Reminiscing 1971 War in the North Arabian Sea

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Muhammad Azam Khan
The remains of the famous American naval hero, John Paul Jones lie buried at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. A Scottish emigrant to British colonies in North America, Jones quickly made his name as a first rate naval officer at the onset of American Revolution in 1775. Later, during an encounter with the British fleet off Yorkshire, England in 1779 when asked by opponent if he has surrendered, he delivered his immortal reply: “I have not yet begun to fight.” The phrase has since guided generations of US naval officers. Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh. While addressing at Bangabandhu International Convention Centre at Dhaka University, he blamed Pakistan for spreading terrorism. “If we had a diabolic mindset, we do not know what decision we would have taken”, he said. Modi then reminded the local students of how India intervened in Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war. Pronouncing India’s sinister role in the run up to 16 Dec, 1971, Modi was only restating the obvious; a fact quite well known and which exists as a grim chapter in the annals of South Asian history. The fateful events of the period have been recounted by many of historians, academia, journalists, but one stands out for its objectivity. Dead Reckoning’ by a renowned Indian journalist known as Sharmila Bose; a fellow at the University of Oxford dissects the events in perhaps most dispassionate manner. While the baleful role India played during the December war has been captured by Bose, New Delhi’s overblown figures and Bangladesh’s exaggerated claims of atrocities by Pakistan army are persuasively rejected. The author spurns Bangladesh’s claim of genocide of three million as “gigantic rumour”. She also dismisses that 93,000 Pakistani soldiers were ever in Indian custody, the figure was much less and included thousands of non-combatants, according to Bose. But as if obsessed to oblige an overbearing neighbour and to sidetrack internal unrest, Hasina’s government is determinedly trying to open old wounds by executing those who opted to side with Pakistan during the civil war. This, it does much against the 1974 tripartite agreement that embargoes trials on grounds of clemency and international outcry on the dubious and unfair conduct of trials. For such reasons, many impartial analysts view the incumbent government in Bangladesh only as an extension of India. Dhaka must think hard if it is really independent and sovereign today, something it bitterly fought for some 44 years back. Both New Delhi and Dhaka also conveniently exclude from their respective narratives and brutalities committed by their sides. Little do they realize that opening this can of worms over four decades later, is only a disservice to the region longing for cooperation and political stability than further schism. On Modi’s part, while in Dhaka he perhaps forgot that the fires of intolerance now raging in New Delhi’s own backyard under his watch are sending shivers across world capitals. Regardless, the war in the West broke out on all fronts on 03 December. The Indian Navy had planned at least three if not more, missile attacks on Karachi. These commenced with opening salvos fired at Karachi harbour on 04 December. Only two attacks could, however, succeeded. The third had to be aborted. Thanks to an innovative operational thinking and audacious action by Pakistan Navy Submarine HANGOR commanded by the then Commander, later Vice Admiral Ahmad Tasnim. The submarine torpedoed and sank Indian Navy frigate INS Khukri off Kathiawar coast along Modi’s Gujrat. It was the night of 09 December. This one incident had a telling psychological impact on the Indian Naval mindset. From an overly offensive posture, the entire Indian Western Naval Command withdrew to a defensive position. It also changed the tide of war in the North Arabian Sea in favour of Pakistan. PNS HANGOR was on war patrol since 22 Nov. To Pakistan’s misfortune, close to midnight of 2nd December, PNS HANGOR detected a large formation of Indian Navy warships. But the war had not broken out and the submarine was yet to receive the code word for attack. PNS HANGOR, therefore, had no choice except to observe in sheer frustration the lucrative Indian targets disappear in distance. There was intense exasperation onboard for the command and the crew of PNS HANGOR since as it turned out later, one of the ships in the formation was INS Mysore, the mighty Indian Navy cruiser. It would have been one of the highest prizes of the war for the country, had PNS HANGOR been able to take Mysore down. Nevertheless, after prowling in the assigned area for number of days and having failed to acquire a suitable target, the commanding officer of PNS HANGOR took a daring decision. Disregarding the norms of war which prohibit any radio transmission lest the ship or submarine gets detected by the adversary, PNS HANGOR took risk and broke self-imposed radio silence. The submarine sought permission from higher shore authority for change of previously assigned operational area. Stealth and undersea movement are key factors that distinguish a submarine to be the most credible platform in any naval arsenal. Not only that, in strategic sense too, a submarine armed with nuclear tipped missile is the strongest limb in nuclear triad. In any case, moving up north and searching for prey, PNS HANGOR finally had luck smiling at it. On 09 December PNS HANGOR got a breakthrough when two Indian frigates were spotted patrolling in close formation. The targets were tracked for considerable period of time till about 1900 hours in the evening. At 1957, PNS HANGOR fired a homing torpedo at the northerly ship in the formation. The submarine was at 40 metres depth and target range was roughly 6000 metres. No explosion was, however, heard. At this moment, the Commanding Officer decided to fire another shot, this time at the ship in the south. After tense five minutes, a loud explosion was heard; the torpedo had found its mark. It was INS Khukri, the ship of the squadron commander was hit by PNS HANGOR’s torpedo. Khukri sank within two minutes or so taking down the squadron commander (Captain Mullah) and entire crew of 18 officers and 176 sailors onboard.The sinking of INS Khukri was history in making. It was an epic, the only such action following WWII. The encounter and destruction also dealt a nerve shattering blow to the Indian Navy which threw everything to hunt down and destroy PNS HANGOR. But as luck would have it, PNS HANGOR managed to deceive and foil all attempts by the enemy. This included no less than 150 underwater depth charge attacks. Almost a week later, PNS HANGOR safely entered home waters in Karachi. In the words of the former commanding officer, Admiral Tasnim, “luck favours the brave who are willing to take calculated risks”.

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