How The Surgical Strikes Hero Earned The Coveted Maroon Beret

Major Tango, who was at the helm of surgical strikes targeting terror groups in PoK, always dreamt of joining forces

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Major Tango, who was at the helm of surgical strikes targeting terror groups in PoK, always dreamt of joining forces.
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Three years ago, India conducted surgical strikes in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in response to the Uri terror attack. Journalists Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh got exclusive access to the Special Forces Major who led the operation. Here's an excerpt from their book ‘India’s Most Fearless’.

At the Corps Headquarters, Lt Gen Dua had skipped lunch in anticipation of Maj Tango’s arrival. At 1530 hours, the Cheetah landed at the 15 Corps’ helipad. Maj Tango was led straight to the operations room. Waiting for him at the door was his CO.

Chhote!’

‘Sir!’

The two men hugged, slapping each other on the back, pulling back, and regarding each other wordlessly. Both knew what had just happened. There was no need for small talk.

Emerging from within the operations room was the Corps Commander, Lt Gen Dua. The no-nonsense General had a broad smile on his face as he approached the two officers. Maj Tango straightened up immediately, saluting the senior officer.

'Could We Get Some Food Please?'

As the Major and Lieutenant General shook hands, a waiter appeared, bearing a tray with glasses half-filled with the rich amber of Black Label whisky.

‘Bring the bottle,’ the General ordered the waiter, ‘these men eat glasses’—a fact Maj Tango confirms as being true. The waiter disappeared, quickly reappearing with a full bottle of Black Label. Lt Gen Dua grabbed the bottle, ordered Maj Tango to open his mouth, and began pouring.

Then Maj Tango, a full five ranks junior to the three-star officer, returned the favour. It was only after the officers had had a chance to recover from the well-earned whisky celebration that an operational debrief took place.

Maj Tango was now the secret centrepiece of the Indian military’s modern history. An Army Dhruv helicopter arrived at the Srinagar Corps headquarters a few hours later, flying him straight to Udhampur, the headquarters of the Army’s Northern Command. There, he would meet Lt Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, the officer who vetted the final targeting options, before they were presented to the Army Headquarters and government.

More whisky followed – Maj Tango and his men hadn’t eaten for a whole day. In his mind, he remembers thinking, ‘Koi khaana de do. Saare daaru pila rahe hain (Could we get some food too, please? Everyone’s giving us only alcohol).’

Also Read: Honouring Surgical Strike Heroes Is Fine but Focus on Covert Ops

How The Surgical Strikes Hero Earned The Coveted Maroon Beret
(Photo: Penguin Random House)

Maj Tango Always Wanted to be in the Military

In January 2017, five men from the three teams were decorated with the Shaurya Chakra, while 13 received Sena Medals for gallantry during the assaults. The COs of the two Para-SF units involved were awarded Yudh Seva Medals for their planning and leadership from Srinagar during the operation.

Maj Tango went on to receive the highest decoration of the lot — a Kirti Chakra. His citation read:

By his decisive thinking, professional approach, warrior ethos, exemplary leadership, and courage beyond the call of duty, Maj Mike Tango ensured the execution of the task flawlessly with clockwork precision, and eliminated four terrorists in close quarter combat.

Life changed drastically for Maj Tango after the surgical strikes. ‘Life has changed completely. It’s more restricted now. But I cannot stop being an SF officer. That’s who I am,’ Maj Tango says, referring to his inevitable status as a ‘person of interest’ for Pakistan and the terror groups his men smashed on the intervening night of 28–29 September.

Maj Tango, 35-years-old at the time this book was written in 2017, knew from the age of six that he wanted to be in the military. He remembers sitting wide-eyed on the edge of his parents’ bed at their Mumbai home, watching the 1980s film, Vijeta, in stunned silence.
I used to watch the movie once every day for months. I couldn’t pull myself away from it. I knew I had to be in the military.
Maj Tango
My parents freaked out so much that they taped over the Vijeta tape.
Maj Tango

Settling for the Army Instead of Air Force

Over the next 12 years, Mike Tango’s obsession with a future in the military would only intensify. In 2000, he joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in Pune, after failing to crack the test twice. While the Indian Air Force was a teenaged Mike’s first choice, inspired by his memories of Vijeta, he would have to settle for the Army. He was not disappointed.

He had just taken his first steps into the military, and that was all that mattered. Over the next few weeks, Mike would be mesmerised by stories from J&K, shared with him by a member of his directing staff, an officer from another elite Para-SF unit. Mike had already decided that he wanted to be in the infantry, clear in his mind that he would not fit into any other combat arm. And by the time he had finished at the NDA, it would be nothing but the SF.

The young cadet’s new ideal was cemented when he joined the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun. His platoon commander at the IMA was from his future unit in the Para-SF. There would be no looking back for Mike Tango.

In 2004, Mike Tango was commissioned into the Army’s Para-SF as a Lieutenant. The initial six-month probation phase was a finely crafted period that would be the final boot camp before true SF operations. Over three months, Mike and other young officers were put through tests of mental toughness, integrity and honesty.

‘During probation, everyone is assessing you. Are you a team leader? Are you a good support guy? Physically, everyone who joins the SF team is tough. They attempt to break you mentally,’ Maj Tango remembers.

None of the mental tests would, of course, preclude or replace physical trials. That would intensify dramatically during SF probation.

Also Read: PM Hailed Surgical Strike, But His Speech Had Little For Soldiers

Lessons from the Probation

The attempt is to try and break you, to find your breaking point, to see where you give up. The point is, of course, not to. But everyone has a breaking point.
Maj Tango

The officer remembers occasionally considering giving it all up and quitting service during his probation. Sleep deprivation and stress tests had brought hell, in his words, to daily existence.

Maj Tango will never forget being thrown into a gutter, or being ordered to dissect rotting carcasses of animals.

It would dawn on the young officer that the seemingly sadistic rituals of probation were all part of the indispensable toughening-up that made the SF special.

You can’t freak out in a bad situation. No matter what happens, you have to deal with what’s in front of you. That’s what probation teaches you.
Maj Tango

A special memory remains of being dragged out of his bed at 0200 hours and being ordered to write a persuasive 1,000-word essay on how the menstrual cycle of a former Pakistani leader affects the monsoon in West Bengal.

The attempt is to throw anything at you and see how you deal with it. There are no options. You deal. Or you’re out.
Maj Tango

Mike completed his six-month probation in just under four months. He was dispatched quickly to the Kashmir valley to begin what would be an explosively active decade in the state.

By October 2004, just a few months into service, the young officer had managed to prove beyond doubt that he would be a successful SF warrior. But the unit had decided that the young officer, high on his abilities, needed to suffer just a little bit longer.

And so, an elaborate plan was hatched by his seniors. It began with summons to north Kashmir’s Lolab Valley on Dussehra, in 2004, and orders to embark on a mission fabricated to end without success. When Mike returned to the field headquarters that evening, he was roundly castigated.

‘I was shouted at very harshly, and told I wasn’t fit for the SF,’ Mike recalls.

The next day in Srinagar, I got an even worse shelling by my Team Commander and CO. They said I lacked aptitude. I was shocked and angry. I had trained so hard for this.
Maj Tango

Reward from Commanding Officer

The prank was a meticulous one. Mike’s seniors had even procured a movement order posting him out of the SF to a regular infantry unit.

I was given a movement order to 18 Mahar Regiment and ordered to proceed immediately to a transit camp. I packed my bags and was on the verge of tears. I had never been so low.
Maj Tango

Just as Mike was leaving, a waiter from the officers’ mess jogged up to him, informing him that the CO wanted to meet him one last time. Mike remembers being in no mood to meet his seniors, and simply wanting to leave as quickly as possible. Fighting back a tide of frustration, he decided to follow the waiter to the mess.

Mike’s CO stood there, grim, staring, silent. A perplexed Mike was ordered to do 50 push-ups right then and there. Furious and in disbelief, Mike knew he could not disobey a direct order, so he fell to the ground to do as he was commanded. But as he rose to his feet, Mike saw his CO holding a brand-new maroon beret in his hand. The young officer had just earned the most iconic symbol of the Special Forces.

‘First and last time my hands shivered’

‘I was beyond exhilarated. What followed was our traditional drink in the SF — every kind of alcohol mixed in a jug, with our rank badges in there too. We drink it all in one go, and then the rank badges are pipped. I woke up two days later.’

Mike would see his first live firefight less than a year later in June 2005. Intelligence had just arrived about suspicious movements in Bandipora. Arriving on the scene with his squad, Lt Tango and his men spotted the three ‘suspects’, all in burkas.

Their masculine voices while speaking on a mobile phone and the chance sighting of an AK-47 between them blew their cover. Mike and his men positioned themselves in a cordon around the suspects.

‘It was the first and the last time my hands shivered before action. It happens only that first time. Never again,’ Mike recalls.

He would go on to raise a covert/pseudo ops (operations) team for the Para-SF — a subunit dedicated to deep cover and intelligence gathering from the general population. It would allow Mike to begin understanding the level of intelligence in infiltration that Pakistan had managed in the Kashmir valley, and how difficult it would be to conduct SF missions there. Not once during the seven years he spent in covert operations did he imagine that he would one day be ordered to cross the LoC.

(Excerpted with permission from India’s Most Fearless: True Stories of Modern Military Heroes by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh available in bookstores and on www.amazon.in)

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