“Don’t come upstairs. I will handle this.” Those were Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan’s last words as he went up a flight of stairs of the Hotel Taj Palace on the fateful night of November 26th, 2008. He knew he was walking into danger but that didn’t bother him. He was there to save the day and that’s exactly what he did.
Sandeep Unnikrishnan (born in 1977) came from a Nair family residing in Bangalore, where they had moved from Cheruvannur, Kozhikode District, Kerala. He was the only son of retired ISRO officer K. Unnikrishnan and Dhanalakshmi Unnikrishnan. After graduating in 1995 in the ISC Science stream, he joined the National Defence Academy, Pune, Maharashtra in 1995, as that was his passion. He was a part of the Oscar Squadron (No. 4 Battalion) and a graduate of the 94th Course of NDA. He graduated as a Bachelor of Arts.
He was commissioned as a lieutenant to the 7th Battalion of the Bihar Regiment (Infantry) on 12 July 1999. After serving the Indian Army in different locations in Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan during counter insurgencies for two terms, he was selected to join the National Security Guards. On completion of training, he was assigned to the Special Action Group (SAG) of NSG on January 2007 and participated in various operations of the NSG. During the ‘Ghatak course’ (at the Commando Wing (Infantry School), Belgaum), the most difficult course of the Army, Unnikrishnan topped the course, earning an “Instructor Grading” and commendation. He opted for the NSG commando service which he joined on deputation in 2006.
During Operation Vijay in July 1999, he was regarded positively at the forward posts in the face of heavy artillery firing and small arms fire by Pakistan troops. On the evening of 31 December 1999, Unnikrishnan led a team of six soldiers and managed to establish a post 200 metres from the opposing side and under direct observation and fire.
On the night of 26 November 2008, several iconic buildings in South Mumbai were attacked by the terrorists. One of the buildings where hostages were held was the 100-year-old Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Major Unnikrishnan, who was then at the NSG hub in Manesar, Haryana had just learned about the death of the ATS Chief Hemant Karkare. Major Unnikrishnan, who had topped the Ghatak course, was already an instructor for the NSG. He volunteered for the Mumbai Operation (Operation Black Tornado) when the NSG men informally assembled at the NSG hub.
He entered the hotel in a group of 10 commandos and reached the sixth floor through the staircase. As the team descended the stairs, they suspected perpetrators on the third floor. A few women were held as hostages in a room which was locked from the inside. After breaking open the door, the round of fire by the perpetrators hit Commando Sunil Yadav, who was Unnikrishnan’s colleague. Unnikrishan engaged the perpetrators in a firefight. He arranged for Yadav’s evacuation and gave chase to those he had engaged in the firefight who, meanwhile, escaped to another floor of the hotel. He continued firing and charging at the terrorists as if nothing had happened. Unni finally managed to rescue all the 14 hostages trapped inside that wing of the hotel but the terrorists were escaping. Not worrying about his own safety, he charged upstairs after them. He managed to shoot down a couple more terrorists before he was shot from the back.One of the terrorists hid behind a statue and shot Unni from behind. He continued firing even as he fell, until he stopped breathing. His death did not go in vain as very soon, the SAG managed to eliminate all the terrorists hiding in the hotel. For his bravery, Unnikrishnan was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra in 2009. As a tribute to him, an important road in the city was named after him immediately after his death. In honour of his supreme sacrifice, a film was made titled ‘Major’.