Sunday, January 11, 2004

How west was won
…on the waterfront
Kuldip Singh Bajwa

Admiral S. M. Nanda, the man who bombed Karachi: A Memoir
HarperCollins. Rs 395. Pages 320

Admiral S. M. Nanda, the man who bombed Karachi: A MemoirADMIRAL Nanda was to the ocean born. He grew up on Manora Island, astride the entrance to the Karachi harbour. In 1940, he joined as a second mate on a harbour ship. He was commissioned into the Royal Indian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RINVR) on October 11, 1941. His rise to the Chief of Naval Staff on March 1, 1970, was synergic with the beginning of the leap of the fledgling Indian Navy into the 21st century.

In the 32 years of his service, he was on the spot in nearly all the high points during the growth of the Indian Navy—on shore, on water, in air and under water. Some of the milestones in the development of a modern navy were the expansion of the Naval Dockyard at Bombay (now Mumbai) and the naval base at Goa, and acquisition of cruisers Delhi and Mysore, aircraft carrier Vikrant, submarines and missile boats.

Nanda also had a ringside view of the naval mutiny, which started in HMIS Talwar, the naval signal school, on February 2, 1946 mainly due to sailor’s grievances against rapid demobilisation without any effort at resettlement and the abusive behaviour of the British commanding officer. A ready access to signal communications helped the protest spread to nearly all the naval establishments before Sardar Patel intervened and restored the situation. Nevertheless, the mutiny played its part in convincing the British to quit India.

In 1969, for the first time, Nanda was instrumental in organising the Navy Week, which brought this comparatively little-known service closer to the people of Mumbai, and in course of time, to the rest of the country. One of the immediate gains was financial response from the citizens, which enabled the construction of two much-needed offshore facilities at Mumbai, a suitable officer’s mess and a sailor’s home.

The British, and later the US, did not favour a strong navy for India. The British wanted to retain control of access to the Indian Ocean and deny it to other powers. They did not want the Indian Navy to grow rapidly beyond an acceptable level. Its role was contemplated to be a subsidiary to the British Navy and was primarily limited to coastal defence and maritime surveillance in the Indian territorial waters. Nanda recounts the immense difficulties faced in the acquisition of naval craft and other maritime equipment from the UK and the USA.

The protracted negotiations for acquisition of aircraft carrier INS Vikrant led India to turn to the Soviet Union for its naval maritime needs. The Soviets accepted to meet all immediate and even some of the long-term requirements at easier terms. Consequently, in the mid-1960s, the Indian Navy became oriented to Soviet-supplied warships, armaments and other maritime equipment. Nanda also recounts the beginning made to manufacture some of the warships and submarines at the Mazgaon Docks in Mumbai.

According to Nanda, a misperception had gained ground among the political/military planners and decision makers that the Navy had only a marginal role to play in the armed conflicts India was forced into. The Navy practically played no part in 1962 and 1965. In 1965, the Ministry of Defence had directed the Navy not to widen the war and it was restrained from any action north of the Indian territorial waters.

The Pakistan navy bombed Dwarka, which though of no tactical consequence, boosted the Pakistani bravado. In contrast, the seeming inactivity shown by the Indian Navy was adversely commented upon by the citizens of Mumbai and caused acute discomfort among the Naval personnel and the dock workers. It even brought the CNS Admiral Soman to Mumbai to remedy this reaction.

On becoming the CNS in March 1970, Nanda set to change the defensive mode of 1965 to an offensive orientation in 1971. His thinking was to strike first with bold and decisive action in the west, and to impose a sea blockade against East Pakistan. It was assessed that Pakistan would retain bulk of its naval forces in the west, but deploy submarine Ghazi in the Bay of Bengal.

For the allocation of naval forces to the Western and Eastern Naval Commands, a critical decision was in respect of INS Vikrant, handicapped due to a risk in operating the catapult for launching its aircraft on account of a faulty boiler. After some trials, Nanda took a personal decision to accept the risk and permit operation of the catapult to launch the aircraft.

He also concluded that despite the expected deployment of Ghazi, INS Vikrant could operate with an acceptable risk in the coastal waters, where the shallower waters would prevent penetration by Ghazi. INS Vikrant proved effective in isolating East Pakistan. Ghazi was destroyed off the port of Vishakhapatnam.

Karachi was the primary objective chosen for an offensive strike. As an attack on this heavily defended port under the cover of shore-based Pakistani aircraft would have been costly, a bold and innovative plan was evolved. The fleet was to lie 250 miles from Karachi during the day, outside the range of Pakistani aircraft, and as these aircraft did not possess night-bombing capability, make a foray at night. The Soviet-supplied missile boats, designed for coastal defence, would dash in and launch their missiles against the ships, port installations and the large oil-storage-tank farm at Keamari near the port.

The missile boats were escorted by frigates under the cover of darkness to the vicinity of Karachi. While attacks were planned for four different nights, only two were carried out—on the nights of December 4/5 and 8/9. The destruction caused was huge. Four ships were sunk and two damaged. The Keamari oil-tank farm was set ablaze and considerable damage was caused to the port installations. The fleet had bottled up the bulk of the Pakistani navy in Karachi and established complete control over the oil route from the Persian Gulf to Pakistani ports. One Pakistani ship was captured off the Makran coast.

In the rest of the Indian Ocean, the "maritime commerce in Indian and foreign shipping plied without mishap and interruption. In the Bay of Bengal, total sea control was achieved. Neither inward movement to East Pakistan nor escape of the Pakistan army was permitted. Nanda pays a tribute to the harmonious functioning of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the supportive role of the Ministry of Defence. It would have been beneficial if instead of devoting considerable space to his early personal and family life, he had straightaway dealt with the management of the war at the top echelons of the government and the services in greater analytical detail.

Admiral Nanda rightfully claims that at the end of the war, the Indian Navy had found its place in the security matrix of the nation. In the context of nuclear counter-strike deterrence, the role of submarine-launched missiles would be critical. The Navy will play a vital role in the strategic defence of Indian maritime interests against threats from the sea.