Homeland Security

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: A security challenge for India
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Issue Vol. 28.1 Jan-Mar 2013 | Date : 16 Sep , 2013

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India’s military build-up, particularly of its naval capabilities and naval installations in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, worried ASEAN policy makers, who saw India as a potential threat to regional security. India’s relations with ASEAN however, improved in the 1990s as the result of the end of the bipolar world system and the UN-brokered peace settlement in Cambodia. For its part, New Delhi sought to boost economic and trade ties with the region and to establish closer political and defence ties in order to counteract China’s growing influence in South East Asia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have immense strategic value and it could be used as a centre point for India’s “Look East” policy.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a group of islands at the junction of Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, is a Union Territory of India. The Islands comprise two groups, the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, separated by the 10° N parallel, with the Andamans to the North of this latitude and Nicobar to the South. Of the 572 islands, only 37 are inhabited.

Organised colonisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by the Europeans began in December 1755…

Pre-Colonial Era

Rajendra Chola I (1014 to 1042), one of the Tamil Chola dynasty kings, occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to use them as a strategic naval base to launch a naval expedition against the Sriwijaya Empire, a Hindu-Malay empire based in Sumatra, Indonesia. The Islands also provided a temporary maritime base for Maratha ships in the 17th century. The legendary Admiral Kanhoji Angre  who established naval supremacy with a base there, is credited with making the Islands a part of India.

Colonial Period

Organised colonisation of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by the Europeans began in December 1755 with the arrival of Danish settlers who declared them to be a Danish colony, first named New Denmark and later Frederick’s Islands. During the period 1754 to 1756, they were administrated from Tranquebar  in continental Danish India. The colony was repeatedly abandoned due to the outbreak of malaria from 1759 onwards for varying periods of time and finally in 1848, for good. During these periods of abandonment between 1778 and 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony there, renaming them as Theresia Islands. In 1789, the British set up a naval base and a penal colony on Chatham Island  next to Great Andaman, where now exists the town of Port Blair. Two years later, the colony was moved to Port Cornwallis on Great Andaman, but was soon abandoned due to disease.

The British re-established a colony at Port Blair in 1858 which proved to be more permanent. Denmark’s presence in the territory formally ended when it sold the rights to the Islands to Britain. Thus, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands became a part of British India in 1869. The primary purpose was to set up a penal colony for dissenters and those fighting for India’s freedom. Thus was built the infamous Cellular Jail that today is a major tourist attraction. In 1872, the British strengthened their administrative control over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by uniting them under a single Chief Commissioner at Port Blair.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands became a part of British India in 1869…

World War II

During World War II, the islands were practically under Japanese control, only nominally under the authority of the Indian National Army (INA) Azad Hind Fauj of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Netaji visited the islands during the years of the War and renamed them as ‘Shaheed Dweep’ (Martyr Island) and ‘Swaraj Dweep’ (Self-rule Island). The Islands were re-occupied by British and Indian troops in October 1945 to whom the remaining Japanese garrison surrendered. Evidence of British and Japanese occupation by way of pill-boxes and other buildings exists even today.

Indian State

At independence of both India (1947) and Burma (1948) (now Myanmar), the departing British announced their intention to resettle all Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on the Islands to form their own nation, although this never materialised. The Islands became a part of the Indian Union in 1950 and were declared a Union Territory in 1956.

Geography

Andaman and Nicobar Islands have a unique location in the Bay of Bengal. The Islands are closer to a number of countries than the Indian mainland. Due North, they are just 22 nautical miles from Myanmar. At the southern end, Indira Point, the southernmost point of India, earlier known as Pygmalion Point, is just 90 nautical miles from Indonesia. In the East, Thailand is only 270 nautical miles away. In stark contrast to these distances, Port Blair is over 750 nautical miles from mainland India. The North to South spread of the islands facilitates domination of the Bay of Bengal, the Six and Ten Degree Channels and also parts of the Indian Ocean. Apart from their location, these Islands also have an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 300,000 sq. km. Thus, any country controlling these Islands would be able to control the Bay of Bengal. Due to their proximity to South East Asian countries, these Islands can serve as a bridgehead for any country wishing to either attack mainland India or carry out subversive activities.

Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Map © www.en.wikipedia.org)

India and the Indian Ocean

Being the largest nation in the area, India plays an important role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Apart from being strategically located, India has a vast coastline with the peninsula jutting out 1,200 miles into the ocean. It is also one of the fastest growing economies in the world. The EEZ of India has great potential for mining of undersea resources so crucial to the economy of the nation. With many important Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) passing through the area, this region is of immense economic and strategic significance to India as also to other nations. SLOC are the critical lifelines to East Asia’s trade and energy requirements.

The US has continuously displayed interest in the region with a significant naval presence deployed all year round and maintains a permanent airbase at Diego Garcia. However, of late, China too has been showing an increasing interest in the IOR. Strategically however, India is in an advantageous position. Apart from the important position in this region, the chain of Islands also shares maritime borders with countries namely Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. With such contiguous maritime borders, come major challenges of border management. Fortunately for India, relations today with all South and South East Asian nations are more cordial than they have ever been. Hence, the current threat level from the immediate neighbours, as far as these Islands are concerned, is minimal. Challenges however, do exist and ought not to be ignored.

The Challenges

The placid waters of the Andaman Sea belie the 24×7 threat perception that churns these waters literally on a daily basis. A war in the conventional sense might be a remote possibility, but that does not mean that the Indian Armed Forces do not prepare for any eventuality. Threat perceptions take into account a battle for the control of these waters.

Threat perceptions take into account a battle for the control of these waters…

While on the one hand, the Island territories make for an extremely useful Indian listening post for the larger IOR, the distance of these islands from the mainland, represents their biggest insecurity, making them vulnerable to conventional and non-conventional threats. There is no reason to believe that forces inimical to Indian interests and sovereignty do not have designs on these Islands, to spy on them and the many sensitive installations they house. In August 2011, a Chinese vessel camouflaged as a fishing trawler was spotted by the Indian Navy just off the Andaman Islands. Indian authorities concluded that the mysterious visitor was on a spy mission and was most likely being commanded by personnel of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) intelligence units. Grave uncertainties surrounding China’s maritime intentions in the Indian Ocean have prompted a singularly focused effort on the part of India to beef up forces deployed in defence of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The strategic location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has to do with more than just sovereignty. The Indian Navy’s endless watch is not just about protecting territories. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands straddle the busiest trade routes in the world and the onus of keeping them safe and sanitised, is one of the chief responsibilities of the Indian Navy. But the irony of the situation is that international waters around these territories have to be kept safe in coordination with navies of other nations, including China’s, an undoubted maritime adversary. Considering just how much energy security matters to both India and China, securing the sea lanes of communication is a fierce struggle, one where confrontation is always just a whisker away. The passage of billions of dollars worth of trade does not discount the threat of piracy in the Bay of Bengal and the adjoining straits, one that the Indian Navy has become all too familiar with, in the Arabian Sea.

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Andaman and Nicobar Islands face greater challenges to their internal security through non-conventional threats such as illegal migration from littoral states of the Bay of Bengal, poaching of marine and forest resources, arms and narcotics smuggling through uninhabited islands and natural disasters. In recent years, several such attempts and instances have created a sense of insecurity in the area. These externally sponsored security threats have now for long raised serious issues both in terms of determinable losses to life and property and non-quantifiable losses to national will and drain on scarce economic resources.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

former Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Training Command.

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7 thoughts on “Andaman and Nicobar Islands: A security challenge for India

  1. Nobody who is so “proud” of Vikramaditya can answer this question: “How exactly does this obsolete, profligate, carcinogenic rust bucket contribute to the defence of India in a way that less expensive tools and techniques cannot?” (Note, India’s policy is defensive and non aggressive). The US is an Imperium. A genuine blue water navy that keeps the lid on the World to the benefit of the US rulers and their pay masters. So are Britain and France with far flung colonies and assets. The British Crown is still the sovereign of the largest territory on earth. Why does India need a blue water navy? Can it ever afford one? To what end? The British sold India HMS Hercules (alias INS Vikranth) as an asset useless to them except to settle some of the vast debt they owed India at the end of WWII. India, bereft of any kind of strategic thinking or competence, simply continued with this mental delusion of grandeur. Like the Rashtra Potty Bhavan and all the pomp of Republic Day which is now more important than ammunitions, soldiers’ lives or protecting the border. I remember a small anecdote from Lidell Hart (War Historian) that talks of Marshall Guderion visiting Aldershot (U.K.) for an artillery demonstration before the war. Guderion wanted to know why the two soldiers were standing to attention behind the guns right through the very efficient firing of howitzers. Nobody knew. Then, going back to some old field manuals, it was discovered that they were there to hold the horses in the days before the guns were moved by engines. Guderion is the person who first saw and used tanks as cavalry rather than as mobile artillery and was architect of Germany’s Panzer Corps.

  2. Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a security challenge for India because they have not been used to their potential as security fortifications. India’s archipelagos (Andaman, Nicobar, Laskshadweep and Minicoy) could have air, missile and submarine bases built on them such that assets could be moved between them at will as required to provide India command over the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal AND the India Ocean in a way that no three or four Aircraft Carriers can provide at a fraction of the cost of buying and maintaining one! The trouble is that India has been leached off all merit, including competent foreign policy, military and strategic thinking for more than six decades by its Neta-Babu-Quota-Corruption Raj.

  3. Respected Sir,

    Do you believe , MH370 may have nothing at all to do with Malaysia…. In fact it is our Andamans…a plan very strategically devised and executed by our Western friends…

    Raju

  4. We should have an airforce base along with da navy and army also with da special forces stationed there at all time….we should also built good hospitals for our people and the armed forces….tourism should be open for public…..except checking each person and making sure they are not spies. Jai hindddddd

  5. Being an islander & a Master Mariner in merchant navy the above article was very informative & interesting. Self had been in merchant navy for the past 15 years & have also worked on the pax ships plying between mainland & islands, I do think that apart from external spying & threats there is a lot to be done internally also, coz most of the drugs & other illegal items are crossed over to the islands through these ships & personally I have seen the level of security on these ships. In simple words these ships are a soft target & the day is not very far when we hear the news that one of the ship has been hijacked by the terrorist or a large amount of drugs or arms found onboard. Coz there have been instances where explosives & drugs have been seized from these ships. The intel agencies should put these ships under their scanners before we get a big surprise.

  6. It’s very serious concern about Andaman and Nicobar,We need to care our Island’s are safe,We need to Max our navel power to keep our Islands safe,Our govt need to take step right way to secure the island,s,We need to order more fast Boat’s so our navy can keep the eye on it and also we need to keep military base right over there .

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