could have gone home one by one. I again returned to my grandmother’s house at around 11 pm. I took a bath and rubbed a balm on my forehead as massive headache had set in. I had set an alarm for 6 am and slipped in the bed and subsequently Noida office, police officers and print journalist buzzed my phone one after another. I could not have exercised the choice of switching it off. Finally, I managed to sleep around 3 am and the alarm rung at 6. My body had given up so I lazed till 6:45 am. I felt like sleeping for some more time but realised that I had to relieve the other reporters who had been up all night. I picked up my cousin’s motorcycle and as I rode it to the Taj, I received a message that the operation at the Taj had come to an end. A little sad on not being able to cover the end of the  operation which I had covered since its beginning, I took a breath of relief. After 59 hours of siege, the Taj Hotel had finally liberated.

Mayur Parikh informed that there was a furious round of firing in the morning which appeared to be the final assault. The commandos had showered bullets on three windows on the first floor of the Taj behind which the terrorists had hidden. Commandos outside the hotel had also fired at these rooms. 25-30 rounds were fired in return of every round fired by the terrorists. Within sometime, an NSG commando was seen at the window from where the terrorist fired. He threw the dead body of the terrorist from the window which fell in front of hotel. Mayur and Ganesh ran towards the dead body but the commandos outside the hotel had stopped them. Here, Mayur seeked help of his sources in the fire brigade, who on his persistent requests clicked a picture of the terrorist’s dead body on his phone .This picture, was telecasted immediately. Later this official distributed this picture among all media channels. Mayur and Ganesh hugged each other to celebrate the end of the operation. The NSG commandos also started congratulating each other. Deepak Churasia and Umesh Kumawat were giving live chats from the Taj. All terrorists had been killed. I relieved Mayur and Ganesh and it was decided that all morning bulletins to follow would be anchored from the Taj.

While anchoring, I gave live-chats on the conclusion of the operation and the last rites of Hemant Karkare, Major Unnikrishnan and Constable Gajendra Singh. Besides the police force, the citizens of the city participated in the funeral procession of Hemant Karkare. I wanted to be a part of Karkare and Salaskar’s funeral processions, but I had no scope of moving from the Taj. I had slowly relieved the reporters from all three spots. During this time I also realised that it was the 29th and I had to attend a wedding in Lucknow. I thought that if I could manage an air ticket for late evening, I could attend the wedding. But the problem I faced was that I needed to take permission from Milind Khandekar. Although my entire team had left no stone unturned in a committed coverage of the attacks an we were delivering faster and true stories in comparison of the other channels, but the work had not ended.

We had to work on follow up stories now, look for different stories relating to the witnesses, injured and the policemen that had not been reported in the last`three days. We had to find out how these attacks would get investigated. My conscience was not allowing me to ask for leave. But I had pressure from home and now that the operation had subsided, I could not have made any excuse. I shared my problem with Umesh. He suggested that I go to Lucknow and that he will take care of the follow up story coordination. I hesitantly called up Milind Khandekar and told him that I wanted to go on leave for a day and a half. After getting permission from him, I booked flight tickets and rang up my wife to tell her that we had to fly at 5 pm.

I filed another stories before leaving for home. I made my cameraman sit on the pillion seat of my bike and reached the DB Marg Police station and interviewed the entire team of police officials who had killed Ismail at Chowpatty and captured Kasab. The officers were elated to see me at the police station because after the operations ended at all three places  it was only the NSG which was getting all credits and appreciation. One official shook my hand and said “We did not expect that you would come, everyone has forgotten our contribution to the operations. One of our assistant sub inspectors was killed in an encounter on the 26th. Sanjay Govilkar sir has been shot in the back, he is in the hospital.” A constable informed me that Ajmal Kasab would not have been caught alive without the smartness of Sanjay Govilkar. Actually when the police had stopped the Skoda car which the terrorists had hijacked, the terrorist started firing at the police. The police officials who stood at a barricaded check point fired back at the terrorists. Tukaram Omble died in this crossfire and a bullet fired by Kasab hit Sanjay Govilkar in the back. In retaliation, inspector Bhaskar Kadam fired at Ismail and shot him in the eye. A this time, assistant police inspector Hemant Baavdhankar put his gun to Kasab’s head and just when he was about to pull the trigger, Govilkar screamed and stopped Baavdhankar, “Hey Baavdhya, don’t shoot him.. Catch him alive, he is an evidence..”

Although, Govilkar was dying of pain, he had applied his mind and nobody imagined that his prompt suggestion to his ally Bavdhankar would turn out to be one of the most fruitful decision that night. Bavdhankar had stopped on the suggestion of Govilkar and then Kasab was beaten up badly by the constables. Kasab had already been hit by a bullet in his hand. He had worsened after the police bashed him up. Really this team had done a commendable job. Had they not stopped these two terrorists at the Chowpatty, the two would have caused mayhem at Malabar Hills. Had they killed Kasab, cops would not have got angle on Pakistans abetment.

I have covered the ‘Ganpati visarjan’ at the Chowpatty, from under the same foot over bridge for many years, where this encounter had taken place. Many DB Marg Police officials were of the opinion that it was because of Lord Ganeshas blessings that they killed a terrorist and the other one was captivated. After finishing the interview of this team I reached my bureau where Dr Tuli Mangeshikar had been invited to give an interview on the Marathi network Star Majha. She was attending a wedding with her husband at the Taj and was trapped for hours in the hotel. I interviewed the couple and sent it for the Hindi network. This is where my official responsibilities ended for the day and now I dedicated myself to the family.

I reached Lucknow in the evening to attend the wedding and made it to Kanpur for the prayer as well. The same evening I left my wife in Kanpur and came back to Mumbai to resume the coverage of follow-up stories. Police, journalists and the government learnt many lessons from these three days. 10 Pakistani boys had come and shook the nation and exposed all our internal arrangements or the lack of them. Indian security establishment deployed their most learned and sophisticated commandos and it took them three days to kill these miscreants and that too after the sacrifice two officers. India had won yet lost this battle.

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                                      Action after the operation

The attacks had ended on the morning of the 29th of November, but every bit of what I had seen, heard and feel in those 59 hours didn’t fade out for a month, rather it haunted me. The burning Taj would come in my dreams with sporadic pictures of the Nariman house and sounds of people shrieking. They weren’t nightmares, but would definitely lead to disturbed sleep. The dark circles under my eyes stayed there for 2-3 weeks. A few others reporters had similar psychological and psychosomatic experiences. I felt like leaving the city and going on a vacation for 5-6 days. But it wasn’t possible because new stories had begun to trickle in every day. Sometimes CCTV footages of different areas of the attack would get released or new names of people connected to the attacks would crop up. Star News launched a new show ‘Jitegi Zindagi’(Life will win) where interviews of eyewitnesses and victims were being featured daily.

A week after the attacks, candlelight vigils were organised outside the Gateway. Thousands of people of all ages and economical backgrounds participated in this rally of a sort. Angry citizens carried banners and shouted slogans which clearly suggested that the average Mumbaikar was angrier with the government and the inept politicians than the assaulters. It was for the first time in the history of recent years that such a large number of people had turned out at a spot without a politician force driving the purpose
 Many people had sent group messages and decided a time for the rally which was attended by a lot of film personalities too. Thousands of these ordinary people paid homage to the martyrs who laid down their lives during the unprecedented anti-terror operation. “Major Sandip Amar Rahein.”, “Kamte,Salaskar and Karkare are our real heroes”, “Tukaram Omble Amar Rahein” could be heard throughout as people lit candles in the evening and many channels covered live.
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                               And then they came under the scanner…

The message conveyed by the angry demonstrations of the masses at the Gateway had knocked the central and the state governments for a six. Politicians had become villains by now. In addition to the images of peoples lost faith in their leaders, there were other activities of these politicians that had put them in grave trouble. After the operations, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had reached the Taj to take an assessment, but things got out of hand when he arrived in with a film maker Ramgopal Varma and his son Rithesh Deshmukh whose presence was enormously unnecessary. Media tossed questions - Had CM brought along Ram Gopal Verma to give him an idea for his next project? Why was the CM seen with a film maker at a place where hundreds of innocents had died? What was Ritesh doing at the Taj when he didn’t hold any govt rank or have anything to do with the investigations of the case?

Government cameras had shot pictures of the CM and his son with the film maker and distributed among the media. This illogical act had made him a baddie and he kept giving explanations for the next two days. Deputy CM R.R Patil too added salt to the wounds when in a press conference after the attacks, he said “Bade bade shehron merin choti choti batein hoti rehti hain.”(In big cities, minor incidents like this happen.) Actually he had wanted to comment on the two RDX laden bombs recovered by the Mumbai police, which, had they blown would have catapulted the calamity to another level. But his tongue slipped and he could not express himself well in Hindi. He had wanted to imply something else, but it was too late and it caused the damage it had to. He too was criticised and condemned like the CM.

Central Home Minister Shivraj Patil was also weighed down by the media who questioned his arrival at every press conference in fresh clothes. He was rebuked for being busy grooming when civilians were being attacked.

None of them was spared. Deshmukh was expelled and Ashok Chauhan was made the new CM. Similarly, Patil who held two posts, was suspended both. Chaggan Bhujbal was made the new Deputy CM and Jayant Patil swore as home minister. Central home minister Shivraj Patil was also sent home and the charge was handed over to P Chidambaram. Mumbai’s Police Commissioner Hasan Gaffur too could not save his chair as the committee, formed for the investigation of attacks had stated certain hard-hitting reasons stating how the Commissioner could not lead, plan and co-ordinate appropriately. Gaffur was replaced by D Shivanandan.