The reception desk in a fibre-glass cubicle is overflowing with Black Cats, but they are standing around looking uncharacteristically human, immersed, like most men in Delhi that day, in the cricket match.
The chief, DG R.S. Mooshahary, has had a busy day. His "boys" have just returned in a blaze of glory from Akshardham. One died in action; incredibly, it is the first casualty in the 103 NSG operations so far. There is an edge to the debriefing of the commandos this time, and Mooshahary recounts his boys' mettle with pride: "You know, one of them was hit in the jaw, and he just stopped firing long enough to get some first aid, then went back to the action."
But another official privately points out that all our commandos have is their raw courage, "the bravest fighters in the world, only just below the fidayeen in courage". In terms of equipment and emoluments, they compare very poorly with elite soldiers from other countries. "They are 14th century warriors fighting a 21st century war," he says acidly. But Mooshahary now wants to clear the long-pending list of NSG requests gathering dust in the home ministry for years, wants to strike while the iron is hot.
Like the headquarters, there's no board at the entrance to the sprawling 1,600-acre NSG complex at Manesar in Haryana.
The first to greet us at the reception hall—an imposing two-storeyed glass mansion with broad carpeted stairways—is a young officer; his hands, he explains apologetically, are wet because he has just come from morning PT. A colonel appears, a pleasant-faced man in his thirties, who joined the NSG because he "is one of the mad fellows who values risk and adventure over his life". Then others: a captain, a lance naik, a lieutenant. They're all young: to be in the NSG, you have to be below 40.
These men have been through the world's most gruelling physical training—two men died last summer during the basic course. There are no ranks—everyone is a commando, as the label on the breast pocket indicates: Commando Rajesh Bhowmick and not Captain Rajesh Bhowmick as it would read back in his army regiment. The trainees on their morning jog don't stop to salute their officer, merely pass him by, in a whiff of male sweat and the stamp of boots, with a "Ram, Ram, Sir!"
There is a graduation ceremony today. The lean young men in brand new black uniforms celebrate with a characteristic lack of fuss: a group photograph, followed by their officer pinning the commando "balidaan (sacrifice)" badge on their shirt, right over the heart.
Of the 250 volunteers handpicked for their physical and psychological fitness from thousands of soldiers and cops eager to join India's most elite force, less than half make it through the 12-week basic training course. The regimen begins at 5 am, when the team leader blows three times on his whistle. All 60 men jump out of their bunks to gather in the central courtyard, "centrefallin," within 30 seconds—with their boots on. It's a drill that's essential in a job where speed counts. The morning PT is only a warm-up for the 5-km run, with their 18.5-kg load of weapons, rucksack and water bottle. Trainees become used to the load, but the 770-metre obstacle course specially designed for the NSG is another matter.
There are 26 obstacles, including climbing 16-foot ropes and jumping across flaming walls and other horrors. It's the toughest obstacle race anywhere in the military world, more punishing than even the ones used in Israel and Germany to train para commandos, our guide explains with pride. A short break for breakfast, and then it's time to run again—this time to the firing range. And everywhere the banners: "One shot, one kill"; "There are no runners-up in war"; "It is easy to fire a good shot. It is difficult to find a good target"; "The 3D secret of success: Dedication, Determination and Devotion". And a screaming one: "REMORSELESS, PITILESS, FEARLESS."
"We are a force of last resort, our job is to kill," explains our guide, and we see proof of this at the firing range. The targets are not the usual concentric rings with bull's eyes. They are all heads—cardboard heads re-pasted after morning and afternoon practice everyday. Just how busy the target makers are can be gauged by the number of rounds fired everyday: each trainee is expected to fire no less than 100 a day. Head hits are what the commandos are taught. But lately, the targets have been made more complex. Rubaiyya (yes, after the famous abductee) is a two-headed figure—a black and red head at the back, a white and pink burqa-shaped head in front. The men are taught to crawl, turn over, fire and run for cover without once hitting the pink and white Rubaiyya. You get minus two points for that. And for trainees who endanger colleagues' lives by standing up instead of lying down, firing at an angle when asked to shoot straight, or some such error, there is a thick rope hanging from a neem tree next to the range. No, they are not hung by it, but something close: they have to climb up and slither down as punishment and reminder.
You'd think that was a hard day's work, but at NSG, the day is still young: it's now time for a 16-km speed march through the forests and hillocks of Manesar. Then at 12.30, a 2-km march back to the mess for lunch. For men who work that hard, lunch seems almost Gandhian in its frugality: rice/chappati, vegetable, sambar and dahi. Meat, like the rationed 30 ml rum, is supplied twice a week. Here too the injunctions on the walls: "Drink water today, save blood tomorrow." Dehydration is the commandos' worst enemy during training.
By 2.30 pm, the dreaded centrefallin whistle is blowing again, this time for exercises such as rope-climbing, chin-ups, push-ups, all under the blistering mid-afternoon sun and the vigilant eye of their team leader. Many crack up under pressure, some even die—just drop dead from sheer exhaustion. There is an hour's rest finally, at 3.30. But those who want to take a nap instead of catching up with their letter-writing had better do it with their boots on. Because the whistle goes off again at 4.30 pm. It's time for some fun now: swimming, gym, karate. General roll call is at 7.30 pm, with another call for centrefallin. But this time, it's what the trainees call unwinding time, and the trainers call informal training: time to address issues, from new shoes to a missed shot, or a failed exercise to the more crucial emotional breakdowns, of which there are plenty: men so exhausted they break down and cry and want to go home. By the end of six weeks, many have either dropped out or been sent back to their regiments: the men have been separated from the boys.
"We process trainees into deadly rangers," declares one of the many banners at NSG. "And it can't be done unless the men are self-motivated," says our guide. I watch the men determinedly lining up for more push-ups and jogging, even as the sun is setting over Manesar. There is a physical training test in two weeks, and nobody wants to fail.
It is an overwhelmingly macho world this, dormitories of steel cots in military rows, boots laid out tidily on black steel trunks, men silently wolfing down meals, grimly intent on enduring the drill; even the social system of "buddies" in which two male partners are bonded for the tough times ahead. But our guide assures us there was a woman commando who underwent the training course a few years ago. "We had our doubts, but she was better than any of the men in her batch." A cross-country runner, she gave the men a complex by outracing them.
The biggest challenge of training commandos, says Brigadier Ravi Kumar over sandwiches and coffee, is to merge the culture of the army with that of the police. Most of the time, it succeeds; in the case of the psos (personal security officers), sensationally: a Black Cat guarding a vvip has as much resemblance to his peers in the police as a panther to a paunchy tabby cat. And not just in physical fitness: the alertness, the commitment to kill or be killed is the "army culture" he absorbed in the NSG barracks. And dealing with crowds, how to handle them and save them, is the "police culture" that he in turn bequeaths to his army colleagues in the barracks. In fact, it was because of the army commandos' lack of "police" skills, such as rescuing hostages, or taking terrorists alive, that the NSG very early on reversed its policy of borrowing trained commandos from army units. Specialised training was required, and it was devised at the NSG centre to turn out anti-terrorist squads for any contingency.
The crack teams, the commandos flown out to deal with critical situations like the one in Akshardham, are all army men: two closely-guarded teams, 51 and 52, trained for any internal emergency. The men in these two teams are kept fighting fit, "in battle readiness", by following the same schedule they followed during training. Only this time there are no whistles from officers, but there are no late risers either. Games like volleyball and football are mandatory here, considered crucial for building team spirit. Of the 1,200 or so commandos, some 100, formed into small teams specialising variously in kidnap, hostage, hijacking and other anti-terrorist emergencies are "on duty" round the clock—ready to go within minutes of receiving a summons.
The team sent to Akshardham, for instance, was armed and ready within 15 minutes. It is another matter that it took one-and-a-half hours for them to reach the airport through rush hour traffic in Delhi. (There is a small helipad at Manesar, but no helicopters.) As one officer explains with a touch of sadness, "What we needed at Akshardham were strobe lights, so we wouldn't have to wait for the morning light. There is equipment available —digital scans, thermal scans, even dogs equipped with cameras, that could have made it possible for us to monitor it from here."
But even the lack of vital equipment does not seem to demoralise these stoic heroes. I wondered how it must feel to be ready to give up your life at any moment of the day, whenever the call came. "We don't die for the country," one taciturn officer explained. "We die for our mates".
But I found the answer taped on the wall: "I have the strength," it said. "I know not from where the strength comes, but I have the strength."
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