Ranjit B Rai


New Delhi, 24 November 2001

This special analysis for the IDC is sparked by the one-day seminar held at the USI on the 17th November which was truly revealing and productive as key serving personnel from MOD, MEA and the Navy attended and answered questions. It was a lovely Saturday morning and the attraction was five former influential Ambassadors in the gathering. The very relevant and important subject:’Indian Ocean Rim –– Strategic and Geo Political Aspects’, was organised by Shri A P Venkateswaran (former Foreign Secretary) as head of the Asia Centre. As some one remarked jokingly, there was more knowledge and brain power gathered in that one Seminar room debating issues for 7 hours, than in many places anywhere in India even in the Government.

The discussions were free and lucid. Ambassador Ranganathan had served in China and had recently visited China and Russia in a move to bring about a closeness between India, China and Russia. Nehru’s dream was again becoming a reality and this time in this decade we may see some fruits. The others who attended were eminent retired Secretaries, military minds and intellectuals. They spoke up without fear, as they were out of Government now, and some had become scribes –– like Mr J N Dixit and Parthasarathy former Ambassadors to Pakistan, who today mould minds by their writings. At times they were more emotional than logical as Indians are wont to be.

Representing the serving lot was the graceful and smiling Foreign Secretary Chokila Iyer, who inaugurated the proceedings as the Chief Guest and answered wide ranging questions about the current dynamic situation vis a vis Afghanistan, just before she excused herself to leave for Japan. There is great interest in India and Japan reviving relations as sanctions are off and Admiral Bhagwat had offered a template for cooperation and the PM is also to visit Japan.

The seminar was held at a time when Kabul had just fallen and India Today had revealed USA’s offer to collaborate in military terms. Shri Yogendra Narain the affable Defence Secretary, who had just returned from Moscow after signing  path breaking deals, was the guest of honour in the final session. Vice Admiral Raman Puri, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff who had returned from Washington and is responsible for operations and intelligence in the Indian Ocean tabled his views and at times clarified stances.

In summary the 11 September attacks made one take a look at the Indian Ocean without blinkers for the first time. The TV and media have done wonders to bring alive the Navy’s operational capabilities. We saw Barkha Dutt on a US Aircraft carrier donning a flying suit they gave her when they took her aboard in the Arabian Sea. It is now well known how the US and Royal Navy ships and submarines, spearheaded and made possible the 7 October attacks against terrorism in Afghanistan from the Arabian Sea. Today there are 72 warships milling around within 300 nautical miles of India from USA, UK, Australia, France and Japan. It is no wonder the seminar focused on what India should be doing about the situation now and in the future. There was seriousness and IDC noticed that many mandarins were now ready to speak up for the Indian Navy’s importance.

The tone was set by the presentation of papers. Rahul Roy Chaudhry, an Oxford don, now with the NSC and author of “India’s  Maritime Security”,. outlined how India should vamp up its maritime policies by coordinating the various Ministries and States and become proactive. He advocated this was the opportunity for India to move from isolation to becoming proactive, by adopting a holistic approach and gaining commercially too. A suggestion emerged that foreign navies should be allowed to use our shipyards, which have spare capacity, and port facilities while the Foreign Secretary merely confirmed that all requests for berthing and refueling had been agreed to.

India had to accept the gauntlet thrown by USA, to allow the Indian Navy to join other Navies and jointly assure the freedom of sea lanes of communication (SLOC) to the littoral countries and others that use the traffic-dense Indian Ocean. Many speakers said the time was ripe to take a holistic view of our policy. The Defence Secretary in his answers conceded the approach was being considered. He disclosed that India and Russia had signed for the creation of a sea land bridge for multi modal transport of cargo to Russia via Iran and the Caspian Sea. This would enable better trade in the long run and an Apex body was being formed for maritime coordination.

Vice Admiral M K Roy presented a passionate paper recommending the Indian Navy to be strengthened and once again it was the Defence Secretary who assured that the submarine fleet would double in the coming decade and two carriers would be added. In fact he said funds were not the constraints. It was music to many nautical ears as Navy Day dawns on 4 December and the three additional Delhi class have been ordered on MDL.

Air Marshal Vir Narain spoke about security of resources from the sea and conceded that the Indian Navy needs carriers but with a tongue-in-cheek caveat that one missile should not be able to cripple it. Vice Admiral I J S Bedi spoke of the political aspects and post Afghanistan war scenario and the Foreign Secretary assured that India was being consulted and would have its say. IDC now sees our Embassy opening up in Kabul. AMC doctors, nurses and para medics are there and the IAF has landed. ‘Bravo Zulu’ say the IDC. We have SK Lambah just returning from there saying the mission has been successful. IDC told you that he is a good hand.

In all, the day was most illuminating to bring home the point that now was the time to shed our non aligned stances and take some rightful steps to move into the Indian Ocean as one of the safe guardians of the area. USA and UK seemed to have invited us to the party for the first time and want to lean on us. To do this the Navy needs support and the Maritime Policy of India scripted to see that economic benefits also flow from the opening up of the sector to FDI.

Pakistan and the irksome terrorism it propagates came in for discussion and in private many agreed the LOC as the International Border was the most feasible scenario to follow. Yet when asked why some of them say so in private and not in public or write about it –– pat was the answer “ We cannot trust Pakistan who will then ask for more “ However this too cannot be wished away as India takes its place in the Indian Ocean –– for it was Mahan who said, “Whoever Controls the India Ocean Controls The World in the 21st century.” IDC recommends that in this era of globalisation, it has to be joint control. Good or bad it cannot be wished away and so India must ride the tide well as it is on the rise and it is High Tide time. India can act before the tide falls with our best thinking caps on.

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