Defending the high seas
By Najeeb Anjum
The prime minister would invariably look at her watch at the end of this and ask in a nonchalant manner, ‘Admiral do you have anything to say?’
The Man who Bombed Karachi, a memoir of Admiral S.M. Nanda, former chief of the Indian naval staff, is a welcome addition to the existing South Asian maritime literature. It is ironical that this writing has mostly been done by senior Indian naval officers. For some unknown reasons their Pakistani counterparts have shied away from chronicling their experiences for posterity and enriching our naval history. Admiral I.A. Sirohey, former CNS and CJCSC, is the only exception on our side. In the absence of a well balanced portrayal of events the readers tend to accept the Indian version.
Born in a Punjabi middle class family from Gujranwala, Admiral Nanda spent his early childhood in Manora, then a sleepy island with a population of 400, mostly KPT workers. In 18 chapters, he gives an account of his early years in the Indian Navy followed by a brief mention of his ascent through the naval ranks which included his first command at sea and also his placement as the DG of the naval dockyard expansion scheme.
After assuming the command of the Indian fleet and western naval command, he went on to become the chief of naval staff (1970-73) playing a pivotal role during the tumultuous months of the 1971 war. Admiral Nanda, a communication specialist, served at the Signal School HMIS Talwar at Bombay (during the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in Feb 1946 by the ratings of the communication branch). He observes that the naval mutiny prompted the British government to hasten the granting of independence to India.
Recollecting his days at HMIS Talwar, he recounts his association with Admiral A.R. Khan, Admiral S.M. Ahsan and Cdre M.A. Asif Alavi with nostalgia. The admiral also writes about the final settlement of the prize money awarded to the RIN at the end of the Second World War along with his old shipmate Asif Alavi when they were posted as director of personnel at their respective headquarters in 1955. He also describes his meeting with his old colleague Admiral A.R. Khan, the defence minister of Pakistan at the time, on his way back home on a passenger ship that had docked at Karachi.
While giving the details about the acquisition of new platforms for the Indian navy from the British and the US government, the author states that the western suppliers did not want the Indian navy to grow beyond a modest level. It was only then that India turned to the Soviet Union for its naval maritime needs; the Soviets agreed to meet the Indian requirements on easier terms.
The latter part of the book which highlights the events of 1971, however, does not provide a deeper insight to the reader in any provocative way, since a sizeable literature has already been produced shedding light on the 1971 Indo-Pakistan naval operations. These include Transition to Triumph: History of the Indian Navy 1965-1975, We Dared: Maritime Operations in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, War in the Indian Ocean, No Easy Answers and Story of the Pakistan Navy 1947- 72.
The book under review is thus another attempt to highlight the Indian perspective on the 1971 war. Therefore, at the end of the book the reader is left wondering whether the book is an honest attempt by the author to pen down his memoirs or is aimed at self glorification. Interestingly, the title of the book (suggested by Khushwant Singh according to the author) seems to be a reminder to the Indian nation of the exploits of the navy in the 1971 war, resurrecting the author’s image in the hope of being conferred the rank of a five star admiral, as the army and air force chiefs had already got their share.
The admiral’s name cropped up in the famous Tehelka scandal — an allegation that was confirmed by a former CNS Admiral Bhagwat stating in the Lok Sabha: “Admiral Nanda was the agent of several arms transactions for import of arms.”
Expressing disdain for the marginal role of the navy in the armed conflicts of 1962 and 1965 (though the Indian navy was bottled up in the Bombay port after the Pakistan Navy’s successful attack on Dwarka), the Admiral recalls with hurt ego events prior to the 1971 war when “Mrs Gandhi would hold a daily meeting of the three defence chiefs at her office. S.H.J.F. Manikshaw would offer his suggestion followed by Air Chief Marshal P.C.Lal. The prime minister would invariably look at her watch at the end of this and ask in a nonchalant manner, ‘Admiral do you have anything to say?’ that itself would suggest that the navy stands low in the scheme of things.”
While describing the maritime operations of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict, the author appears too keen to pat himself on the back. The missile boats attack on Karachi that sent shock waves throughout the Pakistan Navy has always been claimed as a major prize by the Indian Navy. But it resulted only in the loss of one destroyer and the sinking of a minesweeper. The author has credited himself by proclaiming “that this idea was essentially mine”. Paradoxically, the accounts of Admiral S.N. Kohli in We Dared and Transition to Triumph: History of the Indian Navy 1965-75 by Vice Admiral G.M. Hiranandani, appear to be at variance from what Admiral Nanda writes. In spite of the fact that it was inhibited by technological inferiority in surface warfare, strategic difficulties, lack of air support and the utter neglect by the powers that be, Pakistan Navy’s performance was respectable. Despite the Ghazi’s loss, Pakistan’s submarine force proved its prowess in the waters and no officer of the Indian Navy of the day denied this fact.
As controversy looms over some contents of this book the perception of the Indian Navy through the eyes of one of its architects makes a compelling read. This book must be read by all naval officers and those who are interested in the maritime affairs of this region.
Admiral S.M. Nanda: The Man Who Bombed Karachi — A MemoirBy Admiral S.M. Nanda HaperCollins. Available with Paramount Books, 152/O, Block 2, PECH Society, Karachi-75400 Tel: 021-4310030. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
ISBN 81-7223-562-3 320pp. Rs643.85. Reviewed by Najeeb Anjum