On December 4, a day after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 broke out, an oil spill appeared near the coast off Vishakapatnam, on India’s Eastern coast. The Indian Navy patrol boat, INS Akshay, was sent out to investigate. The first diver didn’t take long to verify the cause – a sunken submarine.
The second diver took his time below the depths. He returned with a startling report; it was a Pakistani submarine owing to its Urdu markings. And its mouth had been blown wide open. There was no internet to id a ship by its characteristics, but there was a copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Thumbing through the pages, Lieutenant Sridhar More identified it as Pakistan’s Naval trump card – the PNS Ghazi.
Submarines can level unequal playing fields in a matter of moments. The Indian Navy enjoyed a technological and numerical superiority over Pakistan, which is why Ghazi was dispatched from West Pakistan. Its mission – India’s flagship vessel, the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Though an ageing submarine, Ghazi had the longest range of any vessel in both the Indian and Pakistani navies.
So why was it at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal? The fact that Akshay ‘discovered’ the vessel points to the absence of an Indian Navy assault on the submarine’s position. In later days, India claimed that the cruiser INS Rajput posed as Vikrant to lure Ghazi out into the open – and sunk it with depth charges. But Pakistan contests this version for a more honourable explanation – Ghazi was sunk by one of its own mines, as it sought to make the waters in front of the Eastern Naval Command at Vishakapatnam unpassable.
Truth is an early casualty of war, and the destruction of the Ghazi took place before the war could even start. If Ghazi was indeed sunk by India, it would mark the first declaration of war between the two powers. Officially, the 1971 conflict began when Pakistan bombers attacked Indian air bases in the North West of India.
So what happened to Ghazi? Did the Indians sink it or did the submarine, inadvertently, sink itself?
The Ghazi originally sailed under a different name – and flag. The 2500-ton USS Diablo was a class of submarines developed towards the end of World War II. Almost immediately after the war, the ‘Trench Class” was as good as obsolete as newer submarines based on the German Type-XXI U-Boats were sleeker, travelled longer and could stay underwater more than they stayed on the surface.
The submarine Pakistan received in 1964 was a largely unmodernised variant of the Trench. But armed with up to 22 torpedos, decks guns (including anti-air cannons) and machine guns, it was a veritable mini-battleship under water. Ghazi was an ageing submarine, albeit one fresh from a refit in 1968.
Vikrant, by contrast, was a deadly vessel. A former British ship, it too was launched in the final days of World War II – as HMS Hercules. One of India’s greatest military victories in the 1971 was the blockade of Karachi – a manoeuvre largely attributable to Vikrant and its attached air wing.
During the 1965 conflict with Pakistan, Vikrant was largely confined to the docks. Worse, Pakistan had submarines such as the Ghazi and others while the Indian Navy had nothing under the water. Ghazi played a prominent role in the bombardment of the port of Dwarka – and gave the Indian Navy apprehension over the increasing danger posed by submarines in India’s marine landscape. Despite Indian anti-submarine patrols, the Ghazi had gone largely undetected.
Had Pakistan sunk Vikrant early and pre-emptively, it would have dealt a heavy blow to Indian morale – as well as sinking the Indian Naval Air wing in a single blow. And this, by all intentions, seems to have been its plan. The Pakistan Navy had reason to believe that INS Vikrant was in dock at Vishakapatnam, and waited near its shores to plant sea mines.
The Indian Navy’s account points to a careful assessment of Pakistan’s plans for the Bay of Bengal. It was likely that Ghazi would have been deployed to tackle Vikrant – and so, Vikrant was kept hidden in an undisclosed lagoon.
It’s suggested that if India had sunk the Ghazi, it kept the details a secret as India did not want to be seen as the country that fired the first shot.
A loud explosion was heard around midnight 3/4 December just before the Prime Minister’s broadcast to the nation. It was accompanied by a flash of light. The explosion rattled several window panes in buildings near the beach.
The truth as it stands, is that the Ghazi’s sinking is a mystery. Even Pakistani newspapers acknowledge that either of the two country’s stated outcomes are possible; either that India sank the ship with depth charges and that Ghazi was sunk after hitting its own underwater mines in the high current of the Bay of Bengal.
Hawks from India mock Pakistan for claiming to have sunk its own submarine by accident. Those from Pakistan mock India for claiming a victory that wasn’t theirs. It’s worth noting that, between the hubris from either side, Indian Navy divers confirmed that the Ghazi’s hull had blown up from the inside. So while the Pakistani version that the Ghazi had struck its own mine was inaccurate, it is a mystery as to how a mine detonated from inside the ship.
Whatever the story is behind the Ghazi’s demise, cinematic adaptations don’t seem to be too concerned with facts. This year’s big CGI film was “The Ghazi Attack” attempted to portray a dramatized version of events – where an Indian submarine hunter-killer set out on a personal mission to sink the Ghazi. Samarth Singh has pointed out some of the factual inaccuracies in the film, which include submarines travelling faster than the speed of sound!
Whether providence sunk the Pakistani sub, or the Indian Navy, the course of the war swung in India’s favour – on land, sea and air. The reality is that a submarine is a dangerous place to be in even today. Even active-duty submarines have been known to kill the sailors operating them – as in the case of the INS Chakra (when it was under Russian command) or INS Sindhurakshak (which blew up in the port of Mumbai).
What happens in the depths beneath the sea stays beneath the sea. Ghazi is now home to a range of aquatic life. Old submarines continue to tell new tales.
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