An old Indian beef: When Pakistan Navy killed a cow in Dwarka in 1965

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The damage was limited because 40 of the 50 shells that were fired failed to explode.

Shortly after midnight of September 7, 1965, five Pakistani destroyers sailed just 5.8 nautical miles off the Indian temple town of Dwarka and opened fire.

Exactly a week ago, the Pakistan Army had launched its military offensive "Operation Grand Slam" across the international border. India and Pakistan were now officially at war and the Pakistan Navy wanted a piece of the action.

The flotilla of World War 2 vintage Pakistani warships lined up parallel to the coast, swiveled their gun turrets and fired 50 shells into the night sky towards the shores of Gujarat. "Operation Dwarka" as the Pakistan Navy called it, aimed at destroying a radar station that helped India monitor naval activity in the Arabian Sea. The naval bombardment lasted for four minutes. The warships turned back towards Karachi fearing aerial attack from the Indian Air Force (IAF) airbase at Jamnagar.

Also read - 1965 war: How India almost lost to Pakistan

Their shells, as documented by a naval team that visited the site the next morning, fell on the soft soil between the temple and the railway station shattering the guest house and damaging a steam engine. The only casualty of the attack was a cow which happened to be in the vicinity. The damage was limited because 40 of the 50 shells that were fired failed to explode.

Indian naval historians describe this as a nuisance raid. There was no coastal radar station at Dwarka, but such facts clearly come in the way of an exciting naval yarn. Pakistani naval accounts say the operation achieved several of its four-fold objective of drawing Indian naval units out for their submarine PNS Ghazi to attack, to destroy a radar station, to lower Indian morale and divert the IAF away from the north. The Pakistan Navy celebrates September 8 as Navy Day.

But Dwarka was not entirely undefended that night. And herein lies the bizarre twist in this tale. On September 2 the Indian Navy despatched the INS Talwar to carry out a barrier patrol off Okha to warn of the approaching Pakistan Navy. INS Talwar, a 2,600-tonne "Whitby class" frigate acquired from Great Britain just five years back was among the most modern warships in any Asian navy. Its Mark 6 twin 4.5 inch guns could belch out one tonne of steel and high explosive a minute to a range of 16km. These guns were guided by an advanced FPS-5 fire control system. The warship had secondary armaments of anti-submarine mortars and anti-aircraft guns.

Also read: Why should we remember the 1965 India-Pakistan war?

The Talwar had pulled into Okha, just 30km north of Dwarka, after developing engine trouble on September 6. It intercepted the transmissions by the Pakistan Navy fleet and sounded action stations at around 10pm after concluding that she was the target. The Talwar’s gunnery officer reported that the ship’s 4.5 inch gun mounting and fire control radar were fully tuned for combat.

The Talwar did not sail forth and seek battle. Her reluctance to engage the Pakistani flotilla could have been because the Navy’s hands were tied by a strange order from the ministry of defence in South Block. In early September, an additional secretary in the MoD sent a note on a file to Navy chief vice admiral BS Soman stating that the "Navy was not to operate north of the latitude of Porbandar, and was also not to take or initiate offensive action at sea against Pakistan forces unless forced to do so by offensive action against Pakistan forces."

The government did not want to enlarge the conflict. This restraint, which was a redux of the 1962 war with China in which prime minister Nehru fatally miscalculated by not deploying the qualitatively superior IAF.

But even this bizarre government directive did not explain the reticence of the INS Talwar and her skipper commander VA Dhareshwar. Several Indian naval officials were outraged by his conduct. In his sweeping account "War in the Indian Ocean" vice admiral MK Roy alluded to the court martial of admiral Sir John Byng of the Royal Navy who failed to take adequate action against the French fleet during the siege of Minorca. Admiral Byng was executed on the quarterdeck of the HMS Monarch in Portsmouth in 1757. Vice admiral Roy was not suggesting such an action in the Indian context. "But it should never be forgotten that it is the bounden duty of a sea officer to bring the enemy to battle." Admiral Nelson, time and again, followed this, followed by turning "a Nelson’s eye" to his superior’s orders not to engage the enemy.

Vice Admiral Krishnan, later the eastern naval commander during the 1971 war with Pakistan is reported to have said, "One of our frigates was at Okha. It is unfortunate that she could not sail forth and seek battle. Even if there was a mandate against the Navy participating in the war, no government could blame a warship for going into action, if attacked. An affront to our national honour is no joke and we cannot laugh it away by saying, 'All the Pakistanis did was to kill a cow.' Let us at least create a memorial to the 'unknown cow' who died with her hooves on in a battle against the Pakistan Navy."

The Indian Navy’s official history Transition to Triumph mentions that the Talwar had to be put into Okha for repairs because she had "developed leaks in her condensers resulting in a serious problem of boiler feed contamination".

One of INS Talwar’s former crew told me recently that this was a difficult problem but not entirely insurmountable. At the very least, the Talwar could have used her guns to fire at the Pakistani warships from inside the harbour.

The Talwar incident was not quickly forgotten. The earth-shaking blowback from the raid on Dwarka was felt six years later during the 1971 war, where vice admirals Roy and Krishnan played a key role. The Indian Navy cited the coastal raid to swiftly acquire missile-equipped fast attack craft from the Soviet nion. These "missile boats" as they were called, were towed by larger warships and let loose near Karachi during the December 1971 war. In two separate attacks, "Trident" and "Python", they carried out what remains the world’s most successful use of anti-ship missiles. They sank a Pakistan Navy destroyer, a minesweeper, a fleet tanker, three merchant ships and set the oil tanks at Karachi ablaze. The ghost of "Operation Dwarka" and the dead cow had finally been put to rest.