Every year when the calendar strikes 26/11, many cops in Mumbai relive that horrific night of 2008 when terrorists laid siege to what they considered was a fortress. Among the unsung heroes is Bihar-born Rajvardhan Sinha who was one of the first policemen to enter the Taj Hotel when it was attacked.
Sinha was posted as DCP in the Special Branch-II. "After seeing the incidents of gunfire on TV, my wireless operator informed me about a similar incident in Leopold Café, a restaurant which is heavily frequented by foreigners," the 1997-batch IPS officer recalls.
"After reaching the spot, I realised that something major was happening. There was a huge commotion around Colaba police station, which is opposite the café. Upon further inspection, I found that an official of the Israeli Consulate of Mumbai, whom I knew, was gheraoed by a panicked crowd which mistook him for an anti-social element. However, he was rescued by cops who were trying to ascertain his identity," he said.
Sinha also recalls meeting Inspector Vijay Salaskar at the police station who informed him that a lot of firing incidents were reported from the Taj Hotel and CST railway station. It was at this point that he first suspected it could be a terrorist attack.
"Since the Taj Hotel was close to my current location, I decided to go there. After reaching the hotel’s entrance at around 10:30 pm, I found my colleague and batchmate Mr Vishwas Nangare Patil, who was the local DCP, to be very worked up," says Sinha, adding that he assured Patil full support after telling him that he had worked in Naxal-affected areas.
What was it like after entering the hotel? "I could see bodies and empty AK-47 shells lying around the lobby. It was then that I confirmed it was a terrorist attack and not a gang war," he said, adding that even the hotel’s security dog wasn't spared.
"With the available manpower, we first tried to secure all exits to make sure that the culprits don’t escape. I realised that I didn’t have a revolver with me and hence I had to borrow one from an inspector who was accompanying me and Patil along with 4-5 personnel," he said.
The team of officers decided to first make use of footage in the hotel by moving to the CCTV room to find the location of the terrorists inside. "We also met the hotel’s general manager Karambir Kang and requested a blueprint of the hotel. However, Kang said that it wasn’t readily available," says Sinha.
After inspecting the CCTV footage, it was found that four terrorists were taking guests and other people as hostages. "They were trying to break into the rooms. We then assumed that once they gather many hostages, they will either negotiate or kill them. We decided to engage them with gunfire so their attention will be diverted," he says.
"Once we started firing from the second floor, they also retaliated from one floor above through a gap and it went on for some time till a huge fire broke out," he adds.
There was also confusion on whether there were more than four perpetrators. "There was a probability that some of them may have escaped or may have avoided coming in the CCTV's frame. Hence, we decided not to proceed above until the number of perpetrators was confirmed," he adds.
The team also couldn’t proceed further either by the lift or staircase. "We couldn't use the lift as we had disabled it to block the terrorists' escape route and if we used the stairs, we would have been easy targets of gunfire from anywhere on top, going by the hotel’s layout. More than the risk, it would be an unadvisable move for a trained officer," Sinha adds.
Soon, the team was forced to move to a different position one floor below after the terrorists started throwing grenades and when they decided to take the stairs, they came under heavy firing. "In that exchange, Patil's security officer was shot in the stomach and another SRPF constable Rahul Shinde was killed. However, we were swiftly able to take cover," he recalls.
But in the bargain, Sinha, who took a huge leap from the staircase to the ground to take cover, landed on top of shattered glass, which resulted in his ankle getting fractured. "Even though it took my fracture more than a month to heal, I still continued to be on duty for that period," he says.
The team soon realised that they needed more reinforcements. "Upon contacting him, we received instructions from our police commissioner Hasan Gafoor that we should not take any action as the Navy’s MARCOS commandos were on the way," he says.
Though the attackers also came down to the first floor, the team stayed away from further gunfire as the terrorists moved towards the kitchen after encountering the MARCOS commandos.
"By the time we left the premises, it was 4:30 am and I was told by Joint Commissioner (L&O) KL Prasad to handle the media outside the premises. But, while bringing the press personnel to one place, I realised that I couldn’t walk due to the fracture and hence I was sent to the hospital for treatment," he described, adding it was only then that he learnt of other events like the martyrdom of Hemant Karkare, Ashok Kamte and Salaskar along with the capture of the lone surviving terrorist Ajmal Kasab.
Sinha’s injury was dressed within an hour and a half. Soon afterwards at 7 am, commissioner Gafoor told him to report back to the office and facilitate all foreigners who wanted to leave the country, take stock of all deceased and injured and coordinate with the respective embassies.
"Even though I wanted to be in action for more time, it was due to my posting that I had to follow the commissioner’s directive. And someone had to do what I was doing," he says.
Sinha also recalls how emotional he felt at the time like every other policeman. "Our force was angry that someone could enter our city and do something like this. That anguish can’t just be described in words," he fumes.