The Telegraph
Thursday , March 27 , 2014
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Black Cats storm star address


A hooded man in black sprinting along the terrace over the portico of The Oberoi Grand at 11 in the night is not a sight you would expect to see on the way back home. And when you discover that the man has a gun, surprise quickly turns into shock.

Suddenly, more hooded heads in black come into view on the fourth floor, their silhouettes standing out against the white Victorian facade of one of Calcutta’s most recognisable landmarks.

Someone in the group lowers a rope towards the first-floor terrace and images from 26/11 less than six years ago immediately flash through the mind’s eye.

A man rappels down a rope over the parapet, crouches for a moment and then, in two immaculately controlled swings, lands on the second-floor balcony. The descent takes all of three seconds.

Just as you wonder if this is for real, the armed daredevil in black frees himself of the rope tied to his waist and storms one of the rooms, his gun apparently ready to shoot. He disappears from view and the men on the terrace pull back the rope.

From the canopy of a felled tree on the pavement on the opposite flank of Chowringhee Road, the action looks like a surreal mix of fact and fantasy. Maybe even like watching a thriller unfold in slow motion.

Several minutes pass. There are no gunshots. Not even an iota of alarm in any other part of the hotel visible from Chowringhee Road.

A police jeep arrives and parks in front of the hotel a few minutes later. The main gate of the hotel is opened to a car and then another. Still no alarm.

The puzzle gets solved around midnight. Someone confirms that The Oberoi Grand — with Metro as a serendipitous witness — has just had a mock exercise conducted by the country’s elite commando force: the National Security Guard.

The star hotel’s top management had advance information of the drill and so did the police brass.

An official who did not wish to be named described the exercise as the most essential part of securing landmarks and, by extension, potential terror targets. Commandos from the NSG’s eastern hub at Badu, 8km from the airport, had previously conducted drills at Metro stations, he revealed.

“One of the advantages of having the commandos do an exercise like this is to acquaint them with the layout of a place. It also keeps them sharp, which is what being a commando is all about,” the official said.

George Kuruvilla, general manager of The Oberoi Grand, said the hotel had been “working closely with the authorities” on the security aspect. “Security is a priority, especially given the grandeur and location of the hotel. We work very closely with the authorities on this matter and also seek assistance from forces such as the NSG to conduct planned drills at the hotel from time to time.”

The Oberoi Trident in Mumbai had come under attack on November 26, 2008, along with the Taj Mahal Palace and Hotel. Like the Taj property, the Trident had witnessed explosions and a gunbattle between the terrorists holed up inside with security agencies, including the NSG. The siege ended on November 28 with 143 hostages being rescued, but 22 lives were lost.

According to a Delhi-based home ministry official, it wasn’t enough for “potential target addresses to have guards in uniform moving about with walkie-talkie sets”.

“You need to have trained armed guards,” he said.

At The Oberoi Grand on Tuesday night, there was a 30-minute lull after the initial activity before the action resumed around 11.45pm, this time more frenetic. The activity shifted to the southern end of the building from the middle portion from where the first hooded man in black had slid down a rope. Two commandos emerged on the first-floor terrace and then three or four of their colleagues joined them. Two formally dressed hotel employees also made an appearance, pointing at some rooms on the second floor.

By now, six more Black Cats had gathered in the middle portion of the second-floor balcony. Their number doubled after six commandos slid down a rope exactly as the first man had done.

The party stormed the hotel as soon as the last man arrived. The commandos had apparently identified their mock targets — probably in the rooms on the second floor— and moved in on them.

From across the road, that appeared to be the climax of the midnight show.

Just another night at work for the Black Cats maybe, but for two weary Metro journalists returning home from work, it will remain an “assignment” to remember.