Why they chose to go down with the ship

The dark night of December 9, 1971, is imprinted on my mind like a scar. Thirty-nine years ago during India's war with Pakistan, two vintage anti-submarine frigates that my father, the late Captain Mahender Nath Mulla, commanded, were ordered to hunt and destroy a Pakistani submarine lurking off the coast of Diu. The operation was doomed from the beginning. Like in Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade", the brave men went into the night as commanded. One of the two frigates was torpedoed by the modern Pakistani submarine, the PNS Hangor. The INS Khukri sank, taking 178 Indian naval ratings and 18 officers including my father to their watery graves. It was reported that the captain of the ship showed extraordinary courage during those last minutes of his life, helping save as many of his men as he could and not abandoning his vessel. He went down with his ship, along with the other brave soldiers. A Mahavir Chakra was awarded to him posthumously.I have often wondered what made my father decide to go down with his ship. Was it a quest for immortality beyond death? Or was it an old naval tradition? Or did he make the choice because he felt it was the right thing to do?My sister and I had come home on vacation before the war. The anti-aircraft guns that lit up the night of December 5 in Bombay were, for us, a display of fireworks. War and death were just fast-moving images of action movies seen in the security of the United Services Club from where we could make an exit. This innocence was torn apart on that December night. The torpedo that struck INS Khukri was not the screenplay of a film. This real-life battle had no exits.The news of the sinking of the Khukri was brought home to my mother along with weak assurances that the captain of the ship had been rescued. I recall that my mother felt a hopeless despair because she knew that her husband would not put his own safety before the safety of his men.The period immediately after the war was marked by euphoria and Indians drank, in the words of Ramachandra Guha, "the elixir of victory". The loss of a ship was collateral damage in the theatre of war: an awkward event, perhaps best forgotten, especially because the larger war had been won. With the passage of time my mother became involved with the widows of the sailors.The Khukri story repeats itself in different ways. It is the grand narrative of national success and the achievements of a few that frequently submerge the narratives of small folk who live their lives battling unknown enemies and are often deprived of little compensations. Why is it that the voices of widows and mothers of the "shahids" of Kargil or Kashmir remain submerged like that ill-fated frigate? Has our moral space become so limited that those who have been elected or selected to serve this nation have no need for ethical barometers? What a cruel joke it is when these protectors create an "Adarsh" (ideal) housing society on the foundations of a Khukri Park.My battle for life commenced after the 1971. The sinking of the Khukri was my leitmotif and I never transcended the ideals that my father lived and died for. I remember him telling me: "Never call your best action a sacrifice. If one fights for a cause, it is because one cannot live with the way things are". His sacrifice influenced me to be a teacher. It is a choice I have never regretted. On that fateful night, he helped as many sailors he could to the safety of lifeboats. When he had done his duty he took his decision to go down with his ship. I suppose he saw himself as the ship's master, nurtured by his ideals. He made the choice not because it was the right thing to do, nor because it was expected of him, but because knowing him as I did, it was the only thing he would do. He was the first captain of independent India's navy to go down with his ship and hopefully the last. One such man is enough to bring honour to an entire nation for a lifetime.

The writer is principal of Springdales School, Pusa Road, New Delhi

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