The Sinking of INS Khukri –– REVISITED

An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 26 April 2006

DNA, Mumbai’s new daily run by ex TOI staffers, resurrected the INS Khukri story by Josy Joesph and the episode needs a revist. It was an unfortunate sinking in the 1971 war, the biggest and only loss suffered by the Indian Navy in its annals. In retrospect we present extracts from the account written in 1987 in Chapter 8 on the sinking of INS Khukri by Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd), the first ever book on the heroic Naval war of 1971 titled "A Nation and its Navy at War". The book is recommended reading for Staff College entrance exam and highly recommended at US Naval War College at Annapolis Naval Academy, where the author has spoken. The Chapter ‘Tilt To Pakistan’ recounts the machinations of President Nixon, Kissinger, US Intellgence and CNO Admiral Zumwalt's ignorance of the entry of the USS Enterprise Task Force into he Indian Ocean as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Tom Morrer took orders direct from Nixon. The role of Yeoman Ratford who leaked the details to NY Times is also unfolded.

The fog of war engulfs and it was a sad event that Lt VK Jain a bright Electrical Officer who also died was testing an enhancement feature to get longer range on Khukri’s sonar designed by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Readers should know the Navy had officers like Cmde Paul Raj who pioneered all of today's Indian Navy sonars whilst with DRDO at NSTL. He joined DRDO and left to join Stanford and was recently admitted to the Hall of Fame of Engineers in USA with another Indian Prof Kailath and has also worked under Dr Teller.

The slow speed of the ship made Khukri a sitting duck and the fact that the sailors were listening to the English news and not wearing life jackets caused greater loss than should have. Excerpts from Rai’s book and the DNA's piece are appended along with excerpts from Vice Admral Tasneem’s explanation of the escape. He retired as VCNS and was the Captain of PNS Hangor in 1971 and he visited New Delhi in 2004 to discuss the sinking and Hangor’s escape full details of which will be appearing in Ranjit Rai's updated book later this year with many Pakistani and newly revealed inputs giving both sides of the Naval story. .

Chapter Eight –– INS Khukri Goes Down

The war at sea was going well for Indian Navy and with the first five days bringing their small measures of triumphs — namely the attacks on Karachi, the sinking of the Ghazi and the exploits of the Vikrant; all these had created a tremendous sense of confidence in this small sea-going arm. The first major blow to the Indian Navy came on the fateful night of 9 December. It rocked the Navy when the reality of actual war hit the sea-going community at large. Whilst the officers and men on board INS Khukri were tuned in to listen to the All India Radio news at 8.50 pm on the ship’s SRE (Sound Reproduction Equipment) and were specifically on an anti-submarine warfare mission to look out for a reported Pak submarine, the Khukri was hit by more than one torpedo; possibly three, fired from one of Pakistan Navy’s three newly acquired Daphne-class submarines, the Hangor (Cdr A. Tasneem) about 40 miles off Diu Head. In command was Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla a 45-year old tall, strapping Royal Navy-trained anti-submarine warfare specialist with earlier command experience of destroyer INS Rana and Second-in-Command of INS Krishna (then Kistna). One can picture him on the bridge of his ship, after helplessly realizing that hope was lost and forced to give the order “Abandon Ship’.

Eighteen officers and 176 sailors went down with the anti-submarine frigate, INS Khukri, as she sank in the Arabian Sea, torpedoed by an enemy submarine on a dark night. Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla (45) the skipper, stood by his ill-fated shipmates to the last and shared their destiny despite having opportunity to save himself. Captain Mulla was awarded MVC posthumously.

The sinking has evinced very keen discussion on the issues that such large casualties, resulting in loss of life of this nature, throw up. Was Indian Navy’s damage control ability in doubt? Can two or three torpedoes of L-60 variety sink a ship like the Khukri specially built for anti-submarine warfare with British 170/174 sonar sets and Mortar MK 10? What speed was the ship doing? What after-accident search and rescue measures were taken to reduce loss of life? The discussion still goes on, but some factors are touched upon in this chapter along with some facets of human life.

The Khukri was well manned, worked up, and the Second-in-Command of the ship Lt Cdr J.K. Suri, 33, a bachelor, was in fact, a specialist communications officer. An excellent Navy squash player, unfortunately he was a poor swimmer. He was on the bridge when the torpedoes hit. The story has it that because the ship lost power and went down in minutes, some men trying to get out of the ship in darkness from below deck ran into those like J.K. Suri going down to fetch their life jackets. The Khukri had only two exits and over 100 men crowding these two exit ports must have caused panic and in the melee they would have got crushed whilst the ship went down. Yet the Captain helped each one he could see on the bridge to leave the ship. Commander Oomen, the tough and plump Malayali Engineer Officer may have decided to go down to the Engine Room like so many other dedicated sailors who are trained, by instinct, to rush to their action post-and suffered a watery death. Lt Suresh Kundanmal, a fine ‘Sword of Honour’ receipient officer was reported to have jumped over the side after coaxing his Captain to do so too, but could have well got sucked into the whirlpool caused by the sinking ship.

All this is reported by survivors like Lt Manu Sharma, another fine officer who has since left the Navy and settled in USA. The successful attack by a Pakistan Navy submarine was possible because it is commonly known that INS Khukri was doing only 12 knots. Lt V.K. Jain, a bright Electrical Officer, who had researched on an attachment to improve the sonar performance of the 170/174 set was, unfortunately, testing his hardware on board. It is known that Captain Mulla did not favour this slow speed but he had to give in to this young officer’s request. One of those misfortunes, combined with the fact this class of ship did not have a strong shipside and thus succumbed to damage easily. It is also possible that the Pakistan Navy submarine had tracked the Khukri for some time by keeping in company with some fishing craft which were earlier in the vicinity.

The period after the war was traumatic for the families of those reported missing. Lt Suresh Kundanmal’s family got reports that many survivors had drifted away and that Suresh had been able to swim to safety after having given his life jacket to another. Astrologers too, assured the family that he was alive. A few weeks after the war some fine sailors from the Khukri joined INS Nilgiri, India’s first Leander, as part of rehabilitation of the crew. The Captain of the Nilgiri Captain D.S. Paintal looked upon this act as a superstitious omen, but when assured that they were experienced shipwrecked sailors who could possibly be of help in educating the ship’s company of the new Nilgiri, they were welcomed on board warmly like so many others of that ill-fated ship. Incidentally, in the Falklands war, a total of seven warships were sunk, but all their Captains were rescued and live to tell their tale; once again showing off Admiral Nanda’s message to his fleet Captains not to go down with the ship as propitious. One day another Khukri will undoubtedly be commissioned so that we do not forget.

The Khukri Is No More

By Manu Sharma (A survivor)

I am Manu Sharma who served the Navy,

Settled now in USA, aged forty-two or thereabouts.

I knew the Khukri which also symbolizes Gurkha strength

And I was on her last voyage wherein served,

Mahendra Nath Mulla the Captain who smoked

His last cigarette as he went down

The old man to the sea.

Thambe Ommen the ship’s Engineer who tried his best

But the Arabian Sea engulfed him.

Young Suresh Kundanmal that fine personality

Who gave his life jacket to another,

And lost his life without knowing it.

Joginder Suri who was the executive officer of the ship

But saw his own execution for he could not swim.

Also down went those smiling one hundred seventy-six Indian Seadogs

The others whose names I remember not

But the Khukri I do.

They all lie some forty miles from Diu

Undisturbed till they are picked up.

And only a wreck marks that special danbuoy stave

Till another Khukri rides India’s waves.

The Words Of Admiral Tasnim

“After Hangor sank the Khukri on the night of 9th December, the Indian Navy hunted us for over two whole days and nights. They lobbed over a hundred and fifty squids and depth charges at us during this time. First, we could feel and hear the explosions through the hull, though they were at a distance : later they could be heard only through the sonars as the Indians vented their frustration and blasted away at innocent shoals of fish in the distance. The situation on board was quite tense and uncertain and we got away”. The full details are in Rai’s newly researched book.

A Brazen Cover-Up That Rewrote Indian Naval History

By Josy Joseph

Sunday, April 16, 2006 01:50 IST

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: Mistakes committed by naval officers, including the commanding officer (CO) of INS Khukri, led to the sinking of the warship and the death of 200 of its crew during the 1971 war with Pakistan, according to documents with DNA.

The findings overturn official naval claims and published history on the sinking of the Khukri by Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor at the height of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. It also raises uncomfortable questions about numerous gallantry awards given out by the government to many involved in the incident.

DNA has two letters written to President APJ Abdul Kalam by Commander Benoy Bhushan, one of 12 pages and the other of 24, who was directed by the flag officer commanding-in-chief, Western Naval Command, to establish where the Khukri was sunk. The findings remain under wraps till date.

Bhushan confirmed the authenticity of the two letters, and their claims have been substantiated by at least one survivor and other sources.

Though the principal director of naval operations told Bhushan that his report was declassified in early 2005, naval headquarters refused DNA a copy and also failed to respond to a detailed questionnaire sent by DNA.

According to the official version, a Pakistani submarine torpedoed and sank the Khukri on the night of December 9, 1971. It is the single biggest wartime casualty of independent India. There was never a court of inquiry to find out if anyone was responsible for the ship going down.
DNA’s investigation reveals that in their last moments some 250 officers and sailors of the Khukri were abandoned by INS Kirpan, an accompanying naval ship that should have carried out an immediate counterattack.

It also reveals that the navy’s claim that it hunted and sank the Pakistani submarine a few hours later to be false. The Hangor returned to Karachi harbour safely.

Cdr Bhushan, in his letter, says, “The circumstances in which the Khukri was torpedoed and sunk were never disclosed for decades. ... Truth needs to be brought to light to set the record straight and also to learn valuable lessons.”

Bhushan was CO of INS Investigator when he was asked to probe the incident.

The Khukri, in company with another A/S (anti-submarine) ship Kirpan, was torpedoed and sunk without even an engagement with the enemy. Eighteen officers and 176 sailors perished with the Khukri. Both the COs deserved to be punished, but the higher authorities gave them gallantry awards. INS Khukri and INS Kirpan violated every principle of A/S doctrine for hunter killer operations,” Bhushan told DNA.

Bhushan says he was forced to open his mouth after so many years after he accidentally stumbled” upon the official history of the Indian Navy, ‘Transition to Triumph’, published by the historical cell of naval headquarters. “The details of the Khukri sinking and the appended maps stunned me,” he said.

“Higher authorities in the navy during the 1971 war manipulated facts to write a false history of heroism and courage whereas the truth points a glaring finger at the level of training at its lowest ebb, inefficiency, incompetence, dereliction of duty, and erosion of moral and ethical values.”

In his letter to the President, Bhushan has appealed to Kalam to bring “truth to light to expose the persons who have misused their powers to suppress the truth regarding the circumstances in which Khukri was torpedoed and sunk; and to hide blunders committed by themselves (sic).”

DNA investigated Bhushan’s claims with at least one survivor and some others who were privy to the incident and the inquiry.

(Additional reporting in Mumbai by Shweta Karnik and Dharmendra Tiwari)

We leave you dear reader to ponder the truth!

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