Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
The starkly told, heart breaking and moving story of the only Captain in Indian Naval history that chose to go down with his stricken ship, INS Khukri…
“In each ship there is one man alone who in the hour of emergency or peril at sea can turn to no other man. There is one man alone who is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gunfire and morale of his ship. He is the Commanding Officer. He is the ship”. Excerpted from the book Command at Sea, by Captain James Stavridis and Vice Admiral William Mack. US Naval Institute Press.
Capt Mahendra Nath Mulla, IN, MVC (Posthumous)
What can you say about an iconic, tall, 45 year old Naval captain who died? That he was charismatic, handsome, professionally brilliant and Royal Navy trained. That he was a good bridge player. That he had a sharply honed sense of humour. That he was a great husband, a thoughtful provider; a considerate though strict father to his daughters. That he loved music. That he could use colourful Urdu and elegant English and sometimes did, while interacting with his command. That he had a strong sense of values and ethics. That he was an inspirational leader whose officers and men worshipped him. That, on that tragic dark and tragic, stormy Sea State 4 night of 9 December 1971, when his ship, INS Khukri, was fatally torpedoed by an enemy submarine, he coolly and calmly saved 67 members of the ship’s crew by directing them to available life jackets and life boats. That he did right in going down with his ship – in line with the Navy’s greatest and most demanding tradition - simply because it was the most ethical thing to do on a ship; a fast sinking ship where many of his officers and crew did not have life jackets, buoys and life boats… Read on.
Adequate, independently researched documentation is available on the net from official Naval records and gazettes; peers, INS Khukri survivor accounts, researchers, family, Pakistani sources as well as critics that serves to establish the irrefutable validity of the heroic Mulla legend and the circumstances surrounding his ship being torpedoed and, within minutes of being hit, sinking 40 nautical miles off Diu Head.
Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla, scion of an established Kashmiri family of lawyers from Kulam, Sonamarg, was born on 15 May 1926 and served the Navy with distinction from 1948 to 1971. Ms Sudha Mulla, his gracious, soft spoken and fiercely proud wife recalls in a recent video interview available on utube that he was a loved Captain who was also a devoted father who doted on his children; called a spade a spade, was fair, just, ethical and believed in the “follow-your-conscience” dictum of Vivekananda, his role model. Strict but considerate, his men doted on him. Ms Mulla recalls (Video here) that she had many happy moments in 16 years of marriage, the foremost being his UK tenure as Naval Adviser at the Indian High Commission in London and his family orientation. Commodore AK Dhir (Retd) recalls his sense of humour during the visit to Training Ship INS Kistna of the first Naval Chief, Admiral Katari, way back in May 1961, when then Lt Cdr MN Mulla, the ship’s Executive Officer, saw the funny side of an unintended faux pas by trainee cadets during the landmark visit and cheerfully laughed it off.
In his short but brilliant career, the strapping Capt MN Mulla, an Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) specialist and amongst the last of India’s Royal Navy trained officers, had, in command of INS Khukri, his second command after the destroyer INS Rana. He was earlier the second-in-command on INS Krishna. Mulla was tasked to lead the 14 Frigate Squadron of ASW frigates; INS Khukri, Kirpan and Kuthar on a hunter-killer submarine hunt for Pakistani submarines clogging the sea lanes used by Indian submarines and missile boats off Kathiawar, soon after the 1971 Indo-Pak War broke out.
INS Khukri (F-149) along with its two sister frigates, Kirpan and Kuthar, was constructed by ship builders JS White and Co Ltd, UK. Its keel
was laid on 29 December 1955 and the ship commissioned on 20 November 1956. The ship was classified as the Type 14, Blackwood class. 15 such frigates were built; 12 for the Royal Navy and 3 for the Indian Navy. The Royal Navy considered them “second rate” anti-submarine (A/S) frigates, hastily designed and built to cope with the threat posed by Soviet Union submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. Meant to complement the expensive Type 12 frigates, the Type 14 had light armament and weak hulls. Learning from this experience, the British admiralty decided to ensure that quality would henceforth not be compromised. The Type 14s’ limited size (94 meters) and structural weaknesses led to their rapid decommissioning in the UK. In India, however, the 1200 ton INS Khukri and its peer frigates went to war.
Commodore Ranjit Rai (Retd) writes in A Nation and its Navy at War that on the eve of the Khukri going down, the war at sea was going well for India. The destructive missile boat attacks on Karachi harbour; the self-actuated sinking of the Pakistani Daphne class submarine Ghazi off Vizag harbour and the exploits of the Vikrant had created a tremendous sense of confidence in the Navy.
B Harry, writing on the loss of INS Khukri, states that the Pakistan Navy’s strength during the 1971 Indo-Pak war was in their three French Daphne class submarines. The first, PNS Hangor, was spanking new. These submarines were qualitatively much better than the Indian Navy’s inventory. Hangor sailed from Karachi on November 22, later heading for the Kathiawar coast. The Indian Navy obtained D/F submarine intercepts on December 7/8 in an area southwest of Diu Head. Diu was the assembly area for the missile boat attacks on Karachi harbour and 14 Frigate Squadron was moved on 8 December 1971 (without any ASW aircraft support) to counter this threat, even though the sonar range of the Daphne’s was twice that of the Type 14 frigates. PNS Hangor picked up two frigate contacts on her passive sonar on the morning of December 9 when she was off the Kathiawar coast. By evening she was able to make out that the ships were carrying out a predictive rectangular anti-submarine search at slow speed. At 1915 hrs, Hangor went into attack mode closing on to 9800 meters. Captain Tasnim Ahmad, the CO, fired his first L-60 torpedo at 55 meters at INS Kirpan but missed. A second torpedo was fired, this time at INS Khukri, which exploded under the Khukri’s oil tanks, causing the ship to start going down almost immediately. Exiting with speed and skill, PNS Hangor survived the Indian retaliatory action termed Op Falcon for days, arriving in Karachi on 18 December 1971. Captain Tasnim Ahmed was deservedly awarded a bar to the Sitara-I-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest gallantry award; equivalent to the MVC, which was equally deservedly posthumously awarded to his dauntless victim, Captain MN Mulla.
Commodore Rai states that, as INS Khukri started sinking off Diu Captain Mulla did not try to save himself. He went down with his ship, observing the greatest tradition of Navies world-wide and certainly the Indian Navy. He was on the bridge, the highest part of the ship’s superstructure and could have saved himself easily. On the completely blacked out ship which had only two exits, he was aware that the majority of his officers and men were trapped below deck and were desperately trying to revive the stricken ship. Perhaps some young, inexperienced crew felt safe within the steel walls as opposed to survival in a dark, stormy sea. Captain Courageous, in those critical minutes, displayed remarkable leadership. He consciously chose not to abandon ship. On the contrary, he correctly put Service Before Self and, ordered his second-in-command, Commander KK Suri, to oversee the casting of boats and life buoys into the sea. Mulla also personally oversaw the abandonment and together with Suri, guided 67 ship’s company (6 officers, 61 sailors) to safety before calmly electing to go down with 194 (18 officers, 176 men) crew. One survivor, Lt Manu Sharma, tells us of the final moments of Khukri and its valiant commanding officer: “Captain Mulla pushed Lieutenant Kundan Mall and me off the bridge. Failing to persuade him to join us, we both jumped into the sea from the starboard side.” Swimming to safety, Sharma recalls his last glimpse, of the Khukri: “The bow of the ship was pointing upwards at an angle of eight degrees and sinking slowly. I got a glimpse of Captain Mulla sitting on his chair, smoking a cigarette…” Survivors recall that when they offered him a life-jacket he said, “Go on, save yourselves: do not worry about me.” One is reminded of the way our later Army bravehearts; Captain Vikram Batra, Lt Arun Khetarpal and Lt Navdeep also scorned death, placing Service Before Self…
In a later, heart rending poem, “The Khukri is no more”, Lt Sharma, the Khukri survivor ordered by Mulla to abandon ship and now in USA, concludes:
“They all lie some forty nautical miles from Diu
Undisturbed till they are picked up.
And only a wreck marks that special danbuoy stave* (a minesweeping float)
Till another Khukri rides India’s waves.”
The loss of INS Khukri along with its brave Captain and 194 officers and crew took some of the sheen off the Indian’ Navy’s commendable success, both planned as well as unintended (the sinking of PNS Ghazi with its full complement of crew) during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. 14 Frigate Squadron led by Capt MN Mulla lost one of its three frigates, INS Kuthar shortly after sailing out from Mumbai on 8 December 71. It had to be towed back for a boiler room explosion and disablement thereto, by INS Kirpan. The decision of sending dated, poorly designed frigates, launched into hunter-killer role without ASW aircraft support (these were available but deployed elsewhere) to enhance the frigate’s submarine pick up ranges, against technologically far superior enemy submarines of the Daphne class has come under savage criticism by experts.
The actions of Khukri’s accompanying frigate, INS Kirpan, have also come under scrutiny. Complimented for evading one; probably two torpedo attacks by taking smart evasive action, some Khukri survivors as well as some professionally respected all ranks of the Naval hierarchy – from retired Chief’s down to lower ranks – have, over the years, questioned the propriety of INS Kirpan not halting to either make its life saving equipment available, or picking up survivors, but leaving the stricken Khukri to fend for itself, probably for fear of being hit itself.
Khukri survivor, Artificer Apprentice Chanchal Singh Gill, has moved the Chandigarh bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) alleging a cover up. The main allegation of 58-year old Gill — who was on duty on the fateful night of December 9, 1971 — is that the record prepared by Naval Headquarters pertaining to INS Khukri is ”far away from the truth”. Gill claims that actually three torpedoes had hit Khukri and instead of joining action to counter the attack, INS Kirpan “fled away”.
A blog, India Defence Update, however carries a reasoned argument that seems professionally tenable. “Kirpan’s Captain RR Sood faced a dilemma. If he slowed down or stopped to rescue the survivors of Khukri, his ship and crew were a sitting duck for the Hangor…He saved his crew as his chances of getting PNS Hangor were few. However…INS Kirpan should have lowered its boats and left them there with all life jackets”. Rear Admiral Sood, now settled in Bangalore, and awarded a VrC for his actions, refuses to comment, as reported in a recent newspaper interview. Asked why he did not join the battle when Hangor had struck Khukri, he says: “We all know what to do when there is an attack. There is a reason why Kirpan did not come to the rescue of Khukri. The day the Naval HQ allows me to divulge the reason, I will do so…” The AFT has now given notice to the Defence Ministry asking it to file its reply before 25 March 12. Commodore Rai, says that Sood made a signal to the Western Naval Command after Khukri sank, with his recommendations and request for help. In the rescue operation that followed, INS Kadmatt and INS Kripan arrived the next morning and carried out rescue operations.
The perplexing question still remains: Should the captain go down with his ship? According to current maritime law, a Captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he should be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others. He is responsible to make sure everyone possible gets off the ship before he moves to safety. Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crew are off? “Yes,” says Dr Chris MacDonald, a renowned educator/consultant in ethics.
Let us recall that Captain EJ Smith of the Titanic chose to go down with his ship when it sank after colliding with an iceberg at 1140 PM on 14 April 1912. He helped 705 passengers/crew escape in lifeboats and rafts but 1,522 passengers and crew went down with him…Coincidentally, the Titanic too had a weak hull and grossly inadequate life saving equipment like boats, life jackets/buoys and rafts…Very recently, on 13 Jan 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino of the stricken Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia was accused of abandoning his ship without first evacuating his passengers after the ship smashed into rocks off the Italian island of Giglio. The jury is still out on the ethics of a captain going down with his ship, though, for a military mind; Captain MN Mulla followed his conscience and did right. A future generation is likely to do the same.
Honour has followed in the wake of the INS Khukri’s loss. At Diu, a memorial in the shape of a full-scale model of Khukri encased in glass exists atop a hillock facing the sea. On India’s Golden Jubilee as a republic, the Department of Posts issued a stamp to pay tribute to Captain Mulla’s valour and sacrifice. The real honour to him and to the bravehearts of the Navy will always be from the survivors who watched Captain Courageous go down with yogic calm and repose…No better salute to the Service Before Self credo of the forces exists