On 11 June 2015, the commandos of the 21 Para Regiment, on a mission to avenge the slaughter of 18 Dogra soldiers by Naga militants in the Chandel district of Manipur on 4 June, were inching towards terrorist camps deep inside Myanmar under the fading darkness of the night. Even though entry and exit routes of special operations are planned with great detail to maintain secrecy, surprise and avoid casualties, the commandos still came up against an unplanned and unexpected situation. They came face to face with a group of local hunters who too were out early morning looking for easy game. The terror camps that were used to launch the Chandel attack were still some distance away. Stealth and secrecy of the operation was on the verge of being compromised: if the hunters were allowed to go on, they could have raised an alarm putting the terrorists on guard. Killing them wasn't an option either. The commandos found a solution — they simply secured the hunters with whatever ropes they were carrying and left them behind. "They weren't carrying any morphine, so knocking them off with morphine wasn't an option either," a top Indian Army officer who planned and executed the operation told HuffPost India.
"We would have gone anyway"
General Bipin Rawat, recently appointed the Chief of Army Staff, was heading the Dimapur-based III Corps that sent in the 21 Para commandos. The operation was planned a day after the massacre at Chandel. And strike on the terror camps would have happened irrespective of whether New Delhi gave a clearance. "The terrorists had to pay," the source said with a wry simile. "We would have gone in either ways." he said,and added that it would have been a "quiet affair".
Foxing the enemy
Improvisation was the key factor and tying up the local hunters and leaving them behind was just one such step. Traditional radio communication was notoriously unsafe and a reasonably clever enemy could easily break in and listen. Therefore, radios were ruled out; mobile phones were used instead. Indian mobile phones function till 20 kms inside Myanmar from the border. A simple code of missed calls at pre-decided intervals was worked out to communicate during the operation. "A designated number of rings were worked out to communicate," top sources said, without disclosing the code. But things still went wrong.
The signalling was fine when all of sudden the missed calls stopped coming. "It was more than tense. The silence lasted for five hours. Our only hope was the commandos entered a valley and therefore weren't within the connectivity anymore," the source said. Several of those manning the operations control room in India had no nails left by the time the commandos came back unhurt after destroying the terrorist camps.
The last breakfast
It was 6:30 in the morning. Those at the terrorist camp had gathered at the dining hall for breakfast. For the commandos nothing could have better—everyone was inside a closed area.
As officers manning the operations control room waited eagerly for the mobile phones at their end to come alive, the commandos walked over 6 kms into Myanmar. A little after dawn, they had reached their target—the biggest terrorist camp on the Myanmar side. It was 6:30 in the morning. Those at the terrorist camp had gathered at the dining hall for breakfast. For the commandos nothing could have been better — everyone was inside a closed area.
"The instructions were clear: destroy and come back home. Don't stop to either count the dead or pick up proof," the source said.
For good measure, the infiltrating group of commandos were armed with ample numbers of shoulder-fired rockets. As the terrorists routinely went through their breakfast, the hall lit up as the rockets ripped through the windows and walls. The final assault had begun. None of the terrorists inside the hall survived— it had been their last breakfast.
A new road to home
The camp destroyed, it was time to fall back. But another unexpected thing happened — locals, alerted by the fireworks, informed the commandos that the terrorists also positioned sentries on treetops. Had the commandos then missed these sentries? Could they attack commandos from the rear as the latter retraced their steps? The commandos now had two options — either hunt down the sentries or use a different route to reach home. They opted for the second option, deciding to use a completely different route, planned then and there, relying on their training and knowledge of the terrain.
"Have to meet mother"
General Rawat, who was eagerly waiting for the boys come, met them at the base. As they gathered around, the officer who led the special operations walked up to General Rawat and asked him, "My mother is in the ICU, I have to go a meet her." General Rawat was taken aback — one, the news of the strikes was out; two, no one knew that officer's mother had been in the hospital for some time; and three, the officer was a local boy. In a society where kinship and tribal affinities hold a lot of value and that is something the North-eastern terrorist organisations often exploit, how safe would it be to allow him to go the hospital?
"General Rawat told the officer to take a few boys along just in case he was recognised and things turned ugly," the source said and added that the officer got into a Maruti 800 and drove quietly to the hospital. "General Rawat instructed the others to inform him when the officer got back from the hospital," the source said. The officer returned four hours later from the hospital.
Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Director General of Ministry Operations (DGMO) issued a brief, factual statement giving out the details of the operation. The idea behind owning up the operations was to send a clear message to terrorist organisations and their supporters in Myanmar that there would be price to pay for terror attacks. Predictably, Myanmar reacted to Indian troops violating the border. Subsequently, the National Security Advisor (NSA) also visited Myanmar to set the record straight. But sources now admit that other similar operations planned to punish terrorists across the border were stopped after India took responsibility for the strike.
"Initially the plan was to carry out a series of operations, but after New Delhi owned up to the strike, other operations were stopped for sometime as it had become too risky," the source said. He added, "However, operations to deter terrorist from striking again resumed after a brief gap."
How effective was the strike?
Reports indicate that between 50 to 70 terrorists were killed in the strike. Surveillance launched by the Indian Army and intelligence agencies revealed, among other things, that at least five trucks were used to carry the dead terrorists from the camp. "You can guess the number of terrorists killed," the source told HuffPost India.