Sunday, December 21, 2008


On the night of November 26, when terrorists stormed the Taj, in a room on one of the floors, there was one of India Inc’s bright young beacons lying on the floor, alive, but terrified, confused and unsure. Next to him on the floor lay others, some bleeding, others perhaps weeping… A wall away, they could hear the crack of assault rifles, the cries of victims as they crashed lifeless in corridors and rooms and the deafening sound of explosions. As the acrid smell of the carnage wafted in with the smoke, panic set in. How much longer before the terrorists enter our room? Will they kill us all? What do we do? Questions raged in every head, including the young CEO’s… “We did not know what to do? We tried barricading ourselves inside the room… but it was rather flimsy…” he said on TV, after he was rescued the next day. He thanked providence and his spiritual practice for carrying him through those harrowing hours, for there was little else to bank on.

That same evening, in another part of the hotel, seven South Africans were dining in one of the restaurants when they heard gun shots inside the hotel. When they realised that there were terrorists in the hotel, they spoke to the other diners and told them who they were – bodyguards in the country on an assignment, protecting international cricketers – and explained that they had the training to handle this situation. “People remained calm”, one of them told a news channel, as they moved more than a hundred people out of the restaurant. “…it had a large glass area which could have been dangerous…” They switched off the lights to retain the element of surprise and then the other guests were herded into a conference room which was then barricaded by the South Africans with relatively sturdy objects like refrigerators and heavy tables. The bodyguards had armed themselves with what they could – cleavers and knives and were considering various possibilities when they realised that the building was on fire. They knew they had to evacuate, checked to see if it was ‘all clear’, got word through to the security personnel that they shouldn’t shoot and finally through the fire exit, guided 120 hostages to safety (including an old woman who was carried in a chair, down 25 flights of stairs!)

I heard about both these incidents on the same day and the contrast hit me hard between the eyes. Our young CEO was lucky, but

there were many others who stumbled upon their deaths because while they too did not know what to do next, unlike the CEO, the dice just didn’t roll their way. And yet, I have a feeling that if there were a handful of other professionals like these South African heroes – people who had some notion of what could be done to save their own lives and those of others around them, perhaps many more would’ve walked out alive from the Taj.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again - we are a people under siege and we’re practically on our own. It took a nine hour long ‘quick reaction’ for our commandos to be brought to location (and that they had to be brought there in ‘BEST’ buses, tells you about India’s ‘most terrorised’ city’s levels of preparedness). You might rant and rave, and light enough candles to pave the Marine Drive with wax, but you can bet your last recession-hit rupee on it that nothing, absolutely nothing is going to change if anybody with a voice (and that’s not you or me) in this great dysfunctional democracy can help it. There could be more terrorists tomorrow, and there could be more bombs; there could be cyclones, tsunamis and earthquakes, but help would only reach once it’s too late for most.

But we can’t remain helpless, at the mercy of the guy with the gun, whichever side he might be on. Just like the South Africans, instead of letting ‘terror’ paralyse us, surely, we too can prepare ourselves for such an eventuality. I wanted to know if there was anything I could do if I was stuck in a burning building with ruthless gunmen on the prowl? Is there anything we could do to hold the fort and save lives (including my own) until help finally arrived? Turns out, yes, we can…

I asked two of India’s most well known security consultants and martial artists – SWAT and Krav Maga Chief Instructor (India) and veteran Karateka Vicky Kapoor and Shaolin and Police Kung Fu and Kali Master Kanishka Sharma – the same question: what can a lay civilian can do in a 26/11 scenario? Apparently, conscription helps. A country that has had to fight insurgency almost since the day it was born would obviously do well if every citizen was also a soldier. “…it builds a sense of nationhood… makes you more aware as citizens”, says Kapoor. Well, but that’s not an option for now… what else?

“Be aware!”, echoed both masters. Here, it would be pertinent to note that both have been responsible for giving extensive close quarter combat (CQC) training to various law enforcement agencies, the military and some of its elite units. It seemed a generic directive, but as the South Africans proved, it was the one trait – being aware of one’s environment (moving away from glass areas, fire, checking for exits, and finding resources for barricading an area) that saved more than a 100 lives.

“Secondly, you should always stay low – you might escape both bullets and heavy smoke”, urged Vicky Kapoor. “Krav Maga (used by the Israeli Defence units) was designed to counter hostage situations”, he elaborated, as he showed us how he would’ve handled armed hostage takers even if handcuffed “and while most Israelis would’ve made difficult hostages because they’ve served in the army and trained in CQC, most of us Indians are neither trained nor aware. Even if you can’t get army training, every school, RWA and organisation should run programmes that run basic first aid. Doctors trapped in one of the hotels saved the lives of a wounded few with basic first aid techniques. Perhaps many others could’ve been saved. Teach people what to do incase of a fire or an earth quake. Offices have fire extinguishers but who knows how to use them? In case of a fire or explosion, more might die in a stampede. Simple evacuation drills could save lives. Martial skills could be infinitely useful, but the rest is basic and should be mandatory training for each and every Indian. Wake up, and take charge of your lives. No one else would do it for you”, he concluded. Incidentally, Vicky Kapoor has been training security teams in some prominent hotel chains in the aftermath of 26/11. Kanishka echoed the same thoughts. “We’re usually too busy walking like zombies to notice our surroundings. Why is that man so nervous? Whose bag is that? Where are the exits? Which is the closest hospital? I’m not saying you should be in a state of paranoia 24/7, but be aware of your surroundings. And be careful before you start a self defense course to prepare yourself for hostage situations. They work…” he said as he demonstrated how even an unarmed hostage could, at the right moment, “with the right training”, disarm an armed assailant and get out alive “… but you must understand that combat martial styles, like Kali (a martial art used by the Filipino Marines) begin where most martial sports (Tae kwon do and sport Karate are sports which’ve banned lethal techniques, focusing instead on scoring points) end. Their aim is to train to finish the opponent (even if armed), not score points and this distinction is very important when you choose a martial art for self defense. Presence of mind, common sense and even the ability to engage hostage takers in a conversation, a negotiation, could save your life. If that fails, train the mind and the body with self defense skills and you might still come out alive.”

I know what you’re thinking? What good are martial skills in the face of a bullet. Well, if someone wants to shoot you, he will and there’s nothing you can do about it. But in a hostage situation, escape if you can. And if you can’t, wait. There might be a moment when the terrorist comes close enough for you to act. I hope such a day never comes, but if it does, you might as well be prepared… See you in the dojo then… PS Mr CEO(s), do remember to organize fire safety, first aid and evacuation drills in the office. It might save more than just one life…


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