Landing of terrorists on Mumbai coast in November 2008 and subsequent mayhem caused in the city by the killings of scores of residents jolted the country’s security experts and political masters from their somnolent attitude towards securing the vast coastline. The historical mindset that threat to India’s security would emanate only from the northern land borders had led to the neglect of coastal defence infrastructure and myopic security appreciation.
India has over 7500km of coastline giving it a large economic exclusive zone. Additionally, the Lakshadweep and Minicoy islands on the west and Andaman and Nicobar islands in the east of the mainland further add to the EEZ. The country can generate considerable offshore economic activity regarding marine products and contribute indigenously to its quest for energy security. India has also been allotted a large area in the central Indian Ocean to explore sea-bed for rare minerals.
A large number of minor and major ports, while not yet adequately modernised to handle higher volumes of trade, have been instrumental in the country’s economic progress based on exports and imports of goods. It is also because of the Indian Ocean that the country gets the south-west monsoon current bearing life-sustaining rainfall. It would thus be pertinent to state that the Indian Ocean and its constituent Seas and Bays have a direct connect with India’s march towards being a developed country in the near future. Any disruption in this connection will have disastrous ramifications to India. India’s national security will be under threat if any of the components of its comprehensive national power gets denuded or degraded through adversarial action. It will be manifested as a disruption in energy as well as goods trade through piracy deliberately sponsored or aided by those inimical to India.
Although the world had witnessed high levels of piracy along the coast of Horn of Africa and in the South China Sea, the reach of this scourge was seen close to Indian shores when one pirate ship was sunk by Indian navy close to Minicoy Island in the year 2011.
Illegal deep sea trawling for marine products in the Indian EEZ adversely affects its export potential and is a direct threat to the wellbeing of millions of its citizens whose livelihood is dependent on the ocean. The possibility of Illegal migrants occupying un-inhabited island territories is quite high due to deficiencies in round the clock surveillance and monitoring capabilities. Instances of some of smaller islands of Andaman and Nicobar being occupied for some duration for fishing activities have been detected in the past. These illegal migrants colluding with terrorists cannot be ruled out. Increasing marine pollution because of oil spills and other effluents due to ever-rising shipping traffic along the sea lanes of communication passing through Indian EEZ is yet another threat which the country is unable to obviate.
Offshore oil drilling rigs and processing platforms could be targeted to cause severe disruptions to India’s indigenous energy production. Indian strategic thought has to delve deeply on the importance of Indian Ocean to India as its lifeline as well as a threat.
Writing in the 1940s, KM Pannikar, a noted historian had argued that “While to other countries the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is a vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area; her freedom is dependent on the freedom of that water surface”.
One of the great freedom fighters, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, stepping on the shores of Andamans while being interned at the Cellular jail in 1911, had envisioned these islands as sentinels of mainland security. He had written in his autobiography “My Transportation for Life” about the need to develop Andamans as India’s forward naval base to dominate the maritime area around and guard any naval incursion on the mainland from the East. The late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru summed up India’s concerns regarding threats from the maritime front when he stated that “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s seaborne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” To summarise, India’s key security considerations include –
- The accessibility of the Indian Ocean to the naval fleets of the world’s most powerful
States. The steady rise in Chinese naval footprint in the Indian Ocean Region.
- The proliferation of conventional military power and nuclear weapons among the
- The large Islamic populations on the shores of the ocean and in its hinterland which has come under the influence of the radical and extremist leadership.
- Illegal immigrants and human trafficking.
- India being made a conduit for illegal trade in arms and narcotics.
- The oil wealth of the Persian Gulf. Critical dependency for energy security by many developed and developing countries.
- The importance of crucial straits such as Hormuz and Malacca for world trade and their possible effect as choke points.
Supplementing its diplomatic and political initiatives, India is shaping its growing military capability for envisaged threats emanating from and in the IOR. These forces should be able, should the need arise, to prevent militaries especially the air forces and navies of hostile nations to have freedom of operation in the Indian Ocean. They should be able to operate in distant waters with impunity to safeguard Indian maritime and economic interests and if need be project power over the mainland of hostile nations.
The most critical capability is to have all-around surveillance, interception and interdiction capability over crucial choke points, on vital islands, around the littoral, and along key sea routes, India seems to be playing a catch-up game in terms of its capacity building to counter likely threats to its interests in IOR. It has to be very clearly understood by the policymakers that the strategic scenario may not unfold as envisaged and hence the nation needs to be prepared for the unexpected.
The interests of outside powers in the IOR may grow to such a level as to be in confrontation with those of India. It would then depend upon the wisdom and all the diplomatic acumen of the national leadership whether India stands firm or acquiesces to the adversary. Hence, if India sees IOR as primary area to pursue its national interests, it is quite apparent that there is no escape from building adequate deterrence and a credible and effective military response.