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When the hunter became the hunted


Mar 21, 2007
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December 9, 1971: when the hunter became the hunted

S. M. Hali
December 9, 2022


Exactly 51 years ago, on December 9. 1971, Pakistan Navy (PN)’s Daphné-class Submarine Hangor created history, when it sank Indian Navy (IN)’s Type 14 (Blackwood-class) frigate Khukri off the coast of Diu, Gujarat, India. 18 officers including Khukri’s captain, Mahendra Nath Mulla and 176 sailors were lost.

The episode of Hangor, which was commanded by the indefatigable Commander Ahmad Tasnim who was awarded a Bar to his earlier Sitara-e-Jurat in 1965 for his valour, reads like a fictional thriller and could be termed as exaggeration in a war – where the odds were heavily tilted against Pakistan – where its Eastern wing was severed;
IN blockaded East Pakistan and carried out deadly missile boat attacks on Karachi harbour, inflicting heavy damage. Ghazi, PN’s sole submarine, which had operated boldly during the 1965 Pak-India war, became a casualty of the subsurface mines it had laid during the 1971 War.

It is noteworthy that independent sources including two British and at least two Indian Navy Admirals – from whom compliments can hardly be expected – have acknowledged the valour of Hangor and its crew. Renowned British historian Iain Ballantyne, in his 2019 epic book 'The Deadly Trade: A History of Submarine Warfare', dedicates a whole chapter titled ‘Hangor’s hunt’ describing the battle with accuracy, showering accolades on the gallantry of the Captain and crew.

The February 2019 issue of British journal Warships International Fleet Review features a rousing ovation to the mêlée titled ‘The Shark that Bit Back—How a Pakistan Navy Submarine made history.’ Incidentally, Hangor is the local name for “shark”.

This epic saga of valour commenced on the midnight of November 26, 1971, Hangor sailed from its base with a load of torpedoes to patrol the Bombay Harbour.

Soon after its wartime deployment, the submarine developed defects in its computers which were swiftly repaired as the patrol continued. Hangor called contact with the warships of IN’s Western Naval Command, which were on their way to launch the first missile attack on Karachi.

Commander Tasnim was in a position to sink the marauders but he had strict orders not to take aggressive action unless attacked, since the war had not formally commenced in the western sector.

It remains an anomaly why Pakistan delayed the declaration of war till 3rd December although on 23 November 1971, the Indian Army commenced aggression, crossing the international border in East Pakistan and perchance Hangor was in perfect position to sink more than one Indian warship and foil IN’s plans to attack Pakistan.

Nevertheless, ruing the missed opportunity, once the Indian fleet had passed overhead, Commander Tasnim could not resist the chance and took the risk of breaking radio silence to warn PN Headquarters of the impending attack and the peril Pakistan faced. The transmission was detected by IN, which dispatched two antisubmarine warfare frigates INS Khukri and Kirpan to intercept and destroy Hangor.

More suspense was in store. One of the cooling pumps on board Hangor broke down. Without repairs to this pump, it would not be possible to continue its war patrol and it would be constrained to return since repairs to this pump involved shutting down the main air conditioning plant of the submarine and lifting and removing its compressor motor to gain access to the defective pump.

Commander Tasnim, who was the second in command of PNS/M Ghazi during the 1965 war, ruled out returning home, since the war would have been over for Hangor. He took the ultimate risk of repairing the sub in enemy waters while partially surfaced. To disguise its identity, lights were installed to give Hangor the semblance of a fishing boat.

A snooping Indian Warcraft did detect the sub but fell for the ruse and dismissed it as a fishing vessel. Racing against time – under normal circumstances, the repair which would have taken a week in the dockyard, was accomplished within a matter of hours – Hangor was ready to bare its fangs once again.

On 4 December 1971, Pakistan Naval Headquarter communicated with Hangor, giving her war codes to attack the Indian Navy's armada.

While the Indian hunters were still searching for the intruding Pakistani sub, Commander Tasnim ambushed the duo, firing a homing torpedo at Kirpan only to see it fail to explode but the action exposed his presence. Khukri moved to attack but showing presence of mind, the gallant PN Commander fired his second torpedo, which exploded under the hull of the enemy assailant, hitting its magazine of explosives, sinking it within minutes.

Kirpan turned back to attack, dropping depth charges but the valiant Hangor fired his third torpedo which forced the attacker to turn tail. It did not even return to pick up survivors till the next day for which surviving sailor Chanchal Singh Gill later sued Kirpan’s captain for cowardice.

Ajay Sura, senior correspondent with The Times of India, Chandigarh, in an exposé titled: ‘Correct Naval history, says INS Khukri survivor’ published on December 19, 2010, questions: “Did the crew of INS Kirpan, the Indian Navy frigate which was honoured with gallantry award for its role in 1971 Indo-Pak War play an ignominious role by deserting sailors who were drowning in INS Khukri?”

Ajay Sura, a qualified legal correspondent who also writes on defence, informs that 40 years after the episode, the issue resurrected when Chanchal Singh Gill, a Khukri survivor, petitioned the Chandigarh Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) seeking withdrawal of gallantry awards given to officers of Kirpan.

Gill, who was on duty as artificer apprentice on board Khukri on the fateful night of December 9, also sought correction of the naval history related to Khukri stating that it was the Indian Navy’s “greatest cover up”.

The main allegations of 58-year-old Gill are that the record prepared by the Historical Cell of Directorate of Naval Operations, at Naval Headquarters, New Delhi, pertaining to INS Khukri is ‘‘far away from the truth’’.
While pointing out ‘‘glaring errors’’ in the records, the Indian sailor claims that whereas INS Kirpan maneuvered to deflect torpedo attacks’, actually three torpedoes had hit Khukri and instead of joining action to counter the attack, INS Kirpan ‘ ‘fled away’’.

After reading the official account, Gill immediately sent letters to the parliamentary standing committee on defence seeking correction of the records but after being ignored, Gill moved the AFT, which in turn gave notice to the Indian Ministry of Defence. The Chandigarh bench of the military tribunal dismissed the petition observing that the issue raised by the petitioner is a 40 years old issue that has no relevance at present. Thus, forcing Gill to file a case before the Punjab and Haryana high court.

Shubhadeep Choudhury, special correspondent at The Tribune, Kolkata, West Bengal, India, in his opinion piece titled ‘Can’t divulge why we didn’t come to INS Khukri’s rescue: Kirpan Capt’ published in the Tribune News Service of January 10, 2011, followed up on Gill’s petition. He comments that the incident has returned to haunt the Captain of the ship that was supposed to come to Khukri’s rescue but allegedly fled to safety instead.

When Shubhadeep Choudhury contacted Rishi Raj Sood, captain of INS Kirpan – which was accompanying Khukri but disappeared as PNS Hangor torpedoed the latter – he did not deny that his ship didn’t come to help when Khukri sank off the coast of Diu on December 9, 1971. Sood, who now lives in Bangalore parried the question with the plea that: “It is classified information. I cannot divulge it to you.”

The Tribune News Service reporter contacted Admiral OS Dawson (retd), former Indian Chief of Naval Staff, who was director of Indian naval operations during the 1971 war and also now resides in Bangalore. The Admiral categorically declared that: “They had no business getting the gallantry awards, in the humdrum of war Kirpan’s flight from the battle scene was not given due attention.”

Shubhadeep Choudhury also quotes a book 'The Sinking of INS Khukri: Survivors’ Stories,' by Major General Ian Cardozo (retd), which contains some poignant accounts given by the survivors of the drowned frigate.
Major General Cardozo quotes Commander Manu Sharma, a survivor of Khukri, who stated that: “We were hoping that Kirpan, our sister ship would come to rescue us but we saw her sailing away from the area”.

Another survivor of the ill-fated Indian Navy destroyer, Lieutenant Commander SK Basu told Cardozo, “An early rescue was what everyone hoped for. We thought that at least INS Kirpan would send a boat for our rescue, but no rescue boat came from INS Kirpan”.

Coming back to Hangor’s saga of valor, Vice Admiral Mihir K. Roy in his book “War in the Indian Ocean” and Admiral Sourendra Nath Kohli, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (FOC-IN-C) of India’s Western Naval Command in 1971 and Indian Naval Chief (1973-76), in his book Transition to Triumph provide graphic details of Hangor’s daring attack and the massive hunt to trap it after the encounter of 9th December, which shocked the entire Indian Navy.

IN cancelled “Operation Triumph”, the third missile attack, scheduled for 10 December and for four days, the IN utilized all available anti-submarine ships, Alize (Specialized anti-submarine naval aircraft), shore-based surveillance aircraft and Sea King anti-submarine helicopters in HUK (Hunter-Killer) Groups and combed an area extending from the point southwest of Diu Head, where Khukri was sunk, right up to a point just short of PAF’s air-strike range from Karachi. Admiral Roy admits, IN also lost an Alize anti-submarine aircraft at sea with all three of its crew. Hangor had the last laugh in the cat-and-mouse game. Despite a depleting battery, evading the pursuers, it laid false trails for the HUK groups to follow but returned home triumphantly albeit with depleted lead batteries on 13 December.

Over the successive years, Hangor served PN with distinction until decommissioning in 2006. In a ceremony on 2 January 2006, Hangor was decommissioned from the Pakistan Navy; it was soon converted to serve as a museum ship at Pakistan Maritime Museum, Karachi.

In its memory, Pakistan celebrates December 9 as Hangor Day.

In recognition of her service, Hangor was decorated with multiple gallantry and wartime awards and honours. She is regarded in the Navy as having the highest number of operational gallantry awards given to a single warship of the Pakistan Navy. The recipients include: Commander Ahmed Tasnim, the commanding officer; Lieutenant Commander Abaidullah Khan, second-in-command and the navigation officer; Lieutenant-Commander R. A. Kadri, the electrical officer; and Lieutenant Fasih Bokhari, torpedo officer.

Commander Ahmad Tasnim, who retired from PN in as Vice Admiral in 1994, while talking to this scribe, stated: "An extensive air search combined with surface ships made our life miserable but with the intelligent evasive action we managed to survive these attacks and arrived in Karachi safely after the ceasefire."

Abaidullah Khan also retired in the rank of Vice Admiral while R.A. Kadri retired as Rear Admiral. Fasih Bokhari rose to the rank of Admiral and served as Chief of Naval Staff from 1997 to 1999 but rendered his voluntary resignation in 1999, which stemmed from his staunch opposition to General Pervez Musharraf’s initiation of the Kargil War with India.

Hangor has been featured in a number of Pakistani dramas and films, including Hangor S-131 in which the role of Commander Ahmed Tasnim has been portrayed by renowned TV, Film and Broadway actor Zahid Iftikhar Ahmed. While India may spin webs of lies and boast of its victory in 1971, the lone sub Hangor frustrated the entire might of IN pitched against it and gives us a moment of cheer.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

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