Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla, a Kashmiri Hero

 
 
INS Khukri:
In memory of a Kashmiri Hero

*Ratan P. Watal
 
 

Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla MVC
 
   

Postal stamp honoring Capt. Mulla issued in 2000 on the occasion of 50 years of the Republic of India

Two ships of the Indian Navy under the command of Captain M.N.Mulla, senior officer of frigates squadron, were assigned the task of locating and destroying a Pakistani submarine in North Arabian Sea. During these operations on the night of 9 December 1971, INS "Khukri" was hit by torpedoes fired by enemy submarine and sank. Having decided to abandon the ship, Captain Mulla without regard to his personal safety, supervised the arrangements for rescue of his ship's company in very cool, calm and methodical manner. Even at later stage whilst the ship was sinking, Capt Mulla showed presence of mind and continued to direct rescue operations and refused to save himself by giving his own life-saving gear to a sailor. Having directed as many of his men as possible to leave the ship, Captain Mulla went back to bridge to see what further rescue operations could be performed. In doing so, Captain Mulla was last seen going down wit the ship. His action and behaviour and the example he set have been in keeping with highest tradition of the services. Captain Mulla displayed conspicuous gallantry and dedication.
{Ref :Transition to Triumph-History of the Indian Navy 1965-1975 by Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani PVSM, AVSM, NM, PhD (Retd)}

Thirty-six years back, on December, 9th 1971, during India’s war with Pakistan, the Indian anti submarine frigate INS Khukri was twice torpedoed by an enemy submarine. The ship, being no Titanic grazed by an iceberg, sank within minutes, taking 178 Indian naval ratings and 18 officers, including the ship’s captain, to their watery graves in the Arabian Sea. The ship’s captain, Mahendra Nath Mulla, showed extraordinary courage during the last minutes of his life, helping save as many of his men as he could and not abandoning his vessel. Injured, and with his head bleeding, he went down with his ship. A posthumous Maha Vir Chakra was awarded to him, though several knowledgeable people in the armed forces have argued that this seems to have been a classic case of a Param Vir Chakra wrongfully denied.

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.

Save 25% Off Your First Order. Use Code PW25ONE 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.
 


*Ratan P Watal is a senior IAS government officer who has served in Andhra Pradesh, New Delhi and Abroad.
He is currently the Director General of the Sports Authority of India.

 
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Comments
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.
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These are the people which live in hearts of millions of Indians in for ever Salute to a true solider of Nation
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