The book charters the journey of a navy, which stood frustrated and helpless during the 1965 war with Pakistan.
I recently read Captain M.N.R. Samant and Sandeep Unnithan’s Operation X: The Untold Story of India’s Covert Naval War in East Pakistan 1971, cover to cover in half a day flat. The credit for it does not go to any new found pace of reading. It relates more to both the content and context of the book in question. And here is why.
If someone asked me about the most outstanding special forces operations conducted by India, I would have possibly attempted to run through my mind, actions by the army. The navy would probably not even strike me, especially in the Indian context. And this primarily because of the nature of responsibilities that have been given to the service. I could not be more wrong in my assessment.
I am willing to stick out my neck and say that this is one of the most ambitious and professional special forces accomplishments, I have come across, at least in the sub-continental context. The authors have done great service to the Indian Navy, Mukti Bahini, Indian defence forces and military historians, by bringing the series of incidents into public domain. In fact, a very large majority of the Indian Navy itself remained unaware of how their own resources spearheaded a special force comprising of Pakistan Navy submariners and Mukti Bahini volunteers. This supposed group of newbies undertook some of the most spectacular special forces operations of post-independence India.
The book charters the journey of a navy, which stood frustrated and helpless during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Their resolve to redeem themselves saw them snatch a fleeting opportunity, after the Pakistan Army unleashed inhuman atrocities against their own countrymen and women, in the erstwhile East Pakistan. The shock, pain, frustration and anger of millions of people, who moved across the Indian border as refugees, was tempered into a first-rate fighting force. In fact, a special force that redeemed itself well beyond all expectations.
It had become evident to the Navy that Pakistan’s war effort in the eastern theatre could only survive if their sea borne supplies remained unhindered. The plan for disrupting and stalling was thus the basis for the complete Naval special operation, led by Captain Mihir Roy and Commander M.N.R Samant. The plan entailed a detailed three stage operation, which has been recounted by the authors in detail and with precision.
The book recounts a brilliant escape of eight Bengali Pakistan Navy submariners from the French port of Toulon, with assistance from Indian diplomatic staff, who kept their composure despite the risk of international embarrassment, were the events to become public knowledge. This gave deep insight to the planners about Pakistani locations and sea faring boats.
The first stage itself seemed ambitious. Its execution included the setting up of an innocuous camp and bringing in the best instructors, who could train and motivate raw recruits to undertake underwater diving missions. These divers were equipped to place limpet mines under water to blow up and sink ships in harbour, a responsibility, which would normally be undertaken by the most experienced divers.
The innovative process of fabricating and tailoring the mines to the specific requirements of the mission, is a story that highlights the cohesiveness, innovation and drive of the group involved.
The enormity of the mission did not end there. The vision that drove it, went beyond these operations and included the employment of merchant vessels to strike at sea borne traffic, in a bid to choke all administrative support for the military deployed in East Pakistan.
The book etches each character for their peculiarity, idiosyncrasies and stellar acts of bravery. Both the story and individual actors are brought to life through unparalleled access to secret documents, which had painstakingly been maintained through the course of the war. This is further reinforced by individual accounts of officers, sailors and the Mukti Bahini. The result is a historical account which reads like a thriller. Only, it is one, that had remained under wraps until now.
The pace and style adopted in the book, brings together the military precision of Samant and the journalistic storytelling of Unnithan. And both give it a rare, but distinctive flavour, which adds to the interest it creates. The authors not only document the preparation and conduct of operations, but also the callous conditions created by officers of the Pakistan Army, in East Pakistan.
Given the scale and nature of atrocities committed by soldiers, they eventually got away lightly after the surrender. The Indian Army committed to protect the prisoners of war, possibly avoided mass lynching, which could well have been the fate of numerous Pakistanis, had due procedures to safeguard them not been followed scrupulously after the war.
This is a rare book, which tells a rare account. It is actions such as these, that motivate generations of countrymen and women. It creates a kind of service ethos, that builds the military fibre of a uniformed community. And for that, the authors deserve that their work to be widely read and appreciated.
An after-thought, I will be very surprised if this does not become an action-packed movie or a web series. I would love to see the action being translated onto screen.
By Col Vivek Chadha (Retd)
(Reviewer is a former Indian Army Colonel and is a Research Fellow at IDSA and works on military issues).