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Why I gave my father’s Mahavir Chakra to the Naval Academy

The air was suffused with the fragrance of cinnamon and cloves. A bluish-green haze hung over the hills in the background, as we wound our way through the mangroves in the land of looms and lore to our final destination, Ezhimala in Kerala, where the Indian Naval Academy, spread over two thousand five hundred acres, lay nestled.

An ancient seaport with a past that connected rich civilisations — the Greeks, Arabs, Romans and other sea-faring peoples — with our own. I saw Mount Dilli in the distance, a beacon used by Vasco De Gama in the past. It is now used to protect Indian maritime interests.

I was going to the Indian Naval Academy to hand over the Mahavir Chakra awarded to my father Captain M N Mulla, (IN), posthumously. It was not easy to part with the only palpable connection that I had with the action taken on a fateful winter night on December 9, 52 years ago, which changed our lives forever.

War heroes are recognised for their own actions and courage — do their medals belong to them as individuals and become a legacy of their families?

The significance of heroic deeds often extends beyond personal recognition; valour is invariably commemorated by the regiment, the service, and the nation. The actions are honoured by the family, to cherish the memory and legacy of a son, a father, or a brother.

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ins khukri 1971 indo-pak war sinking A group photo of the men who survived the sinking of INS Khukri in 1971. (Express archive)

What is military heroism, what makes people take life-threatening actions in the face of great danger? Who does the hero belong to in the final analysis? An act of valour in battle uplifts and enhances the value and commitment of soldiers in the future. It defines the virtue of service and gives a sense of protection to fellow men in the belief that they will not be abandoned in the frenzy of conflict.

A hero can touch hearts and even shape the way we view existence.

My father’s actions did not correspond with the archetype of the military hero who captures a post, brings down an enemy plane, blows up a tank, or a harbour through gunboat action, or retains or captures land from the enemy.

In fact, his story is not only of a war and a ship, but of a man who lived and died by his principles, something which is very important in today’s confusing times, when everything is weighed by victories and successes. Battles won and men captured, where lines are blurred between good and bad, heroes and villains, right and wrong. It is also the aftermath of war in the lives of those who lose their loved ones, something which the average Indian citizen knows very little about.

Then why did I give away the Mahavir Chakra to the Naval Academy where it was accepted with great dignity and pride?

My mind hurtled back to half a century ago when my mother, clad in white, ascended the dais on Republic Day to receive the medal awarded to her husband from President V V Giri.

The present came crowding in with an empty ache, with a thought that had tormented me for years. Perhaps the Navy, its well-being and the longevity of its personnel meant more to my father than his own life or the family he left behind. These were his men, he could not abandon them.

My mother, sister and I eventually worked out our destinies. The thought that plagued me was: Were we the real inheritors of that courage? His actions revealed that his family was the Navy and the men he dearly loved and cared for.

It is this that made me come to the Naval Academy. A wonderful institution that churns out dedicated young men and women who are taught physical fitness, mental prowess, tactical strategies and discipline. It lies at the forefront of training quality leaders that would helm the future towards greater accomplishment. A world-class institution, of which every Indian can be truly proud.

As I entered the auditorium and looked at the sea of faces around me dressed in white uniforms ready to step out into the future, I wondered, how they viewed this compelling story of sacrifice and valour.

Once the ceremony was over, the medal found its space in the sanctum sanctorum of the Prerna sthal, a place where every cadet takes the pledge to serve his or her own country as they pass out through the portals of this hallowed institution.

As the cadets came up to me, one of them said, “Personal acts of cold courage are rare to come by, and when they do, they shake the world by the immensity of their heroic content.”

It was then that I realised that like the INS Khukri had found its final resting place in the sea, the symbol of courage, the Mahavir Chakra, belongs finally to the Navy.

For me it is has been a journey of inspiration that needed closure, to see my father’s medal of honour displayed in the place where he always belonged.

The writer is Chairperson and Executive Director Education, Innovations and Training, DLF Foundation Schools and Scholarship programmes

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