Admiral B.S. Soman, Chief of the Indian Navy, looked at the file that had just been put up to him and at the noting signed by H.C. Sarin, Secretary, Defence Production, Ministry of Defence. The noting stated
With reference to the notings mentioned above, the ongoing operations by the Army and Air Force and the current situation with regard to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: the Indian Navy will not initiate any action against Pakistan at sea and will not proceed more than 200 nautical miles beyond Bombay nor operate north of the latitude of Porbandar, except in pursuit of any Pakistan Navy offensive action.
On the morning of 6 September 1965, the Indian Army had attacked across the international border in response to Pakistan’s ‘Operation Grand Slam’, which had been launched for the capture of Akhnur during the war of 1965. One of the options to counter Pakistan’s assault on Jammu and Kashmir was the opening of a second front in Punjab. Thanks to the courage and sense of purpose of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Indian Army had crossed the international border and gone on the offensive in the Lahore, Sialkot and Dera Baba Nanak sectors. The reasoning of the Prime Minister was that Pakistan needed to understand that if they attack Jammu and Kashmir, they attack India.
After a series of hard-fought battles, the Indian Army had reached the outskirts of Lahore as the Indian Air Force fought for the control of the sky. The Indian Navy, however, had been left out of battle. The galling message from the Ministry of Defence, that the Navy should not widen the war and in that context was not to proceed more than 200 nautical miles beyond Bombay, effectively prohibited the Indian Navy from launching offensive operations against Pakistan.
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Admiral Soman, the Naval Chief, was indignant and extremely unhappy with this communication from the Ministry of Defence and asked for an appointment with the Defence Minister. The Naval Chief and the Indian Navy were straining at the leash to attack Pakistan across the sea, but the message from the ministry restricted them from doing so.
The next morning, the Naval Chief met Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan. The Defence Minister noticed that the Naval Chief was visibly upset. After asking the Naval Chief to sit down, he said, ‘Yes, Admiral, what can I do for you?’
‘Mr Chavan, I have received this communication yesterday from a Joint Secretary from your ministry,’ said the Naval Chief as he slipped the file with the errant note across to the Defence Minister. ‘Why is the Navy being stopped from carrying out its legitimate operational role?’
The Defence Minister, without looking at the note, said, ‘Admiral, the bulk of your Navy is already on our eastern seaboard carrying out its legitimate role of preventing Indonesia from capturing the Nicobar Islands, which, as you know, from intelligence sources, is a very real threat. So, what are you so upset about?’
‘Mr Chavan, the role of the Navy encompasses the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and much of the Indian Ocean. So, if, as you say, we are carrying out our role in the Bay of Bengal, then what about the rest of the role that we are tasked to do?’
‘Admiral, I must admit, that the ministry has not done enough to upgrade the Navy as we have done for the other two services after the 1962 war. However, it is an issue of available resources versus priorities. We are aware of this shortcoming, and I propose to address this matter soon after the present situation is resolved. Till then, you must not escalate the situation on the west coast. You do not have the resources to fight offensively on both fronts.’
‘Mr Chavan, it is good news that the ministry has realized at last, that it has not met the Navy’s needs. However, my officers and men are prepared to fight with whatever we have. A passive policy will set a wrong precedent. What is the purpose of having a Navy if it is not allowed to fight? Failure to fight offensively on the west coast will adversely affect the morale of the Navy and that, Minister, is not acceptable.’
‘Admiral, it is my duty as the Defence Minister to listen to the Service Chiefs and to take decisions. I have listened earlier to you, as well as the other Service Chiefs, and it is my decision, in the interest of the country, that the Navy will take on a defensive role on the west coast and will not do anything that will escalate the situation.’
‘Minister, if it was your decision, then why was it conveyed to me by a secretary of your ministry?’
The Minister took the offending note that was lying in front of him, initialed it and slid it across to the Naval Chief. ‘Is it all right now?’ he said.
‘Thank you, Minister,’ said the Naval Chief. ‘I would, however, like to see the Prime Minister on this issue.’
The meeting was quickly processed and the next morning, the Naval Chief was ushered into the Prime Minister’s office. Chavan was already there, sitting next to Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Prime Minister Shastri opened the conversation with, ‘Well, Admiral Soman, I understand that you wish to see me?’
‘Yes, Prime Minister. It is with regard to a direction from the Ministry of Defence, that the Indian Navy will not undertake offensive operations of any kind against Pakistan on the west coast or cross the 24th parallel, and will not do anything that might escalate the situation unless attacked.’
‘Yes, that is true. We have examined the issue in detail. You are aware, I am sure, of the collusion between Indonesia and Pakistan with regard to an effort by Indonesia to take over some of our islands in the Nicobar chain, and that recently there has been increased activity in the sea around the Nicobar Islands. Ensure that nothing untoward happens there, Admiral. That is where your priority lies. As far as the Pakistan Navy is concerned, we do not perceive a threat from them as of now. We are aware of your resources and have decided that the navy will adopt a defensive posture on the west coast unless attacked. I do not want the situation on the west coast to escalate into a full-blown war. We have enough on our hands already.’
‘Prime Minister, as the Naval Chief, I am aware of my tasks and my priorities, as far as the security of our seas, our island territories and the Indian Ocean is concerned. I am glad that this situation has brought to light the fact that the navy needs to have its sources upgraded, if it is to carry out its legitimate role, and we do hope that, as the Defence Minister has said, this matter will soon be addressed. I have consulted my officers and we are prepared to fight with whatever we have. Our inability to fight offensively will send the wrong message, that we are unwilling to fight. That will adversely affect the morale of the navy.’
‘Admiral, your reservations have been conveyed to me by the Defence Minister. We have once more reviewed the situation, and there is no change in our decision and you need to accept it.’
‘Prime Minister, I do understand your reservations. However, I need your permission to meet the President, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.’
‘No, Admiral. Permission is denied. Please do as you have been ordered. Thank you.’
The Prime Minister was firm, and the Naval Chief had put forward his view up to a point. After all, orders were orders, and that was that.
These orders from the government prevented the Indian Navy from undertaking any offensive operations against Pakistan, even when the Pakistan Navy bombarded Dwarka on the west coast with impunity. Although this gave Pakistan no military advantage, it gave the Pakistan Navy a boost in morale. To the Indian Navy, it was a humiliating affront. Officers and men of the Indian Navy found it difficult to understand that although it was the Defence Ministry that had issued these directions, it was the navy that had to answer questions from the public and the media as to why the Indian Navy did not react to the Pakistani raid. As a consequence, the reputation of the navy plummeted to a very low level.
Excerpted from 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War by Ian Cardozo, with permission from Penguin Random House India.
NOTE: An earlier headline of the story erroneously referred to the 1971 instead of 1965 war. The error is regretted.
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