“I led 11 strikes since I was commanding the fighter squadron. I had eight aircraft with me, sometimes 10, sometimes 12 aircraft. We attacked differently each time; in some of these, many of us got hit"
Rear Admiral Santosh Gupta, MVC, NM was invited to the National Defence Academy to inaugurate an ante room, built-in his honour. The facility was inaugurated by the Admiral in the presence of Air Marshal Sanjeev Kapoor, AVSM, VM, Commandant National Defence Academy, and officers and cadets of the academy. The Admiral has been interviewed on the sidelines of his busy itinerary while he was at National Defence Academy.
TDA: You have also been awarded the NauSena Medal for saving a Sea Hawk aircraft from ditching after a failed recovery on board. Please tell us more about that.
Adm G: This was in 1966. I was a Lieutenant and the ship was in dry docks, under maintenance. When they extend maintenance, the flying trials are carried out and the ship trials carried out are very extensive. Well, you have to prove all this before the squadron comes and before the whole ship says yes, we are operational. if you're not sure of the catapult and so on, then how can you prove?
This was a test flight along with a couple of more experienced pilots. In this process, two of us came down to land one after the other. There are four wires and number three is the target wire. If you do everything perfectly, you come to number three. I actually hooked the number three, plucked the wire but I didn't know then but the wire retarded my speed. If it comes below a certain speed, you can't take off again. They have a fatal axis set. But this wire, because of the flying trials being carried out and extensive work on this device, it parted from the joints, roved around the hook and tore the hook. I didn't know it and all I felt was that I haven't made it and I've got to go around again. In the nick of time, I opened full throttle, but again, it sank, almost touched the sea and then it picked up! I saved an aeroplane, I had my wits about me and was able to get airborne, land in Dabolim, Goa, get things repaired and come back to the ship again. My Nau Sena Medal came that way and it was for gallantry. There are two types of Nau Sena Medal, gallantry and non-gallantry. We don’t think twice when it comes to being gallant!
TDA: I'm told that you're fondly called Gigi! Our readers would love to know the story behind this nickname.
ADM G: I don't think anyone knows about it but I’ll tell you when I acquired this nickname. In NDA, in the third term, the Naval cadets went to sea. There, we were packed like sardines! 29 of us were in one room - living there, eating there, studying there. You were so close knit. Either you fought each other or you became good friends. All I know is that I became Gigi and this was before the movie Gigi came out, which I saw later, but this was in ‘54 some time. The name stayed because I didn't like it! If I’d liked it, it wouldn’t stick. To this day, until very recently, my own family never knew. Nobody. When they asked about me, people didn’t know who Santosh Gupta was. I'm known only by that name in the Navy. So, now they’ve learnt well after retirement that I don't call myself Gigi, only Santosh Gupta. But, even now I have to say Santosh “Gigi” Gupta or else people won't recognize me.
TDA: Share with us your experiences on board INS Vikrant, both when you commanded the White Tigers and as capital of INS Vikrant.
ADM G: Oh, well, I had seven different tenures on Vikrant. The ship was commissioned in 1960. The ships and the aircraft came on board in 1961, July/August in the English channel and in the Mediterranean. There were two squadrons, one that worked up in the UK and the other that worked up in France. Then we did three, four months of intensive workup on the Mediterranean, under the supervision of the Royal Navy.
We came out with flying colours, with all the armoured work done, day and night flying, day and night attacks. Everything was done. That was the squadron. But to command complete control that you have is only when you have been through the mill. I have been lucky to have had 6 tenures before, in different capacities, before commanding the ship. It was a very special experience to be the captain of Vikrant after these tenures.. Initially, I was with a fighter squadron. Then, I got a ground job on the ship as a better control officer, flight deck officer. Then, I went for my Air Warfare Instructor course with the Air Force and came back, after which, I joined as an Air Warfare Instructor of the squadron. After that, I was loaned to the other squadron for a year. So, another tenure of Kochi and then day and night flying, both. These are four tenures. I, then, became Commander Air of Vikrant which meant heading the whole air department. It carried on like this and my last tenure was as the Commander of INS Vikrant. Mind you, captaincy came much later because you are much more serious. In between, I had a number of ships in command - missile boats, squadron, the fleet tanker, two air squadrons, the Naval air station, then the Naval academy and then the last one was Vikrant. I was very happy to return to Vikrant! INS Vikrant was my birthright and nobody could take it away from me! (laughs) No way!
It was easy to command the ship. The only thing new was handling the ship especially when you go into harbour, come out of harbour and fight the ship as a unit. You have all the departments under you, not just aviation, but you have engineers, electrical, instructional officers, education department, etc. You have everything under you. You know, they say, the commanding officer of INS Vikrant has five wives. He's got to keep them all happy! It came very naturally to me as I’d seen the whole thing.
My wife thought she owned the Vikrant. She even wrote an article once - her competition with Vikrant and the Vikrant always won. We always gave priority to Vikrant. Vikrant was like my second home. She was a mother ship in every way. Honestly, my wife feels very strongly about it. She still gets tears in her eyes everytime we talk about Vikrant.
But, I always feel that it wasn't me. It was somebody looking after me. I've served six or seven commanding officers of Vikrant and they also rose to be Admirals. Some even became Naval chiefs. They must have played this chess to ensure that I do this, do that. They drafted me very well. My Waterloo was only as a Rear Admiral, at last. I didn't even know what was good for me. So they did it all!
I’d repeat my life again. If it happened to me again, I don't think I would have any regrets. I may have left the Navy one year earlier and that's about all.
TDA: Could you please spell out the most important learning from your time in the Indian Navy?
ADM G: (smiles) Oh, that’s simple! I could really summarise this into a couple of sentences. You have to be a leader. Not just a manager, a leader. You have to set personal examples. You cannot expect the best from your people unless you tell them where things are going wrong. If not you personally, someone else would. Be pleasant to everybody because the old system was “I'm telling you, you do this” but that doesn't work. He'll do it, but not with his heart.
I didn't realise that I was reasonably successful, until now. People are telling me now, messages coming in and I feel nice. They all call me a gentleman. I've never gotten angry with anyone and they all say, you deserve it and the aviators, they’re very proud of me. They often wonder why I didn't make it higher but they also know it can happen to anyone. You know, politics does play a part at that level. But I didn't join the Navy for politics.
TDA: How different was your time as the chief administrator of Breach Candy hospital when we compare it to your time in the Indian Navy?
ADM G: It was a natural process. When I joined Breach Candy hospital, I took a long time to say yes because I didn't know what I'm going in for. I didn't even know the names of any medicine apart from Crocin. I thought I was probably unfit for their job, but they chased me around just two, three months before my retirement. I had friends in Bombay who became very successful and influential with time. What happened was my name was mooted and went round with people of the managing committee of Breach Candy hospital. That managing committee was very influential. There were about 23-24 high grade people like Tatas, Birlas, Goenka, Garvares, Akbar Hydari, etc. there were also the foreigners, deputy high commissioner, British High Commissioner in India was also one of the trustees as was the trade commissioner for Germany.
When I joined, I didn't know what I was doing. I wanted to start from scratch. Breach Candy was desperate to have me just because of my name in the Navy. They didn't tell me, but when I joined, I came to know that the hospital had no money. They were running a debt of lakhs.There was no income. They depended purely on donations. That's how they were surviving and what were they doing with that money? They could not upgrade any equipment. So, I didn't know, because I had never taken interest in it.
What happened is that the money was actually being syphoned out in every case and every trustees’ eyes were closed because they were benefiting. Their maid servants, their drivers were all treated for free. So, what I merely said was that you are not spending one rupee without my signature on it. Any amount of money, I had to approve. I questioned every expense. I had a security guy because money was going out in cars. I started inspecting every doctor, even if he didn't like it. They reported, but nobody could interfere with that. I knew the famous doctors and we never had it so bad. One year after this, the surplus grew to a total of one a half crores. It kept growing and by the time I resigned after eight and a half years because of other reasons, the income was 16 crores a year. Now it may be more, much more. I did, of course, take assistance from the Navy. I got four or five managers, ex-Navy, who I could depend upon.
I was very enthusiastic because during my last one or two years in the Navy, I wasn't very happy.. Now, everything was new and I enjoyed it because for the first time I saw so many women around! 60% of them were nurses. I'd never been in an organisation where women were out there, working. It was very different.
But at the end of eight years, they respect me immensely because the ship, so to say, the hospital is running and profitable.
So the hospital was like your ship now?
(smiles) It was! When you ask me the difference, there's no difference. I did my rounds. I would inspect every corner of the hospital. My biggest achievement was finance, despite the union playing up hell. The first week I came in, they almost lifted me in a chair and almost threw me out of the gate. They rang my wife up and said, you will be a widow in no time. I would take different routes so that they never get hold of me. So, finances were nearly sorted out. What they do is they give you big presents and nobody dared say no to a union leader but I returned them all. That got their goat! They got more boisterous. One day, they went on strike. I said, you don't work today and you’ll get no pay for the day. It worked! But after that, they were very loving. Basically, they were misled.
I followed the same principle that you've got to set an example. You can't have any double standards. Even the trustees were no exception. I cancelled all their books and as soon as I left all books came back. But they waited. They wouldn't dare. Birla was a good friend of mine, Akbar Hydari too. Ratan Tata had left at the time. So they all backed me up. They were my friends because they knew I meant well and they, themselves, were very successful. I often met Ratan Tata at the golf club and at Aditya Birla’s parties. Everyone really respected him. I’m sure the others must've thought if he was supporting me, there must be a reason for it.
So it just carried on like that..
TDA: As a veteran and as one of the highest decorated heroes of the Navy, what message would you like to convey to the youngsters who aspire to join the forces?
ADM G: I'm going to repeat most of the things because those are my set of values. First of all, the Navy is a lovely service. Even if I don't compare the three forces, the Navy gives you everything. Any technical, and even the other ranks are very successful. You can be a submariner that could be on the ship. You can be a flyer and yet you're required to do all three, or maybe two. It’s a lovely service that is small enough for everyone to know each other.
Leadership qualities play a part, everywhere. You need to lead by personal example and you most certainly can’t bluff your time. You’ve got to be proficient at something or else you won’t be given a chance anywhere. The service is like that. You won’t get a chance to go higher although sometimes, even good chaps don’t make it. That’s a different matter. You get to live in the most wonderful places like Goa, Mumbai, Vizag, etc. At a family station, you may be separated for a while but you come back to comfort. It’s a well packaged service.
If you’re inclined to life in uniform, the Navy ranks very high. If you know what you’d like to do in the Navy, that’s even better! I’d never seen the sea and had no experience, whatsoever but I fit in alright. We fit in well because we chose to like it. One can not find faults in everything. Always remember to work hard, play hard. Devote your time to sports.
Most importantly, the camaraderie in the forces. Can you find that somewhere else? Nowhere!