Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and sub-continental happenings, Operation X is a racy and meticulously researched historical narrative that reads like a thriller.
Had Sandeep Unnithan, writer and journalist, not latched-on to a chance opportunity to meet with Captain M.N.R. Samant, the principal protagonist in the book, this story may have never seen the light of day.
It is inexplicable why the Indian Navy chose to keep this operation under wraps for almost five decades and deny students and researchers of contemporary Indian military history, the opportunity to investigate a world-class covert maritime operation.
Covert operations always have a larger strategic game plan and though much of the lead-in backdrop to Operation X conforms to the Bangladesh Liberation landscape, the driving ambition of Admiral S.M. Nanda, Indias naval chief, to ensure that the Indian Navy plays an important part in this epochal event, rings loud and clear throughout the narrative.
One other event that has been brilliantly stitched into the initial narrative is the escape from France of eight Pakistan Navy submariners belonging to East Pakistan.
Undergoing conversion onto the Daphne Class submarines and concerned at the turn of events in their homeland, they left their training base at Toulon and found their way to Madrid via Marseille and Switzerland. Equipped with false passports provided by the Indian Embassy and swiftly despatched to Bombay on an Air India flight from Rome, they proved to be seed capital for a plan conceived by Admiral Nanda and his Director of Intelligence, Captain Mihir Roy, to experiment with multiple options to disrupt East Pakistans maritime lanes of shipping.
Putting together a small team of diverse specialists comprising underwater clearance divers, communication experts, demolitions and mines experts, and fitness trainers, from the Indian Navy, Roy embedded them in Eastern Army Command as part of the overall training plan for the Mukti Bahini.
Opening a training camp near Plassey that was named Camp 2 Plassey or C2P, Roy entrusted the entire operation to Commander Samant, who was designated as Staff Officer-1 (Naval Operations X). Recruiting over 150 Bengali youths from the refugee camps in April and May, and assigning the eight submariners with leadership roles, three Indian naval officers (Martis, Das and Kapil), assisted by six other naval personnel, transformed the group into stealthy frogmen with mine-laying and underwater skills that would put many a trained diver or swimmer to shame.
A catchy and well-laid-out centrespread in the book depicts the covert organisation in detail.
As the Mukti Bahini started testing the resolve of the Pakistan Army with their hit-and-run tactics from July 1971 onwards, Samant decided in August 1971 that it was time to unleash his frogmen on the unsuspecting Pakistan Navy and port authorities at the seaport of
Chittagong, and the river ports of Chalna, Narayanganj, Mongla and Chandpur. Called Operation Jackpot, four teams were infiltrated into East Pakistan through the Indian Armys Sector Delta in Tripura and in one stroke sank over 45,000 tonne of shipping in that operation. From then on, the book races through three more such operations, which includes the setting up of C2H and Force Alpha, with three gunboats as the forerunner of the Bangladesh Navy; the unfortunate incident on the Pussur River where IAF Gnat jet fighters shot up two of the boats in a case of friendly fire; and much more. Captain Samants recollections and jottings are meticulous, while Unnithan weaves the narrative with consummate ease.
The book is a must-read for any military history-buff and a valuable addition to the repository of popular writing in contemporary Indian military history.
Operation X: The Untold Story of Indias Covert Naval War in East Pakistan; Captain M.N.R. Samant, Sandeep Unnithan, HarperCollins, 499.
Arjun Subramaniam is a military historian and author of Indias Wars: A Military History 1947-1971.