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Facing attackers with little more than courage

Poorly armed Mumbai police suffered heavy casualties. Survivors will carry more than physical scars.

December 03, 2008|Mark Magnier | Magnier is a Times staff writer.

MUMBAI, INDIA — They were the longest few seconds of his life, said Indian policeman Vijay Powar: watching a hand grenade roll toward him, tossed by militants from the floor above, and realizing he could do nothing about it.

The only thing that saved his life, he said from a hospital bed, was a wall that partially deflected the blast.

The police officers of Mumbai, often armed with nothing more than courage and old bolt-action rifles, bore the brunt of last week's fighting against gunmen who attacked the western Indian city.

When the three days of terror were over, more than 170 people were dead and hundreds were injured.

On Tuesday, Powar and other officers in the wards of Bombay Hospital recounted their moments on the front lines, mulling what might have been, why they survived and why others didn't.

Since the attack, a steady parade of relatives, reporters and politicians has been winding its way through the halls during the day. Once visiting hours are over and the crowds disappear, the wounded officers are left with their personal hells.

For Arun Jadhav of the Mumbai anti-terrorism squad, the demons aren't hand grenades.

He is haunted instead by a feeling that his boss of 12 years, the squad's chief, will walk through the door any minute and call out: "OK, let's go, we have a job to do."

The evening of Nov. 26, anti-terrorism chief Hemant Karkare, Jadhav and six other officers were responding to initial reports that a railway station, a hospital and a cinema were under attack.

As they headed toward the Metro Theater, with no idea of how large the attack was or what was going on, they approached a car in the road. As they slowed down, two attackers jumped out of the vehicle and killed everyone in the police van except Jadhav.

Debate continues on whether the ambush was planned or a chance encounter, but it served the terrorists well by eliminating the city's anti-terrorism leadership at the start of the militants' attack, spreading further confusion.

The two attackers then pushed the bodies of three dead officers on the front seat out of the vehicle and took it on a killing rampage with five bodies still in the back -- including Jadhav.

"I survived by pretending I was dead," he said.

Amid all the frenzied activity in the Bombay Hospital ward Tuesday, several bureaucrats suddenly appeared with clipboards and started handing each of the wounded officers a check for 50,000 rupees, about $1,000.

"He deserves it," said Raghunath Khetle, father of wounded officer Amit Khetle. The younger Khetle had just joined the force and was too stressed to speak after being shot by the militants.

Then Eknath Shinde, a lawmaker in Maharashtra state, which includes Mumbai, showed up with an entourage in tow.

Since the attack, politicians have become lightning rods for public anger. Many have been accused of being more interested in pitting one group against another for political gain than in forging an effective anti-terrorism policy.

Did Shinde believe he shared the blame? "It's a systemic failure," he said, before rushing off.

"No one in Mumbai is safe against people with AK-47s. The police themselves were victims."

Most of the officers agree, having faced a determined enemy while armed, in many cases, with Lee-Enfield .303-caliber rifles, which first appeared in the 1890s and were used in the Boer War.

"They were using new weapons and we were using things from the colonial era," said Sudam Abha Pandarkar, a security officer with the railway police.

Pandarkar was patrolling a train as it made its way into Mumbai's historic Chhatrapati Shivaji rail terminal. He heard shots, then found himself alone on Platform 6, where he saw two militants with AK-47 assault rifles.

Though much of what happened remained a blur, Pandarkar said, he remembered firing at the gunmen with his rifle. They returned fire and shot him in the back. The bullet exited after inflicting relatively minor damage.

Pandarkar paid a price but believes it was worth it.

"I am not afraid," he said, adjusting his bandage where the hot metal pierced his body.

"We must fight for our nation."

--

mark.magnier@latimes.com

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