Conquering land by water
One needs to visualise the scene to realise the gravity of the issue. When the English East India Company was granted a monopoly on trade in the east of the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in 1600, it succeeded by using force to first displace the Portuguese traders from Bandar Abbas in the Persian Gulf, followed by business in Surat in Gujarat. They gave hope and prospect of immense economic possibilities to their countrymen back home. Subsequently, the British merchants and the private (hired) guards fought their way to oust the Dutch, Spanish, and the French, to emerge as the indisputable foreign master of the Indian sub-continent. The role of power over the sea was without doubt the most important factor in changing the course and contours of not only India’s, but also the history of the entire non-white populace of the Orient. Soon, a time came when from Suez to Shanghai and Syria to Singapore, it was the empire of the Union Jack – facilitated by the Navy.
Until then, all large-scale, significant conquests were made via land routes. The invasion by Islamic rulers happened via land. As against Christianity, which spread and ruled the world through the cannons of the ship on the sea, Islam’s wing spread essentially through swords and steeds. All down the land routes.
There was hardly any naval confrontation between the British traders and the prominent Indian rulers in any of the peninsular coast, despite the Indian shoreline having remained mostly unguarded for centuries. Britain being an island kingdom had all the experience, wisdom, and wherewithal for the transport, manoeuvrability, supply, and war logistics about the sea. The fact is that all naval battles on the Indian coast took place among the Europeans only, with Indians as mere spectators.
Understandably, therefore, when the British had to leave India in 1947, the Navy of India, with whatever hardware it possessed, was “Made in England”. And not surprisingly, Indians virtually never got to know or command a ship from the “Captain’s cabin”. The Captain of the ship was the one with sole privilege and prerogative to steer the white man in the Oriental waters.
Understandably, therefore, when the Indians realised the importance of “the state’s power over the sea” in the 1970s and expanded the fleet thereafter, western reaction appeared quite sharp and critical. “Why should India need a Navy in the first place”, was the tone of their diatribe.
Thus reported Jane’s Fighting Ships 1984-1985: “Indian Ministers have spoken of the menace of Pakistani aggression, without identifying either the reason or the means behind such an action. Pakistan has a growth rate of over 6 percent on her GDP and a falling inflation rate. Her armed forces represent a smaller proportion of her population than most European countries while her Navy is barely adequate for the protection of her trade within coastal waters.
These facts, combined with the annual bill of some $ 200 million for support of the refugees from Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, do not readily prove an aggressive intent....With this background, and in view of the extreme secretiveness of the Indian defence authorities one is forced to speculate whether these protestations of danger are designed to deflect people’s attention from the astonishing build-up now in progress”. An Indian naval “build up” in the eyes of the west was an anathema, an eye sore. “How and why should India develop its Navy?”, “What for?” The attitude spanked of contempt! As if India had committed an international crime, as acerbic comments (of 1980s) continued thus: “New submarines from the Soviet Union, West Germany and the Bombay yards, cruisers ordered from the Soviets, as well as more destroyers, a growing home-based frigate programme - this must be a very costly programme for a country with a great number of its people malnourished and poverty-stricken, with a falling growth rate, and a rising population. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s call for a peaceful Indian Ocean made no reference to this being imposed by an expanding Indian Navy”.
Though the above lines are 31 years old, one may today ask why is the west, with all its economic prosperity and military might scared of small the Muslim countries of the Middle East? Why did the west invade Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq (countries which are much weaker than the western world) and destroyed the rulers and people thereof?
How come when India’s peaceful naval expansion was ridiculed, some rogue states as well as leaders thereof, were warmly befriended then, as well as now, for their professed and practised violence, hatred, and aggression?
It nevertheless goes to credit of the Indian system that despite continuous conflicting and competing political spectrum of different shades, India today sees the Navy as an instrument of power-projection, economics, as well as one of the extended diplomatic arms of the nation.
India’s emergence today as the world’s third most industrially active indigenous naval built-up programme, notwithstanding the existence of several grey areas requiring course correction.
Firstly, 60 percent of the naval operational fleet is either reaching, or have reached, their “shelf life”.
Second, indigenous war ship building programme has its inherent attraction as well as distraction.
Thus, whereas on one front it expands Indian economics with engineering production, distribution, consumption, research, development, and opening of employment opportunities, it also implies loss of business opportunities for those whose orders tend to be adversely affected as things become “Made in India”.
Thirdly, despite emboldening blue water naval capability, defence of coastal waters of the country does not yet inspire the desired level of confidence.
Fourth, despite tremendous performance in indigenisation of corvette, frigate, destroyer, and now concentrating on submarine and aircraft carrier, time and cost overrun need urgent addressing.
And finally, despite advancement, no navy can operate for long without permanent bases in the ocean, far from the home port.
The examples of the USA, UK, France, and now China are there for all to see, and for India to emulate. One must remember today that 70 percent of India’s oil import is seaborne and 40 percent are from Persian Gulf. Also, 90 percent of India’s foreign trade by volume and 77 percent in value terms are seaborne.
Hence, whichever way one looks or calculates, Navy emerges for the safety and security, diplomacy and defence, and the economics of the nation.
(The author is a graduate of the National Defence College, New Delhi. Views expressed are strictly personal.)