In memory of a Kashmiri Hero
*Ratan P. Watal
Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla MVC
Losses on the battlefield are often swept under the carpets of historiography as collateral damage, especially if the larger war has been won. Why raise embarrassing questions about the reasons for the sinking of a little ship when the grand ship of state has managed to sail triumphally on as the victor? India won the 1971 war. A ship lost during the course of it seems a trifle awkward, perhaps best forgotten? The Khukri story reminds me of the effort of ‘Subaltern’ historians. The Subalternists have convincingly shown that the grand narrative of Indian nationalism’s larger success against the colonial enemy frequently submerges the battles of small folk. This metaphorical, and in the present case literal, submergence of the ‘small voice of history’ has, at any rate, been among the many reasons for the silence that has shrouded the ill-destined naval operation associated with INS Khukri.
The first discomfiting question to ask is whether the operation was badly conceived by India’s naval headquarters from the outset. Were the officers and men of the two frigates, Khukri and Kirpan, mere pawns in the hands of a few ambitious commanders who knew they were experimenting upon and perhaps dispatching a few hundred navy men to certain death? I read a recent book on the sinking of the Khukri by another 1971 war veteran Major General (retd) Ian Cardozo. These questions had caused me considerable concern for a long time especially because myths and reality had been veiled through the passage of time. So I was glad that the issues though underplayed, emerged clearly enough in Cardozo’s courageous books titled “The Sinking of the INS Khukri”.
The INSs Khukri, Kirpan, and Kuthar were Blackwood anti-submarine frigates built in Britain and inducted into the Indian navy in the 1950s. They were fitted with short-range sonar possessing a range of 2500 meters. The Pakistani submarines they were pitted against were more modern French vessels, which could sense enemy 25,000 meters away. The Indian naval command had, it seems, fitted untested and experimental sonar equipment (developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Center) on the Khukri and sent the ship off to fight an enemy whose superior capability was not seriously in doubt. Indian nationalist faith in indigenous technology was being tested against the known superiority of Western warfare technology. The Indian naval high command had clearly never read Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ before they pushed their inferior vessels to take on Pakistan’s reliance on Gallic Daphne-class submarines.
For reasons that are not clearly known, the only two seaworthy Indian anti-submarine frigates were put under the direct control of naval headquarters in Bombay and told to ‘hunt and kill’ PNS Hangor, Pakistan’s technically superior submarine which had been spotted off the coast of Diu. Air support to enhance the ships’ search capabilities was to be co-coordinated from Bombay, leaving Captain Mulla only in partial operational control of the mission with which he was entrusted.
During the search operation, the Hangor lay low as long as Indian Sea King helicopters were around. Admiral (now retired) Tasneem, who commanded Pakistan’s Hangor, said in a BBC interview that he knew they were being tracked. The Pakistani submarine therefore bided its time, awaiting the right opportunity to strike.
The naval command handed Pakistan this opportunity soon enough. Due to a glitch in Bombay, helicopter replacements never arrived on schedule, leaving the two Indian frigates isolated and vulnerable for several hours. The hunters became the hunted. One torpedo missed the Kirpan, two torpedoes hit the Khukri. She sank in less than three minutes.
Yet battles do not end with skirmishes. They persist in the memories of survivors, their families, and the sometimes reluctant establishment that must put in place remedies to prevent the recurrence of disasters. There is no doubt that the Indian navy is better equipped now, more formidable than it was in 1971. In part, this must be a consequence of knowledge gained from the experience of sending 196 Indians to an avoidable death.
I am writing about this episode because it centers on the personality of Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla. I often wonder what were his choices in a strict command system where he was ordered into battle knowing full well that his men were ranged against a powerful underwater enemy that was invisible? I wonder what has happened, physically and psychologically, to the sailors and family members of those who survived the sinking?
Captain Mulla’s daughter, Ameeta, reminiscing about her father, remarked that, like Nehru, he was a Kashmiri Pandit from Allahabad. He could count amongst his kin justices, Urdu poets, freedom fighters, lawmakers, even a dignified scoundrel or two, all brilliant people addicted to the romance of living. Mulla was a man of deep faith, but he never let religion prejudice him. For him, sacrifice was not a trade-off. He told his teenaged daughter: ‘never call your best action a sacrifice. If one fights for a cause, it is because one can live with certain things.’ He was a man of the old world. Well-lettered and equally comfortable with occidental as well as oriental traditions, he was venerated by his sailors and officers.
Should we ascribe mythic dimensions to the INS Khukri? Or should we leave the human story undisturbed in its watery grave off the coast of Diu? Yet it is strange that this may well be the only Indian naval encounter that actually has mythic value for the navy. For, the ship, which went down was, in some ways, a lamb sent to its slaughter—much like the Earl of Cardigan and his Light Brigade, made so mythic by Tennyson.
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I am so proud of Capt Mulla. If you ever get a chance do listen to any lecture by his daughter Ameeta Mulla Wattal. The pride with which she talks about her father will make any father's chest swell with affection. I would recommend that all of us should read about the last moments of INS Khukri. Till the end, Capt Mulla was on the ship like a brave soldier, complete with his cigarette intact.
Added By Samvit Rawal
These are the people which live in hearts of millions of Indians in for ever Salute to a true solider of Nation
Added By sarbjit singh chawla