Living and dying in the Special Forces
Inside the world of the secretive 9 Para SF, involved in ceaseless battle in the rugged, forested mountains along the LoC
On the morning of 26 August, a sunny, warm day, the 9 Para were called in. They had been waiting for this call. Three days earlier, on being tipped off that a group of five militants was moving through the forests of Kazi Nag, high up in the Uri area of north Kashmir, the army and Jammu and Kashmir Police had launched an operation. Moving in a large cordon, the soldiers had closed in on the militant group by 25 August. A gun battle ensued, and one militant was shot down. Four others escaped, moving across a ridge line on to higher, more rugged terrain. They were armed well, and moving fast.
At their base in north Kashmir, members of the 9 Para, the Special Forces (SF) unit of the army trained specifically for quick engagements in formidable mountain areas, got ready. Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami was his usual cheerful self, checking on others in his team, making sure the men were carrying the correct weapons and gear. Self-assured and soft-spoken, Goswami could, in his quiet way, inspire both calm and confidence. Goswami was not tall, but he was big-boned and lean, a trained mountaineer, and, as his commanding officer described him, “a happy mix of humility and deep power”.
Minutes later, a small assault team, Goswami with them, was airborne. They were dropped by helicopter—“hepter”, in army language—to the place where the militants had been last sighted, more than 9,000ft up in the mountain. The army and the police had cordoned off a large circumference around the area, and, according to the army, intercepted a radio call from the militants to their handler in Pakistan saying that they were surrounded. Picking their way carefully through thick forest, and then on to the higher, rocky reaches of the mountain, the team from 9 Para searched for the terrorists. It needed patience and caution. House-sized boulders surrounded them. There were deep caves on the mountain face. You could be ambushed from anywhere.
The 9 Para likes places like this: The boulder fields provide excellent cover, if you know how to move through them; but each one could also hold danger, a militant lurking behind it. By noon, there was contact. Moving slowly, silently, with infinite patience, the SF men spotted a foot jutting out of a cave.
Goswami, at the front of the assault team, called out a challenge. There was a burst of fire in return. Following the direction of fire, the 9 Para fired back.
“Ek koh laga hai”, Goswami said over the radio, “one of them has been hit”.
The cave system the militants were using as cover was complex, surrounded by rocks and trees and at a tricky elevation. When the bursts of fire died down, the men from 9 Para began to fan out, taking up ambush positions around the cave, sealing off exit routes.
Radios fell silent.
Then they waited. The sounds of the forest replaced the sound of gunfire; a drowsy hum of insects. At nightfall, a militant tried to break free, firing and running, and was shot down.
The 9 Para tightened their ambush positions, prepared to wait again. There was a brief downpour, drenching everything, and the night plunged into cold.
“You know what I hate the most in the world?” said G, an officer of the 9 Para, speaking to me later at their unmarked headquarters in Udhampur, just outside of Jammu (the members of the 9 Para spoke to me on conditions of anonymity). “Dew, man!”
“You hold your position, you stay perfectly still, for hours and hours. Your body hates you for it, but then it accepts it. Night falls, and it starts getting cold, and still it’s okay. But then, around 2 in the morning, the dew starts.
“We can’t wear any plastic layers because it makes noise. So the dew seeps in, it gets into everything, it goes into your bones slowly. And still you have to sit there, getting colder and colder. You can’t even sneeze. I hate dew, man!”
That night, the wind grew too, chilling the already soaked men further. Goswami and the men ate a couple of puris with pickle deep in the night, a frugal dinner.
At daybreak, communicating silently with hand signals, the assault team broke cover and inched forward. They were met by a hail of fire. Bullets ricocheted off the boulders with deadly unpredictability. Then a couple of grenades flew in, bursting dangerously close, sending splinters flying. The militants too were cold, hungry, and cornered now, after four days of enduring the roughest of conditions. There was no more time left. They had been squeezed into the tightest of spots. One of them fired, and was shot back. There was a lull. One more down. Now two two-men teams got to the mouth of the cave. Goswami assumed a cover-fire position behind a rock. The advance teams now switched to non-lethal weapons, rolling in a couple of chilli grenades into the cave. It started to rain again. The two commandos outside the cave called out to the solitary militant inside. “Throw your weapons and come out, and we won’t kill you. You have no chance of coming out alive if you keep fighting.”
Weeping from the chilli grenades, cold, wet and emaciated, the last militant stepped out of the cave. It was still early in the day on 27 August.
At around the same time, hearing of the capture of the militant, the commanding officer (CO) of the 9 Para, a lean, angular man built like a marathon-runner, and with an unrelenting gaze that bores into you like a harpoon, went up to the 9 Para’s base of operations in north Kashmir. He congratulated his men, hung around to drink a cup of tea with them and left to meet the prisoner.
One of the militants killed had become a father recently back in Pakistan, the CO learnt, and so he asked the captured militant, 22-year-old Sajjad Ahmed from Muzaffargarh in south-west Pakistan and a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative, what would now happen to the fatherless child.
“He said ‘in jihad, no one has to take care of anybody’,” the CO told me. “When I asked him why he joined the jihad, he said that they were told that all Muslims in India live under terrible oppression and the situation is so bad that they are not allowed to do namaz.”
Ahmed is the third of four sons and a daughter born to landless farm labourers. When he was 10 years old, he dropped out of school to work as a farm hand. As teenagers, he and his brothers worked as labourers on construction sites, and then as a truck-driver’s help—a job notorious for being brutal and abusive. Ahmed moved to a more lucrative trade, working with a drug gang that ran heroin. In 2008, when he was 16, Ahmed was arrested for murder—he allegedly shot a man who was said to be harassing a friend’s sister. He was bailed out by the girl’s family. He fell in love with the girl, but was rejected by the family—she got married to a local vet instead. Ahmed developed a heroin habit himself, and began a life of homelessness. In 2011, he was acquitted in the murder case. A year later, Ahmed told army investigators that he met a preacher from the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a politico-religious organization under whose umbrella the LeT operates. Here was food, shelter and a way out of addiction. He volunteered for armed training and quickly moved from Daura-e-Aam, or basic combat training, to Daura-e-Suffa, or intermediate training, and finally, Daura-e-Khaas, advanced training. He tried once in 2013 to infiltrate through the line of control (LoC), but was rebuffed, he told the army. He lived on an LeT stipend. His parents and brothers did not want him to join the LeT, but were glad for the money and the prestige it brought them, Ahmed told the army. They are desperately poor, he said.
“It’s a cruel world,” the CO told me, with the weight of a deeply felt conviction. “We don’t think of militants as evil—enemies, yes, but not evil. We know the conditions they come from, and if we were put in their situation, we would probably do the same. But the world is cruel, society is hard; if women can’t step out at night in our country’s Capital without the fear of being raped...well...evil is a complicated concept.”
The CO of the 9 Para is a thoughtful man who chooses his words carefully. He exudes a sense of calm and the twitch of a man capable of hard, decisive action all at the same time. He does not wear his epaulettes, or the maroon beret that marks a soldier out as part of the Special Forces. Like his men, he shows no signs of fatigue, and no dip in intensity, though he may have been working without rest for 14 hours. He comes from a farming family, and his father is a retired infantry officer—“I was fascinated by the army right from my early childhood,” he says. He has two sons of his own, aged 8 and 3. When he was training at the National Defence Academy (NDA), he met some instructors from Special Forces, and his fascination grew deeper.
“They were seriously tough nuts, no fear at all,” he says. “I had the self-conception of being tough as well, and fearless, and I thought this is what I really want to do.” He volunteered for SF training. In 2001, he became an SF officer. Next year, Goswami joined the SF and the two met for the first time.
The CO likes to think of himself as a wolf; he took the call sign Lupus in his earlier days. “An SF guy has to be like a wolf,” he says. “A wolf lays ambushes, can pursue its prey for miles and miles over days, is tremendously resilient, and very, very loyal to its family.” A team commander christened him Adolphus, “noble wolf”. A strangely loaded name.
The 9 Para enjoy the reputation of being the toughest of India’s SF battalions—of which there are seven in all—and think of themselves, without exception, as warriors to the core. They are not commandos, they will tell you—their training is far more specialized.
They go through a nine-month course at the Special Forces training centre in Nahan, Himachal Pradesh, and then have a further three months of probation—more advanced training—at whichever SF battalion they join.
The probation period has a special place of pride. More than 90% of those who volunteer for SF training drop out by the end of probation. The details of the training, as I was told over and over again, are classified.
“Let’s just say,” says G, “that you never, ever forget probation.”
Apart from specialized weapons training and tactical warfare training, the men of the 9 Para are put through a tremendous amount of physical and psychological stress.
“We are pushed till we break, that’s the aim,” says G, a lanky, lean man with the slightly awkward, forward-leaning lope of a mountaineer who talks and moves in speedy bursts. Like most of the 9 Para, he keeps a scraggly, long beard. The SF are the only ones in the army allowed this luxury; it also helps them blend in their area of operations.
“It’s about honesty,” G says. “So one of the things that we are put through during probation is sleep deprivation while training. I went without sleep for 11 days. After the fourth or fifth day, I would nod off anywhere, standing, sitting, while talking...and someone would prod me to keep me awake. Was I cold? Was I tired? Did I hurt? Was I wet? I don’t remember.
“So I ask you now, ‘are you honest?’ And you will say, ‘yes, of course’. I will ask you that again after the full deprivation.”
The 9 Para are also trained in combat free fall, or CFF, which involves learning both Halo (high altitude low opening) and Haho (high altitude high opening) parachute jumps. Or you could specialize in combat diving. They are called to fish out bodies from rivers in Kashmir after car and bus accidents with disturbing regularity. As we were talking, G responded to a call about a bus that had fallen into the Chenab. A combat diving team was sent out.
The 9 Para are in a constant state of battle. Their task is largely to prevent infiltrating militants from getting to populated areas, or setting up a base of operations inside Kashmir. “You don’t want a major gun-battle or bombs going off in a civilian area, so we work non-stop to contain the infiltrators,” the CO says. When there is intelligence of terrorist movement in the mountains and forests of north Kashmir, the 9 Para are called in (two other SF units also operate in Kashmir, the 1 Para and 4 Para). When Goswami and his colleagues captured Ahmed, it was his second operation in as many weeks.
From January this year till 1 November, there have already been 20 encounters with militants, resulting in the death of 53 insurgents, 22 army personnel, and four civilians, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (and this is not counting ceasefire violations along the LoC, which is a headache for the normal army). On 23 August, in an encounter on the outskirts of a village in the Handwara region, a team of 9 Para, including Goswami, gunned down three militants.
“We are either in an op (operation), or preparing for one, or coming back from one,” the CO says.
In this frenzied state, death is always a close companion.
The CO officer recalls a breathless operation from his early days, a pursuit he was leading through dense forests in heavy fog. At one point, already well into the encounter, and looking for the scattered militants, the CO slipped on a ledge and broke his fall by grabbing a bush. The militants were right under him. Before they could figure out what had happened, the CO had pulled himself up. The next second, a grenade looped up towards him and fell between his legs.
“I looked at it, and froze,” he says. “My buddy started saying, ‘phenko, phenko, phenko’—‘throw it, throw it, throw it’—so I threw it down without thinking. It went off less than a couple of feet under me.”
“We will go to death with our eyes closed,” says an officer from Bihar who shares G’s scraggly bearded look and rapid-fire speech, over dinner one night.
“Perhaps I will go with my eyes open,” says G, and laughs.
Then they show me a video on their cellphone of a Halo dive when G’s parachute was not opening.
“My buddy on the jump was shouting at me, are you filming? Are you filming? And I’m like, fuck this, is this the end?”
You could see the farm-gridded land coming up rapidly and jerkily in the footage, and, in the distance, the other jumper gliding down, parachute open. Finally, heart-stoppingly close to the ground, G’s parachute opens. You can hear him sucking in his breath in relief.
G, 26, is the son of a high-ranking officer in the army who was staunchly opposed to his son’s choice of volunteering for the SF. “We are misfits,” he says. “The army likes people who have a narrow bandwidth, you know, people who follow orders and don’t think beyond that. We have to think on our own, we have to be entirely independent. How else can you handle the fact that every week we are dropped into some vast, unknown forest area, on steep slopes, in complete darkness, and told, here, this is where you have to fight? I bet you not one of the SF officers will last in the regular army too long.”
On 2 September, just six days after Goswami had participated in the operation in the forests in Handwara, he was getting ready to go back into an operation in the same area. The army had already launched a search-and-cordon operation on the densely forested slopes near a village called Sochalwari in Kupwara after reports of militant movements. Two troops of the 9 Para—almost a 100 men—were inserted into the area just before dusk. Goswami was paired with Mahender Singh, a combat diver and mountaineer.
Goswami and Singh knew each other from their earliest days in the unit. When Goswami married in 2007, Singh had gone for the ceremony. When Goswami’s daughter was born two years later, Singh had gone to see her. Both Goswami and Singh come from villages with a military tradition. Goswami, whose father was in the Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force, came from a farming family near Nainital. His father died when he was very young, but there was little doubt that Goswami too would take to the military. Singh had joined the 9 Para a couple of years before Goswami and comes from the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, a recruiting haven for the army. Singh’s elder brother Ram Niwas was in the 9 Para too, and, according to Singh, picked him up and dragged him to the army’s recruiting centre in Agra after he finished schooling.
“I had no choice, really,” Singh says.
The day of the 2 September operation, Singh says Goswami was raring to go, even after two back-to-back operations. “He had just come back from a rare holiday, so he just wanted to be in action,” Singh says.
When they got to the village, the 9 Para were shown the area where an unknown number of militants were thought to be hiding. Ahead of them was an area of very dense undergrowth, sloping steeply upwards into denser forests of deodar, chinar, spruce, birch and juniper, criss-crossed by lots of mountain streams. Even in clear daylight, anyone could hide in the forest and not be seen. The men of the 9 Para began their patient search. Darkness fell.
At around 8 at night, deep in the forest, the SF men saw and heard something moving around a 100m ahead of them.
“Movement,” the call went out on the radio.
A challenge was made by one of the SF men: “Tham! (Stop!)”
A burst of gunfire came their way. They fired back, fell into cover positions. Then came the wait. After a few hours, a small assault team started to inch forward. At around midnight, Singh and Goswami and four other men began a manoeuvre to cut off the likeliest exit route for the militants.
“We were seeing only through the night-vision sights of our rifles,” Singh says. “Inside a dense forest like that, it’s extremely hard to spot anything through the sights. You cannot see a man, only catch the movement really.”
The 9 Para were in the trickiest of positions, boxed into a single forested slope, all sight lines hidden by trees. Sensing that the soldiers were closing in, the militants began lobbing grenades.
“That’s when we knew we were very close to them—not more than 60m,” says Singh. “They were just a little above us in the forest.”
Two of the men in Singh’s team got hit by splinters, and one began to bleed. Goswami and Singh were immediately by their side. The militants started firing.
“So now we were seeing where the terrorists were, by the flash of their guns” Singh says. “They were to our right and to our left, just above us.”
Goswami gave cover-fire as Singh worked to extricate the two injured men. One militant was shot down by Goswami. As he was moving out, a bullet hit Singh. Goswami saw the flare of the gun and took a shot in the direction. A second militant was down. Goswami kept up a steady stream of cover-fire.
“Don’t come closer, I will extricate myself,” Singh told the others in his team over the radio.
“My upper body felt perfectly fine,” Singh says. “I was firing, I was talking on the radio, but my legs had lost all sensation. I sensed that my legs were swelling up rapidly, and my knees were moving any which way. I told Goswami that I’m rolling out.”
Singh, who had been carried by his colleagues for more than an hour to be evacuated, had no idea what had happened. That very day he was stabilized at the army’s field hospital in Srinagar and then airlifted to the army hospital in New Delhi.
When I met Singh, a long scar ran down his stomach. The AK-47 bullet had entered from the left of the abdomen and exited from the right, hitting his liver, kidneys and vertebrae on the way. Though he has had three operations, he has no movement in his limbs from the waist down and has started physiotherapy. He was told of Goswami’s death only much later, after all his surgeries were over.
“I wake up some times and forget he is dead,” Singh says. “I start asking for him.”
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