Preparing For The Attack On Karachi: How R&AW Stripped Pakistan’s Naval Intelligence Bare In 1971
"The captain knew he had to make a move quickly. It was his only chance. He took aim and launched the anti-ship missile towards PNS Khaibar."
This was Trident, India’s secret naval operation in December 1971.
The War That Made R&AW. Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket. Westland. 2021. Pages 256. Rs 400.
Three Indian Navy missile boats, armed to the teeth, were in the Arabian Sea, speeding north to attack the Karachi harbour. Suddenly, en route, the radar on one of the boats started beeping. An enemy warship had been spotted. PNS Khaibar was approaching the missile boat and was at a distance of 120 kilometres.
The Indian boat had been discovered, and its captain knew it was just a matter of time before they would be attacked. They were in enemy waters, after all. The captain knew he had to make a move quickly. It was his only chance. He took aim and launched the anti-ship missile towards PNS Khaibar.
This was Trident, India’s secret naval operation, which was now in its final stages. The date was 5 December 1971.
Interestingly, this operation had its genesis a couple of months ago in an adventure involving two fictional-sounding characters — Rod and Moriarty. They were two R&AW operatives who had undertaken a perilous journey by sea into the Karachi harbour.
On October 1971, approximately two months before the war had begun, a meeting was held at which defence minister Jagjivan Ram, chief of the Indian Navy S.M. Nanda, and [R&AW chief R. N.] Kao were present. The Indian Navy had received information that Karachi port had recently installed the latest naval surveillance equipment available. The naval commander asked Kao if he could investigate and verify the information.
Kao knew that they would need substantial visual documentation to study and gauge the quality of Pakistan’s naval surveillance technology. This kind of information-gathering was not a task for their foot soldiers. They needed expert spymasters to look into the matter.
So Kao and [his deputy Shankaran] Nair came up with a plan.
Nair contacted his top agent in Bombay and told him what he required. Five days later, the agent called back, saying that he had a plan and knew a person who could help them out. Nair flew down to Bombay himself to set the plan in motion.
‘The person who can help us is Cowasji Doctor,’ the Bombay agent said. ‘He is a Parsi doctor who shuttles between India and Pakistan via Kuwait on his ship. It’s not a very big one, but it has a sickbay.’
‘Okay, but can we trust him?
‘Frankly, I don’t know for sure. But there is something which we can use to our advantage.’ The agent slid a file across the table for Nair to read.
Two months earlier, Cowasji Doctor had been caught bringing in expensive undeclared goods on his ship. He now faced an enquiry by the Customs department. The investigation was still underway and would most likely result in a hefty fine, putting a dent in the good doctor’s finances.
Nair knew what needed to be done. The chief of Bombay Customs was a friend of his. He picked up the phone and dialled his number. After they had exchanged a few pleasantries, Nair told his friend about his problem. Ten minutes later, the deal was struck. The R&AW, from their secret fund, would pay the fine on Doctor’s behalf, and the Customs department would issue a letter declaring the matter closed. The letter, however, would be hand-delivered to Nair and not to Cowasji Doctor.
Armed with the letter, Nair, accompanied by two trusted R&AW agents, visited the doctor at his clinic on D.N. Road in south Bombay, introducing himself as Commander Menon with the Indian Navy.
‘This letter can be yours if you help us out with a small task. You can refuse, of course, but if you do, I’m under orders to burn this letter, and the enquiry against you will be reopened.’
Doctor realised that the choice he was being offered was no choice at all.
‘What do you need?’ he asked.
You will be taking two men with you on your next trip to Pakistan. The trip will have to start within the next two days. I’m sure you’ll find a good reason,’ Nair said, smiling.
Doctor nodded, and Nair stood up to leave.
‘At least tell me who I’m taking with me,’ Doctor said.
‘All you need to know is this. Their names are Rod and Moriarty.’
Their real names were Rao and Murty. Rao was Nair’s naval assistant, and Murty was the R&AW specialist from the photography department.
The mission was undertaken in October 1971, well before the conflict had officially begun. However, India knew that war with Pakistan was unavoidable. Before Pakistan decided to strike, India had to gather as much information as possible about its naval forces. Time, as the expression goes, was of the essence.
R&AW was getting Intel about the US’s secret supply of weapons and defence equipment to Pakistan. It also knew that, in the event of war, the Karachi port would be the Pakistani Navy’s most valuable base and asset. The only way India could gain the upper hand in the naval fight was by knowing exactly what Pakistan’s ship strength was, and by being able to gauge its offensive and defensive capabilities.
After the meeting with ‘Commander Menon’, as planned, Doctor set sail two days later, with two new members aboard—Rod and Moriarty. The trip was uneventful until the ship entered Pakistani waters. As they had expected, in light of the heightened tensions between the two countries, every vessel entering Pakistani territory was being strictly screened for any suspicious cargo or activity. By this time, Pakistan had also become aware of a new Intelligence agency in India which was capable of running the most audacious and devious missions. They didn’t know the official name of this secret organisation yet.
Cowasji Doctor’s ship docked at the Karachi harbour. Before Doctor could even look over the railings, an inspector with Pakistan’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) came aboard with two of his subordinate officers. Doctor was extremely nervous. His heart was in his mouth as the officers went over the relevant papers. Within minutes, the inspector’s team had gone over the ship and confirmed that two of the passengers mentioned in the manifest were not in their berths. The men were hiding as they didn’t want to be seen by the inspector.
‘Rod and Moria ... Moriarty?’ Reading the names out from the ship’s manifest, the inspector looked suspiciously at Doctor. ‘Where are they?’
The nervous doctor looked at the inspector and his men who were waiting for him to answer. He knew he had to save himself.
‘Oh, yes! I know what you must be thinking. Strange names. You know ... Indian Christians ... they have all sorts of names,’ Doctor rambled. ‘They are in the sickbay. Fell ill rather suddenly, you see.’
‘Go check the sickbay,’ the inspector snapped to one of his officers.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that ... I wouldn’t recommend that. They’re both down with chickenpox, you see. One of them contracted it and passed it on to the other. The entire sickbay is off-limits for the rest of us till they get well. It was the only place where I could isolate them.’
The inspector and his junior officers took what Doctor had said at face value. The man had been making regular trips to Karachi for years, and they had never had any reason to suspect him. They let the ship enter the harbour.
A relieved Doctor waited for the CID officers to disappear. Then he went inside to fix himself a stiff scotch and soda. He needed it.
At midnight, the ship set sail again and was navigated carefully to a pre-decided spot between two cliffs at the entry point of the harbour. Rod and Moriarty were ready with their cameras, peeping through the portholes.
‘Are you seeing this?’ Rod asked, amazed at the sight in front of him.
It’s magnificent,’ Moriarty answered, equally awestruck.
They looked at each other and then again at the object in front of them.
Looks like it was recently erected,’ Rod said.
It was a newly built structure on which an anti-aircraft battery was mounted. This meant that Pakistan was readying the port for war.
Working quickly, the agents clicked photographs by the dozen, zooming in as tightly as the lens allowed, so as to capture the precise positions of all the fortifications and gun mountings. But most importantly, they managed to photograph some of the navy ships which were moored at the port.
Nearly thirty minutes had elapsed before the sweating pilot was told he could turn back. Then Rod and Moriarty headed back to the sickbay where they remained the next day, while Doctor, for the sake of appearances, made a few visits and then returned to the vessel in the afternoon. The ship then set off from Karachi. As it sailed out of the harbour, the two agents photographed the other side of the cliff as well.
The ship then entered the Arabian Sea and headed for Kuwait. There, Rao and Murty got off and made straight for the Indian Embassy. The undeveloped film rolls that they carried were flown to Delhi on a priority basis. Rao and Murty flew to India the next day.
In Delhi, two photographers were already waiting in a fully equipped laboratory where the films were delivered to them. By the next morning, a thick stack of photographs in an envelope with ‘URGENT’ emblazoned across it was resting atop the pile of papers on Jagjivan Ram’s desk.
In the war room, Ram, Kao and Nanda studied the photographs. Murty took them through the images, giving them a 360-degree view of the harbour. Everyone looked at the material in front of them with astonishment and admiration.
For the first time, India had visuals from the inside of the Karachi port. The Indian Navy now knew where the defensive structures were and what their capability was. They knew the exact locations of the fuel storage facility and the naval ship moorings. They were now in an advantageous position to plan their operations.
India had stripped Pakistan’s Naval Intelligence bare.
Excerpted with permission from ‘The War That Made R&AW’ by Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket, Published by Westland.
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