December 4, 2002


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

When the Gods smiled on India

There are times in each nation's life when the gods shower their blessings on it. The right leaders are in place and they make the right decisions. Everything seems to click and good luck favours its people. Such times came to this country 31 years ago this month.

Today when terrorism and violence racks the nation, when people are beginning to divide along communal and caste lines, when the economy is spluttering and when the future does not look too bright, it does the soul good to look back and remember that electric year which began with uncertainty and ended in triumph.

To start with, India had a charismatic and popular head of government. Indira Gandhi had been in power for just five years but she was a self assured leader who knew exactly what had to be done and went about the task unerringly. Pakistani repression in the eastern part of that country was resulting in millions of refugees pouring into India. The country could no longer bear the burden of such a large influx of refugees. For one last time Indira had decided to try the diplomatic option. She made a trip to many countries in Europe and the United States. Everywhere she got a polite hearing. But what Nixon and Kissinger were saying about India behind her back is now obvious from the transcripts of the discussions in Beijing released recently. It was apparent to her very early that war was inevitable.

By a happy coincidence the right people were in place everywhere. Babu Jagjivan Ram was the shrewd and sagacious defence minister. And to complete the perfect team were the three service chiefs, each an outstanding professional. Under the wise leadership of General Sam Manekshaw inter-service cooperation was at its best.

The fact that Manekshaw was the army chief itself was very fortuitous. Just a few years before, some of his jealous colleagues, encouraged by then defence minister V K Krishna Menon, had tried to terminate his career by instituting an inquiry against him. Fortunately for India, the Chinese war of 1962 intervened. His opponents were vanquished. Sam was recalled and reinstated and later became army chief.

Sam often describes the time when he was called to a Cabinet meeting in May where the situation was being discussed. Practically every member of the Cabinet was for an immediate attack on East Pakistan. Sam listened quietly. Unlike 1962 he was not going to be rushed into an action half prepared. He would first get fully ready and strike at a time and place of his choosing. The prime minister and Cabinet yielded.

The services spent the next six months preparing for the inevitable. Shortfalls in equipment and personnel were made up. For a change the bureaucrats and servicemen worked hand in hand, thanks to Babuji at the top. The chiefs had direct and frequent access to the top and the prime minister, unlike latter days, consulted them frequently.

Like the army, the Indian Navy was also fortunate to have a dynamic leader like Admiral 'Charles' Nanda at its head. Nanda spent the six months enthusing the navy with the offensive spirit. The initial war plans made by the Western Naval Command were totally defensive and Nanda was deeply disappointed. So much so that at one stage he had thought of seeking the resignation of the Western Command C-in-C. It was under Nanda's guiding spirit that the navy made offensive plans. Nanda also brought a great deal of innovation to the plans.

The Soviets had just delivered eight Osa class missile boats to the Indian Navy, each carrying four deadly Styx missiles. The boats had limited range and the Soviet tactics specified that the missile boats were to be deployed defensively within a short distance of the base. Furthermore, the missiles were specifically designed to attack ships at sea and not shore targets. Nanda threw the Soviet instructions out of the window. He wanted the boats to attack Karachi with their missiles. To overcome their short range he devised a method of towing the boats to within a short distance of enemy harbours.

The innovation paid off when on the night of December 4, 1971, the missile boats carried out their first attack on Karachi. Not only were the missiles successfully launched on Karachi but in the bargain the boats also managed to sink two Pakistani warships and severely damage a third. To put the icing on the cake a second attack was launched a few days later. This attack successfully set on fire the oil tanks at Kiamari helping to bring the war to a swift end.

Of course, the attack on Karachi was not the Indian Navy's only contribution. In the East the aircraft carrier Vikrant's aircraft successfully attacked targets at Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar. With their routes of escape blocked more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers were captured by Sam's land forces. But forgotten in the hype over the attack on Karachi was the navy's greatest contribution. Throughout the war the navy managed to keep the port of Mumbai open. Karachi and Chittagong were bottled up after the first day of war and no ships were allowed to enter or leave. But Mumbai remained open to all traffic throughout the two weeks.

India's and Indira's greatest hour came after the war. Having given the country its greatest victory since Independence and presided over the birth of a new nation, Indira Gandhi was magnanimous. Other nations hold on to prisoners of war and captured territory for years and impose humiliating conditions on defeated nations. India returned both territory and men within three months. Many today blame her for being too lenient at Shimla.

One would have wished that the actors in this drama would have gone on to greater glory after 1971. But this was not to be. Indira Gandhi went on to sully her record by declaring the infamous Emergency in 1975 and later died a violent death at the hands of her bodyguards. Babuji split from the Congress and for a time was a minister in the Janata government. But he was not the same man again and died a forgotten man.

And what about the chiefs who gave India its glorious hour in the sun? In 1805 when Lord Nelson gave England its famous victory over the French at Trafalgar, a grateful nation forgot all his indiscretions with Lady Hamilton. They built for him a magnificent monument at Trafalgar Square.

India on the other hand lived up to its reputation of being an ungrateful nation. To this day they have not built a monument, either to commemorate the victory, nor to honour the men. Sam Manekshaw was made a Field Marshal but very soon went on from being the darling of the nation to practically an outcast. The man who saw Indira Gandhi practically every day before and during the war was never received by her again. Admiral Nanda too found disfavour with the government.

Today a huge statue of Krishna Menon, who had to resign in disgrace after the Chinese debacle, adorns a main street leading up to South Block in New Delhi. It is most unlikely that the nation will ever build a statue of Sam Manekshaw or Charles Nanda.

Never mind. They can take comfort in Cato the Elder's immortal words: 'When I die I would rather have people say why there is no monument to me than why there is.'

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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