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A 1971 Bangladesh war hero fades away, quietly

Mohan Narayan Rao Samant passed away quietly on March 20 at 11.53 am in a suburban Mumbai hospital, at the ripe age of 89. He was given a military funeral befitting a hero and braveheart. Thus for a moment bringing back to life, memories, anecdotes and stories of his deeds.

The story of his exploits is set nearly half a century ago, in 1971. The world’s largest covert naval covert operations were run right under our noses, here in the Indian subcontinent, little known to most — except three Naval officers, and the prime minister.

 A 1971 Bangladesh war hero fades away, quietly

Representational image. Getty

The key field operative of that operation was none other than Indian Navy Commander Samant (later Captain), commanding officer of one of India’s very first set of ‘silent service’ Foxtrot class submarines — INS Karanj — and recipient of the second highest gallantry award, the MVC.

Samant went on to become the first chief of staff of the embryonic Bangladesh Navy and was conferred the honour ‘friend of liberation war’.

Samant’s deeds 50 years back were related to ‘NCO(X)’, as the series of operations was known. It used perhaps the largest numbers of maritime saboteurs in the history of modern naval warfare.

This was done under the meticulous planning, direction and knowledge of just two other officers of the Indian Navy — Admiral SM Nanda, then chief of naval staff, and Captain MK Roy, then director of Naval Intelligence (later vice admiral) and with express knowledge of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

‘Operation X’, as the name was abbreviated to, was a set of complicated guerrilla manoeuvres against the maritime jugular of the Pakistan Army in erstwhile East Pakistan. These innovative sabotage missions were executed using East Bengali college students specially recruited and trained for the operation. It was only one part of a larger and more sustained undercover naval operation that involved training 500 Mukti Bahini naval guerillas in the seven months up to and during the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

The operation was responsible for the sinking of and damage to some 100,000 tonnes of shipping. It was bigger than the riverine operations of the Vietnam War, and larger than the ‘Decima Flottiglia MAS’ commando operation (1941-1943) of Italian naval frogmen that sank several marquee Royal Navy ships in the Mediterranean Sea.

What were the dimensions of this covert Operation X?

The aim was simple: cripple the regular Pakistani forces in the then East Pakistan by attacking their supply and logistics lines and replenishment routes for food, water, men, arms and ammunition. This would ease things for the Indian Army while moving forces towards Dacca (as Dhaka was known then) during the actual fighting with Pakistan, even as the Indian Navy hammered them off the Bay Of Bengal with INS Vikrant.

The covert mission objective of Samant, as executive officer (XO) of operations, was to target merchant marine shipping and inland water transportation up the river from Chittagong, the port of entry of East Pakistan and the ‘Bombay of the East’, by blowing up fully laden merchant ships, barges , naval pontoons, tugs and gunboats using ‘limpeteers’ — frogmen, who swam downstream and horizontally at the top of the notoriously strong ebbing riverine tides of the Pussur, Karnaphulli, Shitlakashya and Meghna with specially designed limpet mines and inventive detonation devices strapped to their stomachs — breathing all the while using zero-tech bamboo reeds, their heads camouflaged by water hyacinths!

One particular lot of 176 commandos in ‘Operation Jackpot’, as one operation was code named, under the direct stewardship of Samant, sank and damaged about 60,000 tonnes of shipping. Twenty-five ships were sunk in the span of just one hour on August 14, 1971.

Samant was the last surviving member of that secret triumvirate. Admiral Nanda passed on in 2009, and vice-admiral MK Roy in 2013. With his death, the forgotten heroes of yesteryear conflicts have all moved on.

Many important secrets would have gone with Captain Samant and his other compatriots to their graves. But several stories are chronicled in a forthcoming book co-authored by Samant, titled Operation X, soon to be published by Harper Collins.

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2019 13:22:35 IST

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