26/11: Southern Army Commander's terror tourism during Mumbai attack

Sandeep Unnithan
Sandeep UnnithanNov 27, 2014 | 13:11

26/11: Southern Army Commander's terror tourism during Mumbai attack

Four days after the terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008, then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh bore the brunt of public ire. Video footage showed him touring the Taj Mahal Palace hotel with film director Ram Gopal Varma. The incident cost him his job as Chief Minister. But as revealed in my book Black Tornado then Southern Army Commander Lt General Noble Thamburaj toured the Taj with his wife Anita Thamburaj on the afternoon of November 28, 2008, even as commandos engaged the four terrorists in the Taj. The general’s visit, just a few hours after the death of the NSG commando Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, would have gone unnoticed had it not been for NSG officials who captured it on camera. Two photographs they took show Lt General Thamburaj with his wife in the lobby of the Taj that doubled up as the NSG’s operations centre for three days. Anita Thamburaj looks concerned, sunglasses perched on her head, even as her husband is engaged in conversation with DG NSG JK Dutt, IG (Operations) Brigadier GS Sisodia and Colonel Sunil Sheoran, the commanding officer of the 51 Special Action Group leading operations at the Taj and Additional Commissioner of Police Deven Bharti.

Lt. Gen. Thamburaj and his wife at the Taj

The Pune-based GOC was accompanied by at least half-a-dozen of his personal staff officers and they stood just a few hundred feet away from the Harbor Bar where NSG commandos had cornered the four terrorists. The army commander’s visit was brief, NSG officials say, they don’t recall him staying longer than 15 minutes. The sheer impropriety of his wife being in tow, struck them later.

The incident only illustrated the free-for-all that the 26/11 rescue operation had become with officers not in the chain of command frequently visiting the spot. The NSG reports to the home ministry and not under the army. At least some of these visits, NSG officers say, had to do with the need for senior officials to feed the media with soundbytes. At the Oberoi hotel, Major General RK Hooda, the General Officer Commanding Maharashtra Goa and Gujarat Area, radioed a young officer, engaged in fighting terrorists on the upper floors. "Son, it’s around 5.30 p.m. ... can I tell the media that you will be through with the operations by 7 p.m.?" The response from the young officer, who had his ear shot up by a terrorist, was terse and came through gritted teeth. "Sir," he said slowly, "there are eleven floors ... thirty-two rooms on each floor ... we will not stop till we have cleared all of them ... please don’t be surprised if the operation continues for two days. Out."




Shortly before noon that day, JK Dutt, the Director General NSG, received an unusual visitor. Unusual, because the operations were on in full swing. It was Lieutenant General Noble Thamburaj, general officer commanding-in-chief of the army’s Pune-based Southern Army Command. The commander was in combat fatigues. He sported a 9 mm Browning army issue pistol on his waist. He had flown into Mumbai accompanied by his personal staff and his wife Anita Thamburaj. If someone noticed the impropriety of an army commander touring a building with his wife while operations were under way, they did not mention it. Thamburaj was the seniormost army officer south of the Tropic of Cancer. He was briefed about the operations in the lobby of the Taj by Deven Bharti and Col Sheoran. "Finish it quickly," Thamburaj said before striding out of the Taj. It was an overstatement. Sheoran already knew what had to be done.


Outside the Taj, the army commander briefed the waiting media. The new wing of the Taj had been sanitised and handed over to the police, he said. One terrorist, possibly two, had moved into the adjacent old heritage building. "It is just a matter of a few hours before we wrap up things," he said.

Last updated: January 17, 2016 | 15:26
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