Remembering Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan Ten Years After His Valiant Death During The Mumbai Terror Attacks
After Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan's death, his parents resolved to find out for themselves exactly where and under what precise circumstances Sandeep had become a martyr. A look at their journey
When a news channel first identified the major killed at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai, Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan was cooking in the kitchen of their home in Yelahanka, Bangalore. It was mid-morning on Friday, 28 November. The television was on, but she wasn’t paying attention. They had spoken to their son, Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, on the night of 26, not long after Maharashtra’s top anti-terror policeman had been declared dead in what appeared, even as early as the first night of the siege, to be one of the worst-ever terrorist attacks in the country. Sandeep had spoken to them from the National Security Guard (NSG) hub in Manesar, Haryana, the home base of the elite commando unit.
A stickler for rules surrounding sensitive operations, Sandeep had not mentioned that he would be leaving for Mumbai. He’d told his father, K. Unnikrishnan, that Maharashtra ATS chief Hemant Karkare had been killed. And so, the television remained on through 27 November. ‘We watched the news, and prayed for the operation to end soon, successfully,’ Dhanalakshmi says. There would be time to discuss it at length later, for Sandeep was to come home on holiday in mid-December. And this time he was going to teach her to ride, first a bicycle and then a scooter.
But when a news channel’s ticker flashed the slain officer’s name, Unnikrishnan was watching the television alone. Minutes later, the news was confirmed. ‘He came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulders. It felt as if his hand had no strength left in it; it just fell,’ the sixty-six-year-old remembers.
He broke the news to her as gently as he could, his voice trembling, and she pounded him on the chest with both palms, furious. ‘I was screaming. How could he say such a thing about his son,’ she recounts. Then, food still on the stove, she ran out of the house, barefoot. She ran to the very end of their street, about 200 metres, before collapsing.
‘I wasn’t unconscious, not even for a second. In fact I couldn’t have been more conscious. My mind raced back, back and back.’ Almost presciently, Sandeep had joked with her on multiple occasions about dying young.
‘Once he’d told me there would be many boys and girls to look after me if he died.’ But her flashback took her farther that day, to every moment when she’d known that Sandeep was special in a way few others are. He was incredibly helpful, even as a child he was ready to take the rap for others. As a teenager, he was an unusually good leader, a pathfinder and problem-solver. It seemed almost logical that he’d died a hero.
Less than two months later, Dhanalakshmi accepted Sandeep’s Ashok Chakra, the country’s highest peacetime gallantry award. The citation reads:
Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan led the commando operation launched on 27 November 2008 to flush out terrorists from Hotel Taj Mahal, Mumbai in which he rescued fourteen hostages. During the operation, his team came under intense hostile fire, in which one of his team members got grievously injured. Major Sandeep pinned down the terrorists with accurate fire and rescued the injured commando to safety. In the process, he was shot in his right arm. Despite his injuries, he continued to fight the terrorists till his last breath. Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan displayed most conspicuous bravery besides camaraderie and leadership of the highest order and made the supreme sacrifice for the nation.
* * *
In the early hours of their bereavement, Unnikrishnan, now seventy, and Dhanalakshmi appeared to be experiencing their shared agony in two distinct, only slightly intersecting spheres. Among the thousands visiting them to offer condolences were political leaders from across the region. At one point, the tired, grieving father had an emotional outburst, caught on camera at the gate of his house, amid an exchange of angry comments with a visiting politician. To those watching on millions of television screens across India, it seemed that a gentle, self-effacing man had suddenly been introduced to an unfamiliar part of himself. The mother seemed more and more fragile every day, disbelief and devastation giving way to a vacant exhaustion.
But within the week, by the early days of December 2008, they were a single, solid unit, undertaking an expedition of sorts to retrace Sandeep’s journey as far back as Frank Anthony Public School in Bangalore where he’d spent fourteen years, and as proximate as the tidy room he’d left behind at the NSG hub in Manesar when he set out on Operation Black Tornado.
They resolved to find out for themselves exactly where and under what precise circumstances Sandeep had become a martyr. And to comprehend how their son had come to be at the Palm Lounge of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel at that very moment, years of learning and living having apparently led him exactly there. The decision was made about three days after his death. The air thick with the unbearable agony of life ahead with no son, no nine-to-five job, nobody particularly needing them, the ageing couple talked quietly late into the night, discussing how, and whether, they would live without Sandeep. Unnikrishnan told his wife he’d support whatever decision she took.
Army people taking guard during operation with terrorist the Taj Mahal Hotel broke out with fire in Mumai 29th November, 2008 (Image Courtesy: Living Media India Limited)
‘We thought deeply. I told him Sandeep had done such a brave thing, we couldn’t be cowardly,’ Dhanalakshmi recounts. ‘Every minute and every second, for the rest of our lives, we will see Sandeep.’
And so it began, a journey with their son’s ashes in an urn. They would eventually go to Haridwar, where a bevy of priests broke down with them. But before they bid him goodbye, they took a long, tender look at the people and institutions that had helped frame his worldview, and at the scores of lives he had touched.
They started around 6 December, they remember clearly because it was the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition. Sandeep’s ashes were still at home, though an uncle had taken one urn to Kerala, where they have family. ‘We had no definite plans, but we took his ashes and left. And we kept moving, meeting more and more people in various places,’ Unnikrishnan says. They visited his alma mater, where a special school assembly was held as tribute. They visited room number 6 of the Oscar squadron at the NDA, home of the ‘Olympians’, where Sandeep resided as a cadet of the 94th batch.
But most significant, in those early days, was the chance to retrace their son’s steps at the Taj, to ‘get a feel’ of what had happened there through 27 November. ‘It was like a pilgrimage,’ says Dhanalakshmi. NSG officials walked them through what had happened while Taj staffers held their hands.
The 51 Special Action Group of the National Security Guard, the Black Cats, are the most lethal of India’s elite warriors, skilled as much in stealth as in warfare in just about any circumstance. Sandeep, who had completed three Kashmir tours, including a posting on the Siachen glacier, one of the world’s most dangerous battlefields, was already an instructor. But he volunteered for the Mumbai operation when NSG men were informally assembled on the night of 26 November 2008 in Manesar.
After day-long operations to make sure hostages, guests and staffers made it out safely, the Tower wing was almost all-clear. It was well past dusk on the evening of 27 November when Sandeep decided to go up into the palace wing to rescue an employee hiding in a data centre office room. The Unnikrishnans heard from NSG commando Sunil Jodha, then twenty-six years old, a first- hand account of what occurred.
Jodha was in hospital in Mumbai, having taken seven bullets, three to the left hand, one to his right palm, two in his right shoulder and one right through his bulletproof jacket, in the chest region. He told the Unnikrishnans he had been with Sandeep, first in a team clearing guest rooms floor by floor and then in the team that had gone up into the heritage wing through the iconic central stairway of the property. They had barely reached the first floor landing when they came under heavy fire from the gunmen, and a critically wounded Jodha had to be extricated to safety by his team members. Jodha said he owed his life to Sandeep, his mentor. In fact, Sandeep’s last instruction to the team had been to stand back as he bounded up the stairway alone, last words that likely saved the lives of all the others in the team.
Further nuggets of information continued to seep out over the next couple of years, pieces of a complex puzzle falling into place as the grieving parents tried to make sense of their loss. On the first anniversary of the attacks, the couple went back to the Taj, now restored and refurbished. They knew that a marble plaque had been installed in the central hall of the heritage wing of the hotel commemorating those who had lost their lives there. ‘As soon as we were told about this, we immediately wanted to see it,’ says Unnikrishnan.
On 27 November 2009, they sat in prayer at the very spot where Sandeep had been killed. ‘The Taj management helped us in every way. The spot is next to a restaurant. They emptied it out. And we could sit for as many hours as we wanted,’ says Unnikrishnan.
As he sat in silence, he could sense somebody seated directly behind him. A short while later, the man spoke up—he had been among the last guests to be rescued that night as the hotel burnt and the standoff between the NSG and the gunmen escalated.
The guest had heard the occupant of the neighbouring room in the heritage wing pleading that he was a British citizen, and then being shot anyway. He had heard the rattling bursts an automatic weapon being fired at very close quarters, and grenades exploding a little further away. Certain he was next, he had dragged the bed against the door of the room. So when there was a knock on the door on the night of 27th, after previous knocks, he stayed silent in the pitch-black room. Again, a gentle knock and the words, ‘Police, police, police.’ Still uncertain, he heard a voice at the door say they would be blasting the door down with a charge and that the guest may or may not survive. Paralysed with fear, he stayed silent. The voice asked if he imagined that Pakistani terrorists spoke English in that accent. ‘We are the NSG,’ the person at the door told the frightened man who had peered out of his window repeatedly over the past twenty-four hours, seeing with every glance disturbed and horrified faces in the distance, of fire-fighters, some journalists and security forces. ‘Then I opened the door and my hours of shock evaporated in an instant—he was so calm,’ the guest told Unnikrishnan. It was Sandeep at the door, asking if the guest was hurt, was he alone, did he want anything. From his flak jacket, Sandeep drew out a sachet of water and an apple. The guest requested that he be allowed to take his laptop with him. A commando checked the device with a metal detector and handed it back. Minutes later, he was ensconced in a police vehicle outside, his sole meeting with the men who saved his life having lasted all of a couple of minutes.
Terrorists set part of Hotel Taj on Fire. Mumbai firebrigade personnel trying to extinguish it (Photo by Mandar Deodhar)
The guest, who now remains in touch with Unnikrishnan and addresses him as ‘uncle’, was overcome with emotion that day in 2009 on meeting the parents of the martyred soldier. ‘Repeatedly through that day and night, he had expected to be shot dead,’ says Unnikrishnan. Hours later, his protector was dead. ‘Such is the treacherous nature of life.’
Those run-ins with the people who helped unravel Sandeep’s story for them were only the beginning of the Unnikrishnans’ journey. Over the last ten years, they’ve built lasting relationships from these explorations of his last hours and from deep diving into his life. A young Army wife in Mumbai sought them out on one of their annual visits to the Taj Mahal Hotel, and what began as a polite and respectful expression of solidarity with the parents of a national martyr became a strong bond. She recently lost her husband, also a major, under tragic circumstances and the couple responded by drawing her closer still. ‘She’s like a daughter to us now,’ Unnikrishnan says.
Another new friend, a guest rescued by Sandeep at the Taj, is in the hospitality industry. He invited the couple to spend a weekend at a luxury resort on the west coast. Dhanalakshmi made aapams there one afternoon, her first and solitary venture commandeering a five-star kitchen. A guest had asked for them and the kitchen had to send its apologies. ‘When she found out, she just volunteered to make them. Aapams are difficult to predict—with the exact same ingredients you can get different results each time. But luckily they turned out great that day. There were happy guests,’ says Unnikrishnan, eyes gleaming with pride.
This is an edited extract from 26/11 Stories of Strength by The Indian Express, available now through Penguin Random House India.