Glimpsing India’s naval footprint

Strong winds blew over Changi Naval Base amid a light drizzle as I stepped aboard the INS Ranvijay for a reception on Sept 21.

The Indian Navy (IN) ship and its accompanying vessels were in Singapore to participate with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) in the 30th edition of the annual Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise (Simbex).

The mood on the deck was convivial. Jovial discussions overflowed among the RSN guests and their Indian hosts over welcome drinks and snacks that included paneer masala and mutton balls. Whoever cooked those dishes should be rewarded for having entrenched the gastronomic dimensions of India’s Act East policy. 

On the formal front, Indian High Commissioner Shilpak Ambule placed Simbex in the context of the enduring and expansive nature of bilateral ties. (It holds the distinction of being the longest continuous naval exercise that the Indian navy has carried out with any country.)

Captain Saikat Chatterjee, defence adviser at the Indian High Commission, looked on contentedly, his office having been instrumental in ensuring that Simbex 2023 would be off toall smooth sailing.

Dinner followed, but I had to leave. It was a wistful moment. It was sad to be, leaving a ship that is a microcosm of India.

The INS Ranvijay’s officers and other sailors are drawn from diverse parts of India. They have different mother tongues and faiths, and come from varying educational backgrounds and economic strata of society, but they are united by a seamless sense of being Indian and a deep pride in their professionalism.

They know that India’s global naval footprint depends on how well they and their colleagues elsewhere in the Indian navy can turn nationalism into professionalism.

I remembered the historian and strategist Kavalam Madhava Panikkar. He emphasised in A Survey Of Indian History the maritime possibilities of Indian power by drawing a distinction between the oceanic and coastal varieties of Indian sea-consciousness.

“The only Indian State which had a proper appreciation of sea power was the Chola empire” because it possessed naval self-consciousness that made possible an “oceanic policy, not just a coastal awareness of the economic and military importance of the waves washing ashore”, he wrote.

That oceanic policy led to the establishment of bases in Nicobar and the assertion of territorial authority over the coastal areas of Malaya. The Cholas’ punitive expedition against the Srivijaya kingdom, a foray which included the capture and temporary occupation of Kadaram (modern Kedah) in 1025, represented the zenith of Indian naval credibility in what is South-east Asia today.

The colonial period witnessed the contraction of Indian maritime power. The Indian Maritime Doctrine of 2015 acknowledges the valour of the Zamorins of Calicut in their fight against the Portuguese in the early 16th century and the tactical successes of Maratha navies against European warships in the early 18th century.

Ultimately, however, Indian states “could not take the battle against the European navies beyond littoral waters. While they successfully chased them away from the Indian coast time and again, the extra regional blue water navies remained free to operate in the waters of the northern Indian Ocean. With sea control of these waters firmly in European hands, the domination of these colonial powers over India’s maritime trade – and subsequently, even on its sovereignty – ensued in logical progression.”

Yet, even within the colonial dispensation, the most enlightened of rulers recognised India’s military potential. Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905, wrote in 1909: “The central position of India, its magnificent resources, its teeming multitude of men, its great trading harbours, its reserve military strength, supplying an army always in a high state of efficiency and capable of being hurled at a moment’s notice upon any point either of Asia or Africa – all these are assets of precious value.”

That vision has led scholars to call for a “neo-Curzonian” foreign policy based on the centrality of India’s dealings with major powers, in order to seek leverage from East Africa to Pacific Asia, on the strength of India’s ability to retain enough of a “military surplus” to be a security provider in an extended neighbourhood.

That is a good idea. Of course, only the foolish would call for India to replicate the imperial ambit of the Cholas or the colonial ambitions of the British. Imperialism never lasts. Colonialism ends not only with the loss of empire but with the contraction of the original national self, as witnessed by the post-colonial decline of Europe. What is expected of India instead is a desire to play a countervailing role against attempts to disturb the stability of Asia’s strategic architecture.

Structural rivalry among the great powers over the future of the global order threatens to split the Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from America’s Pacific coastline to the Indian Ocean and is home to more than half of humanity, accounts for nearly two-thirds of the world’s economy, and hosts seven of the world’s largest militaries.

In this volatile context, Singapore’s adherence to an open, rules-based international order advances not only its own interests but also those of all countries that depend on multilateralism for the peaceful resolution of territorial and other disputes.

India, on its part, believes in the contribution of a free and open Indo-Pacific to the equitable evolution of the world order.

Unfortunately, not every country is satisfied with the status quo in the Indo-Pacific. Revisionist attempts are underway to alter the prevailing order, not least by attempts to draw seas into exclusive spheres of influence. Countervailing stability demands an anchor somewhere.


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