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INS Khukri survivor haunts Rear Admiral
New Delhi,Dec.29:
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Published on 30 Dec. 2010 12:24 AM IST
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A survivor of an Indian frigate sunk by a Pakistani submarine during the 1971 war alleges that the captain of an accompanying Indian frigate fled from battle and was decorated with a gallantry award for it. A petition filed by Chanchal Singh Gill, a sailor on board the INS Khukri that was torpedoed off the coast of Gujarat on the night of December 9, 1971, killing 194 crewmen, has demanded a fresh enquiry into the incident.
In his petition filed before the Chandigarh bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal, Gill charges Commander (later Rear Admiral) Rishi Raj Sood of the INS Kirpan, sailing with the Khukri, of cowardice and dereliction of duty and has asked for his gallantry award to be withdrawn.
He says a massive cover-up by the authorities led to Sood being decorated with a Vir Chakra for "bravery on the battlefield" instead of being court-martialed. The former sailor has asked for an interim order for the immediate recall of all evidence held by naval headquarters into the sinking of the warship. The loss of the Khukri resulted in India's single largest wartime loss of men. No formal board of inquiry, however, was conducted into the sinking.
Gill, now 60, joined the frigate just two months before the outbreak of war as a shipwright artificer. The Khukri and Kirpan, two anti-submarine frigates, were dispatched from Mumbai to hunt for the Pakistani submarine Hangor that had been detected in the Arabian Sea, south of Diu. The submarine instead detected the warship first and attacked it.
A torpedo fired at the frigate exploded under the frigate's ammunition store, triggering a huge blast and sinking the ship in three minutes. Gill, who was thrown into the sea by the force of the blast, rescued six of the 67 survivors by pulling them onto a life-raft. The Kirpan, Gill says, disappeared, returning only the following morning. "During the 13-hour wait in the cold sea, several of my severely injured shipmates died. They could have been saved if the Kirpan had returned sooner," Gill says.
Rear Admiral Sood's Vir Chakra citation credits him with repealing the submarine attack. "When INS Khukri received multiple torpedo hits from an enemy submarine, Commander Sood rushed his ship into a counter-attack, which was conducted so fiercely and relentlessly that the enemy submarine could not carry out any further attack and had to retreat."
When contacted, Rear Admiral Sood said: "I cannot talk about this incident; I would not like to start a controversy." A Royal Navy-trained anti-submarine warfare (ASW) officer, Sood was virtually ostracised in the immediate aftermath of the Khukri's sinking. Naval officials believed he was guilty of abandoning his sinking shipmates. However, several months later, the navy found he had indeed followed the rulebook in saving his ship from attack.
"The Kirpan did what was prescribed in the ASW drill. She increased speed, steered away and returned after sometime to pick up survivors," says Vice-Admiral (Retd) M.K. Roy, director (naval intelligence) during the 1971 war who played a key role in evaluating the incident.
"It is ridiculous to replay combat situations in courts of law four decades after the incident," says former chief of naval staff Admiral (Retd) Arun Prakash.
"The NATO doctrine establishes a Torpedo Danger Zone (TDZ) around a target whose radius is the maximum range of the torpedo. Supporting ships are required to stay outside the TDZ. But how far and for how long must be decided by the man on the spot," he adds.
So while the Kirpan decided to speed away, the Khukri's commanding officer, Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla, opted to go down with his doomed ship rather than save himself. He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India's second highest gallantry award, for his act of sacrifice. It is perhaps this contrasting conduct of both captains that raised eyebrows after the incident.
Gill wants squadron commander Mulla to be posthumously decorated with the Param Vir Chakra for following orders even if they meant sailing his older warships into harm's way and operating without any air cover. His petition says it is important to clear the air over the incident to restore the credibility of gallantry awards.
"The story of Captain Mulla will keep on inspiring generations to come. However, if awards are conferred on manipulators who simply do not measure up to that height, then everybody loses confidence in the system of giving awards." says Gill's petition. He has also asked for a probe into the role of then Commander-in-Chief of the Western Naval Command Vice-Admiral S.N. Kohli who ordered the ships into the fatal submarine hunt.
Gill, who retired from the navy a decade after the incident, has doggedly pursued the case of the INS Khukri over the past few years. He has been joined by Commander (Retd) Benoy Bhushan, a veteran hydrographer and then captain of the survey ship INS Investigator. Bhushan, who was asked to establish the final resting position of the Khukri, has questioned the navy's version of incidents.
His 1972 report to naval headquarters, declassified five years ago, mentions that Sood fudged logbooks after the incident. He says the wrong positions reported by Sood may have delayed the search for the 67 survivors. Bhushan has written several letters to the authorities, including then president APJ Abdul Kalam, demanding a thorough enquiry into the incident. He accuses both ships of violating the standard asw drill by moving at slow speed and not being at action stations.
He is particularly scathing of the conduct of the Kirpan. "When the Khukri was exploding, burning and sinking, the Kirpan turned tail and fled whereas it should have been attacking the submarine," Bhushan says. Transition to Triumph, the official history of the Indian navy, notes that Kirpan's anti-submarine mortar malfunctioned, leaving the ship defenceless. Clearly, even this excuse may not be enough to bring closure for some survivors.(Courtesy:Sandip Unnithan/ India Today)

 
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