Revisiting India’s maritime history and strategy

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India’s maritime History

Amongst the first instances of India’s maritime culture can be found in Mahabharata. Lord Krishna built the port city of Dwarka in order to move away from incessant wars with Jarasandha. This was an example of Krishna’s strategic brilliancesince this port served as a trade hub and a naval base that could ward off any threat from the Persian gulf. Apart from Dwarka, more ports sprang up in that region; Lothal and Karachapa being the most prominent ones.

Our ancestors understood and appreciated the significance of the Indian Ocean rim. Hence, for centuries India was the most prosperous land. Even in the current times, we realize that India’s most prosperous states are along its vast coastline. Not only did the Indian ocean rim acted as an enabler of trade and economy, but also the medium of Influence. The entire ASEAN region once belonged to the Indian sphere of influence.  Countries like Indonesia, Singapore (then Singha Pura), Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand adopted Indian culture in its entirety. (Interesting factoid: Thailand’s king is officially called as Rama.)

Having said that, with affluence and influence, comes security challenges. The vast coastline also posed a threat from European and south-east Asian invaders. Hence, visionary kings of India built strong navies to counter this threat. Examples include the great chola emperor Rajendra Chola, who, with all his naval power subdued the Sri Vijaya empire.

Furthermore, how can we forget the great Chatrapati Shivaji, also called as the Father of Indian Navy, whose visionary leadership kept the East India company at bay. Similarly, Marthanda Varma’s astounding victory in the battle of Colachel led to the decline of the Dutch East India Company.

India’s strategic distraction

This glorious history of Indian Maritime affairs faded after 1947. With creation of Pakistan and the rise of communists in China, our strategic focus shifted to Himalayas. Rightly so. But, after 75 years of Independence, the Himalayan challenge remains the biggest strategic distraction for India. We have built a strong army, air force, mountain divisions. But sadly, the Indian Navy remains the most neglected wing of the Indian armed forces. Not that Indian Navy is weak by any standards. In fact, the last time it was in action, the world map changed (1971 Bangladesh war).

But for strengthening it further, debates like these surface:

Why is it a question of Aircraft Carrier or unsinkable Island assets? Why not both? (We know that money could build hospitals, schools etc.) Notwithstanding partisan arguments, why not be ambitious? Develop the unsinkable carriers to protect the Indian Naval waters and use the Aircraft carriers to project power. Why not use the islands for sea denial, while using the carriers in high seas? Why not aspire to be a blue-water navy?

Make no mistake. China is rising faster than anyone can imagine. With state-of-the-art technology and the pearl of strings, it is fast encircling India. Notwithstanding whatever detractors may say, India has been in its firing line. Visionaries like Bipin Chandra Pal, Sardar Patel and George Fernandes warned us about the Chinese challenge eons ago.

India’s strategic direction

Having said that, in recent years, India is increasing its naval strength. Be it building Nuclear Submarines, nuclear triad or stealth destroyers, India is making slow but steady progress.

However, it’s not enough to project power. We need to remember that while China and Pakistan may keep us distracted in the Himalayas, but a stronger Navy will give us a leverage is Malacca strait against china; not to forget Pakistan’s economic capital, Karachi, could be in our firing line.

Nonetheless, a strong Navy is quintessential not only for strategic advantages but also secure trade routes. Piracy, maritime terrorism, weapon smuggling ,narcotic trade, human trafficking etc. are some challenges we need to look out for. How can we forget that the attack of 26/11 came from the seas?

Lastly, it’s time we reassert our maritime glory. It’s high time we don’t care for pacifists, but Indo-Pacific.

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Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.


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