Commodore Srikant Kesnur, a seasoned Indian Navy veteran, describes himself as a ‘maritime evangelist’. His distinguished 36-year career in the Navy saw him at the helm of two major frontline ships, imparting knowledge at three military academies and undertaking a diplomatic mission in East Africa. In recent years, he has become synonymous with various initiatives to promote the history of the Navy and India’s maritime heritage. He was recently at the Southern Naval Command in Kochi as part of Navy Week celebrations.
Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to join the Navy?
I grew up and studied in Sainik School, Bijapur, in north Karnataka. It was only natural to join the armed forces after that. While applying for the NDA, I initially chose the Army. Most of us did so. My father, however, wanted me to join the Navy, as he was inspired by our school principal, who was from the Navy. Those days, children listened to their parents (laughs). So, I changed my choice to the Navy. So, my joining the Navy was an accident; I had hardly seen the sea till that time. But it was the happiest accident of my life, and it lasted for 36 years.
What are your thoughts on Sainik Schools?
Sainik Schools were one of the finest experiments carried out by India in the early days of its independence. The government established boarding schools with all facilities at par with some of the best schools in the country. And that transformed people who were schooled there. Many of them joined the armed forces. We talk about the armed forces transforming from elite to egalitarian. It is the ordinary people who came out of Sainik School who have made that happen. Even those who did not join the armed forces stood out from the rest, wherever they went. And that tradition continues.
You joined NDA straight after Class 11. How was your experience there?
Well, I struggled initially. I was an absolute disaster. I became a boarder for the first time. With the discipline and the strict system, I took time to cope with the demands of physical and mental hardships. In retrospect, that’s where I understood Kipling’s phrase of triumph and disaster being two sides of the same coin. And when I joined the Navy, I came back to being myself. In fact, I recovered my mojo in the final two semesters at NDA. By the time I turned 20, I was a commissioned officer.
A decade later, you became part of the new INS Delhi warship…
I joined the new INS Delhi as its first signal communications officer. It was a remarkable phase, a turning point in the Indian Navy’s history. The first INS Delhi was commissioned in 1948, and that signalled our aspirations to become a big navy.
Could you elaborate on that?
At that time, we were a small sloop navy (ships of about 1,000 tonnes). In August 1947, the Navy
prepared a blueprint for the future, and it was imaginative. It had aircraft carriers, cruisers, and submarines, and envisaged two fleets.
The brain behind the blueprint was Commander A K Chatterjee, who subsequently became the Chief of Naval Staff in the ’60s. He was assisted by Lieutenant Commander Krishnan, who became the Commander in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, handling the navy’s operations in the 1971 war, and Lieutenant Y N Singh, the Navy’s foremost aviator, our first aircraft carrier flyer and, also, the country’s first helicopter pilot.
Considering our current geopolitical situation, is there an agency for more aircraft carriers?
We need more of everything. We need aircraft carriers; our plans envisaged two light aircraft carriers in the beginning, to be ultimately replaced by four. How many aircraft carriers does a country need? You can debate on this. Possibly, the Navy initially said that three was the minimum number. But, I would argue that we need more, at least four. As our interests become more, we need our Navy to be in different parts of the world. As a rising power, we may be expected to contribute to global peace initiatives as well. We also need more offshore patrol vessels, amphibious ships, coastal defence vessels, hydrography ships… Other than the military threats, the key challenges to maritime security are terrorism at sea, narcotics, illegal fishing, gun running, human trafficking and smuggling.
China is building ports around the Indian Ocean. What has been the Navy’s response?
The response to another country building infrastructure in our neighbourhood can’t be from the Navy; it has to be from the nation. I believe the nation has taken note. Meanwhile, the job of the Navy is to scan the horizon, keep its guard up, and enhance its surveillance to keep track of whether those ports are used for dual purposes or for a greater influx of that country’s navy in our area. That said, as highlighted by many experts, managing the rise of China is one of our biggest foreign policy challenges.
Is there a heightened focus on our own islands of late?
There has been a sustained emphasis on islands such as Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. They could play a crucial role as strategic springboards for various operations. When independence was being negotiated, the British sought to maintain control over the Andamans, recognising their strategic significance. Fortunately, that was not to be.
Over the years, there has been a clearer understanding of the strategic importance of these islands, evident in increased deployments and enhanced infrastructure. There have been recent initiatives by the government, like the project aimed at transforming Nicobar into a transshipment port.
A pivotal development occurred in the mid-’90s with the initiation of the ‘Milan’ naval gathering in Port Blair. The meets have evolved, with recent editions held in Visakhapatnam. What started with five navies has now expanded to involve more than 50 navies.
Now, coming to society, there is a perception that the Army and Air Force are more entrenched in people’s consciousness. Could you give an overview of the Navy’s early engagements?
The Navy was involved in an important tri-services operation shortly after Independence – Operation Peace for the accession of Junagadh. It was our first tri-services operation.
People forget that the Navy played a key role in the liberation of Goa and Daman and Diu. Remember, Portugal was a power of some standing. Also, at that time, Pakistan was making some noises about supporting them. Given that Portugal was a NATO nation, it was expected that the US and the UK would support it. For a fledgling Indian Navy, there were challenges involved in the liberation of Goa.
Which were the crucial operations?
There were three distinct actions. There was a gunfight in Goa harbour, where INS Betwa, Beas and Cauvery engaged a Portuguese frigate. It was one of those rare gun battles at close range after Independence. Our ships’ gunfire landed accurately, and the Portuguese frigate Afonso de Albuquerque was badly damaged, beached, and forced to fly the white flag of surrender. The frigate was named after the man who established Portuguese rule in India. So, in a way, it was poetic justice….
Then, there was another action in Anjadip, where the Navy landed troops to take over the island. That was the first for the Navy; the Army didn’t have enough amphibious force there at the time. That is where we experienced what is called perfidy in warfare lingo. Perfidy is not the same as deception and feigning, which are accepted norms of war. What the Portuguese did was raise the flag of surrender and then open fire at approaching Indian troops. We lost some of our sailors. There was a pitched gun battle and, eventually, the island was taken.
That was the first time when Navy ships fired in anger; the Navy had casualties and you had the first ‘killed in action’.
There was also a small but significant action in Diu, where the Army was facing resistance from the fort. Naval ship INS Delhi with Captain Neelkanth Krishnan, who helmed the Eastern Naval Command during the 71 war, was told to stay at a distance and support.
His response was along the lines of: “Like hell I will stay away! The Army guys are facing resistance.” He closed in on the fort and the six-inch guns of INS Delhi were used to good effect. The resistance fell; it was a direct consequence of the Navy’s action.
How was the Navy instrumental in Indo-Pak wars?
During the Indo-Pak conflict in 1965, the Navy was assigned a defensive role. The war unfolded in two phases, with the first occurring in May. At that time, an aircraft carrier was deployed in the north Arabian Sea, but little significant action took place. Subsequently, the flagship, Vikrant, underwent a refit, and the fleet was away exercising in the east.
When the country once again found itself at war in September, the apex authorities opted not to involve the Navy extensively. Consequently, a defensive role was designated, with strict instructions not to cross the latitude of Porbandar. This constraint severely limited the inherent flexibility of the Navy.
While the Navy essayed its given role well, the aftermath resulted in two notable outcomes. One, many Navy officers felt a sense of deprivation of action and experienced frustration. Two, there was uninformed criticism from the media and the public regarding the Navy’s apparent inactivity during the conflict.
‘1971 war saw Indian Navy’s finest hour’
How did that ‘defensive’ policy change?
Between 1965 and 1971, significant transformations occurred within the Navy. A strategic policy shift led to the procurement of equipment from the erstwhile USSR – a departure from our traditional suppliers, the UK. Following the 1965 war, when Pakistan possessed a submarine while India did not, submarines were acquired. Notably, eight missile boats were acquired and these were used in 1971 to attack Karachi. The Navy saw a substantial increase in both equipment and personnel between 1965 and 1971.
In hindsight, the Naval leadership of that time made pivotal decisions. Conversations between Admiral Nanda, Admiral Krishnan, and others led to a collective realisation that committing Vikrant to battle was imperative. Failure to do so might have led future generations to label it as a white elephant, questioning the necessity of an aircraft carrier. The very existence of the Navy could have been jeopardised if no significant action had been taken during the 1971 war. Arguably, the Navy felt the need to make a resounding statement, and it did so in style. The 1971 war saw its finest hour.
Not many in the current generation are aware of the Navy’s heroics in 1971…
The Navy witnessed action in both the theatres of war – in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. In the Arabian Sea, there were two attacks on and off Karachi — operations Trident and Python on December 4 and 8, respectively. Many ships off Karachi were destroyed. Most importantly, the Karachi harbour was set ablaze, their oil refinery was on fire. It was a huge strategic win. Pakistan had given up more or less. The Western Fleet established total control in the North Arabian Sea. Unfortunately, we also had the tragic loss of INS Khukri on December 9.
Now, while what we did in the west had somewhat attracted people’s imagination, what we did in the east was equally remarkable. We bombarded East Pakistan from about December 4 to 11 or 12. So, Vikrant’s aircraft pulverised their coastal infrastructure, and the Eastern Fleet captured their ships. We strangulated East Pakistan from the sea and made it impossible for any supply, any reinforcement, any fuel or water or food to reach there. Most importantly, nobody could escape as Dhaka was falling. The reason why we had more than 90,000 prisoners of war was because the Navy had shut the escape route from the sea.
Pakistan had sent its submarine Ghazi to attack INS Vikrant, but met her watery grave off Visakhapatnam. Another thing, which not many people know, is that the Navy helped the marine wing of the Mukti Bahini conduct clandestine sabotage operations inside East Pakistan from about August 1971. More than 1 lakh tonnes of shipping was destroyed in the harbour itself. That was phenomenal. That was one of the most remarkable special forces operations in history. It is also, possibly, amongst the world’s largest covert naval warfare ops. The book ‘Operation X’ describes this beautifully.
Moving across time, we recently marked the 15th anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attack… What are your views in retrospect?
The country learned a lot from 26/11. It was for us what the Pearl Harbour attack was for the US – a day of infamy. It’s easy to blame one security agency or the other [for letting the terrorists enter], but we must not forget that the terrorists had come on a hijacked Indian fishing vessel, not a foreign one. Maritime security is a 24/7 job. The sea cannot have barbed wires or walls; you cannot build any permanent defences. There is no way every inch of the sea can be covered.
After 26/11, the country has done several things well. One, the Navy had all along been saying that our maritime world had several agencies and there must be a mechanism for them to tango together. They were all operating in their own silos. After 26/11, the Navy was made the overall coordinator. We also had the joint-operations centres come up next. It had the Navy, Coast Guard, marine police, fisheries, directorate general of shipping and other agencies together.
The Navy also started Sagar Prahari Bal, a dedicated small but nimble force of 500 sailors who are embarked on specially purchased interceptor craft for last-mile surveillance. The last mile between sea and land is where it is most busy; it is like a mela. Then, we certainly have enhanced surveillance coverage. The Navy and Coast Guard have more ships, more aircraft, constantly exchanging information. I would think that many things have happened for the better post-26/11. The chance of any such incidents happening is, theoretically, reduced. You can’t say for certain that this won’t happen again. Not just us, this is true for countries all over the world. Antagonists have to succeed only once. No defence is 200% impregnable. You need to get better at the game all the time.
Should we have retaliated after 26/11?
Personally, I would suggest that we should have retaliated. But I also respect the viewpoint which says that showing restraint was also a good option. Not just as a soldier but as a citizen, too. There is a thin line between getting provoked and acting in a hurry. I think sometimes restraint is needed. Sometimes, response is necessary.
God forbid such an event occurs, the country should have the power to respond and punish. I believe, there is probably greater resolve now to show that if such a thing happens, we will deliver a befitting punishment.
Why is there a relatively lower attachment of people from coastal areas to the Navy?
That may not be the correct way of seeing things. However, there are a couple of reasons. They are generally not attached to the ‘Fauj’, and I think there are greater and more diverse employment opportunities in the south. And there is no problem with that.
In general, it could be because of the relative lack of awareness about armed forces, and lack of a buy-in. Historically the north has a stakeholdership, a buy-in with the military because they faced several invasions. The south was relatively insulated. So, perhaps, the buy-in is not there. I guess there is a greater inclination towards ‘intellectual professions’ without realising that the armed forces can be very intellectual, too.
But that doesn’t mean enough guys from Kerala do not join the Navy. In fact, people join and they do exceedingly well. Most of them move out after 15 years to do jobs elsewhere. They take the skills that they learned in the Navy.
See, to some extent, it is a pan-India problem. Admiral J G Nadkarni once said, “In India, people go to the beach not to wet their feet but to eat bhelpuri.” So, we are a country that doesn’t take to the seas naturally. And this is sad because we had an ancient tradition of seafaring.
India celebrates December 4 as Navy Day every year to celebrate the achievements and role of the Indian Navy. It was on December 4, 1971, that the Navy laucnhed its Operation Trident against Pakistan.
Ahead of Navy Day (December 4), Team TNIE sits down with Navy veteran and historian Commodore Srikant Kesnur for a candid conversation, wherein he reflects on his motivations for joining the Navy, his thoughts on Sainik Schools, the strategic necessity of aircraft carriers, the Navy’s initial engagements, the Indo-Pak war, and more
TNIE team: Ronnie Kuriakose, S Neeraj Krishna, Krishna P S, Anilkumar T A Sanesh (photos),
Harikrishna B (video)