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'He taught us not only how to live, but how to die'

December 11, 2006 17:40 IST
"I feel deeply honoured that I have been invited to release the The Sinking of INS Khukri: Survivors' Stories.

"Thirty five years have passed since that fateful night, and it seems as if time has moved, and yet stood still. The navy has been my home away from home. It has always been there for me. To me, the defence services are the finest examples of brotherhood, family spirit and nation building. Thank you for making me a part of this great defence family."

That was all Sudha Mulla could say before emotions overtook her at New Delhi's Claridges Hotel on Saturday, December 9.

On that day 35 years ago, the INS Khukri went down in the Arabian Sea after being torpedoed by a Pakistani submarine. Eighteen officers and 176 sailors went down with it, including Sudha's husband, the Khukri's Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla.

Over 300 Indian officers, retired and serving, many of them veterans of the 1971 war, and their wives burst into applause as Mrs Mulla concluded her brief introduction to the book.

Flanking her on the dais were Admiral SardariLal Mathura Das Nanda, 91, Chief of the Naval Staff at the time, Admiral Mihir Roy, director, Naval Intelligence, during the 1971 war, Captain Mulla's batchmate and Khukri survivor Commander Manu Sharma, and the book's author Major General (retd) Ian Cardozo, an infantry commander, whose first love has always been the sea.

"On this day, 35 years ago, at 8.45 pm, the Khukri was sunk, 45 miles (about 72 kms) from the coast of Diu," began General Cardozo. "The book tells the stories of the survivors, and tells us, what, how and when this happened. The Khukri was torpedoed by a Pakistani submarine. It sank within minutes. In those defining moments Captain Mulla, the captain of the Khukri, could easily have saved himself.

"He was aware, however, that the majority of his officers and men were trapped below deck. Being the man that he was, he knew that it was not right for him to save himself while his sailors went to a watery grave. In those few moments he helped as many as he could, and then went down with his ship. In this brave and heroic action, Captain Mulla teaches us not only how to live, but how to die."

"Captain Mulla's story brings into focus the outstanding character qualities of a man that sets him part from other mortals. The principles and values which he stood and lived for need to be taken on board by all of us so that we can become better citizens of this great country. The manner in which he died upholds the highest the traditions of the armed forces and exemplifies the upper limits of cold courage. He believed that the nation comes first, that the men he commands come next, and his safety comes last. This is the motto which every army officer is reared on. It was a naval officer who made this come true and made it an example for all of us to follow," General Cardozo continued.

"Needless to say, behind every great man is a great woman. Officers and men of the Indian armed forces do great things because their women allow them to do so. It is they who take care of the children and the home, while their husbands are far away at sea or in inhospitable areas. It is they who send their husbands into battles with a smile on their lips and a breaking heart. It is they who fend for themselves and their children when the chips are down. And when the war is over, and some of them don't come back, it is they who grieve in silence.

"It is sad that while the armed forces and these women lose their husbands in battle, we do not have a national war memorial. India Gate is a memorial built by the British for those who died in World War I and II.

"What have we done as a nation? We have fought wars in 1947-48, 1962, 1965 and 1971… but what do we have? An upturned rifle with a helmet on top, with Amar Jawan written on it. Is that all we can do? I believe that nation which does not honour its war dead dishonours itself."

Invited to say a few words after the author, Ameeta Mulla Wattal, Captain Mulla's elder daughter, disclosed that "I have often wondered what made my father decide to go down with his ship after it was torpedoed during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Did he do it because he wanted his name enshrined in history books as a man of valour? Did he do it because it was part of an old archaic naval tradition, or did he accompany his ship into the sea because he felt it was the right thing to do?"

She briefly walked down memory lane, highlighting her father's love for life, literature, laughter, and how the family coped after his death, before answering that question.

"My entire life has been a testimony to a man who died for country and I believe that I have to live for it. The irony however, lies in never being able to come up to his expectations because of the exemplary way in which he lived and died.

"On December 9, 1971, when his ship was struck by a torpedo and started to sink he spared no effort in getting as many sailors and officers to the safety of lifeboats. And when he had done his duty, he took the decision to go down with his ship. Not because it was the right thing to do, nor because it was expected of him, but because knowing him as I did, it was the only thing to do.

"He was the first captain of independent India's navy to go down with his ship, and hopefully the last. One such man is enough to bring honor to an entire nation for a lifetime."

General Cardozo might not have served on the Khukri. But it was a khukri that he used to sever his left foot, which was turning gangrenous after being wounded in East Pakistan during the last days of the 1971 war. But his brisk walk gives nothing away, and he continues to regularly indulge in his abiding passion: swimming.

Commissioned into 1/5 Gorkha Rifles in June 1958, the general took part in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971.

He was disabled in the 1971 war but subsequently commanded a battalion, brigade and division setting a precedent for other war disabled officers.

He was the first cadet to be awarded both the gold and silver medal at the National Defence Academy, the first to be awarded the Sena Medal for gallantry while on a patrol on the Sino-Indian border in 1960, and the first disabled officer to be approved for command of an infantry battalion, when he became a Colonel of the Regiment of 5 GR (FF).

He works presently for the rehabilitation and empowerment of disabled people and is chairperson of the Rehabilitation Council of India. He is also the author of Param Vir, Our Heroes in Battle.

Ramananda Sengupta in New Delhi