India and the Sea of Tales
Prime Minister Narendra Modi helped bring the Indian Ocean to the consciousness of the average Indian – at least for a while. Nothing new in that. The Indian Ocean has been a strangely intermittent matter of interest to the people of the subcontinent. There has been a long-standing interest in seaborne trade and investment. But the idea of a strategic control of the seas bordering India has been an on-and-off things. Others have understood this: the great seaborne imperialists, the Portuguese, called the area from South Africa to Indonesia “the state of India.”
Here are a few things many don’t know about India and its ocean.
1. India’s ancient empires had large navies and sometimes sailed considerable distances. The Mauryas sent large flotillas of ships to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean on diplomatic missions. The Cholas, of course, were a genuine maritime empire, following the coastline from Sri Lanka upto Bengal and on to Myanmar. At their peak they controlled Indonesia and the Malay peninsula. Even the far more insular Guptas kept a 1200 ship fleet to guard their coasts. The Marathas built a navy that kept the British at bay until their admiral lost interest.
2. Indira Gandhi has a strong case for being the author of a more assertive Indian Ocean policy, at least one that saw the central islands as essential to India’s security. Australian naval writer, David Brewster, in his book “India’s Ocean”, describes her near invasion of Mauritius, Operation Lal Dora. India, possibly working in tandem with the United States in 1982, sought to prevent a pro-Soviet coup on the island nation. Operation Lal Dora was a plan to land two army battalions from Indian Navy ships in Port Louis. As it is, a pro-Indian government was able to take power, thanks to some palm greasing and manoeuvring by the Indian government. In 1986 India twice intervened to keep the Seychellois president, the socialist dictator Albert Rene, to survive violent attempts to overthrow him. When plot talk thickened, the destroyer INS Vindhyagiri, was sent to the Seychelles and spent a fortnight there, providing “public displays of commando assaults” and put off the coupsters. Two months later, Rajiv Gandhi was sending Air Force 001 to help Rene fend off another coup.
3. For those who talk of India and Iran working together at some point, they may want to consider New Delhi’s experience with the Shah of Iran. In the 1970s the shah supplied 75% of India’s oil and much of it at subsidized rates. The shah, France and Indian intelligence nearly set up joint surveillance and electronic monitoring stations across the Indian Ocean but had the idea scuttled by the Indian foreign ministry. But the shah had greater ambitions. He eased India out of the Oman, won port rights in the Seychelles for his navy. Tehran than proposed an Indian Ocean regional grouping that would be centred around Iran. New Delhi seems to have been rather passive about this. In any case, the shah was tossed off his throne in 1980. But a powerful nationalist Iran, one suspects, will have a similar geopolitical ambition.