India’s role in the world order has been gradually expanding. From its fledging origins in the early-50s, to the exalted perch at which it finds itself now, there has been a virtual inversion of maritime status and power equations. Historically, Indian maritime forays into the outside world were driven by commerce and culture. There was a strong civilisational element to maritime excursions. Even the culturally affiliated ‘Indian’ kingdoms that came to be established in Southeast Asia were a result of the strong trade and cultural links shared with their Indian counterparts. The fact that they were completely independent — neither colonies, controlled from India, nor bearing any allegiance to any ruler in India — is illustrative of the ‘nuanced’ and balanced nature of our naval ambitions.
Contrary to what some western historians would have us believe, there was most definitely a deliberate and well thought out methodology to our maritime endeavours. India doubtless, sought to be a great nation; but not by conquest or plunder — instead by trading and cooperation.
“One mountain should have just one tiger” “” Chinese proverb
In time, a realisation followed that for trade to flourish it was imperative to ensure safety through the sea lanes. This impelled the Indian Navy into taking a more assertive role in safeguarding the EEZ and SLOCs. In all operations undertaken subsequently, it displayed greater proactivism. It was, however, not in the least hostile or confrontationalist in either intent or approach. On display, was a clear demonstration of the willingness to uphold fundamental principles of peaceful co-existence that was the guiding spirit behind all our maritime engagements.
Strategic Perspective on the Navy’s Emerging Role
In the 90s, for the first time after independence, Defence policy focussed on the larger context as to whether the military’s role was to defend national territory and sovereignty against external aggressions or to establish a military presence in the region to safeguard national interests?
For the major part of India’s post-independence period, the country had opted for an ostensibly defensive posture; the major preoccupation being the goal of rapid socio–economic development of the country and the concern for containing defence expenditure. The deterrent capability of our Defence Services, built up over the years, eroded considerably, even as it resulted in long stretches of comparative peace, enabling the nation to concentrate on its task of technological, economic and social advancement.1
It had an inevitable effect on the build-up of naval force levels. Sea control operations, based on the principle of continuously monitoring and controlling activities in a given maritime area over a period of time, required covering a theatre of operation extending over thousands of square kms. With depleted combat forces, it just didn’t seem a practical possibility. The navy perceived this as a disabling factor that would have a disrupting effect in its being able to secure the SLOCs (that it saw as a prime responsibility). It, nonetheless, took proactive measures with its existing force strength to ensure that safety in the sea lanes was not compromised.
Operations Undertaken to Safeguard the Sea Lanes
The efforts of the Indian Navy to safeguard the sea-lanes in the 90s decade could be broadly categorised into four types of naval operations — Humanitarian, Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) operations against illegal and undesirable elements, Anti-Piracy and Deterrent.
“¦mission of the Navy in the future would be defined by a new, more profound consciousness of the seas and the security of the sea lanes”¦
Humanitarian. The United Nations Operations in Somalia between 1992 and 1994 in which India participated. It was a first for the Indian Navy, to be participating in an operation of such scale and magnitude.
Low Intensity Conflict (LIC). Three prolonged ‘round-the-clock’ LIC operations against a mixed bag of malevolents:
- Operation Tasha in the confined waters of the Palk Bay which aimed to interdict the illegal transit of men and material between the LTTE Tamil secessionists in northern Sri Lanka and their sympathisers in Tamil Nadu.
- Operation Swan off the west and northwest Arabian Sea coast of India which aimed to interdict Pakistani terrorists smuggling explosives, weapons and ammunition in fishing vessels to religious extremists in India.
- Operation Leech and its successors in the Bay of Bengal which aimed to interdict the smuggling of weapons, narcotics and explosives from the bazars of Southeast Asia to coastal destinations on the eastern rim of the Bay of Bengal, for onward conveyance and delivery to secessionist militants who were combating Indian troops in the north-eastern states of India.
Anti-Piracy. Operation Rainbow, a joint operation with the Coast Guard in 1999, which resulted in the rescue of the hijacked merchant vessel Alondra Rainbow.
Deterrent. Operation Talwar in June 1999, wherein the Indian Navy enhanced security measures as a result of the Pakistani aggression in Kargil.
Operations Tasha, Swan and Leech demonstrated the ability of the Indian Navy and naval personnel to protect the EEZ not just from an economic but also a security perspective against malevolent forces operating in our territorial waters.
Operation Rainbow marked the first of the Navy’s operations against the scourge of piracy, which has reared its ugly head again in the Indian Ocean.
Operation Talwar was the first instance of the Navy supporting land operations in a predominantly territorial war. It also highlighted the effectiveness of Naval deterrence in such conflicts.
The sustained proficiency of our men and the reliability of material as demonstrated in these operations boosted the confidence of the Indian Navy to undertake blue water operations in distant waters.
By 2000, based on the experience in the above operations, India’s zone of peaceful maritime influence had crystallised from the distant Horn of Africa to the Strait of Malacca and to the Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
But there was also increased awareness that the mission of the Navy in the future would be defined by a new, more profound consciousness of the seas and the security of the sea lanes; that it would need the revision and redrafting of the framework of the conventional role of the Navy; that new geopolitical realities that shape our world would need careful and thoughtful consideration to truly comprehend the real threats that the future hold for us.
Operation Muffet in Somalia 1992 to 1994
The Somalia operation between December 1992 and December 1994 was the Indian Navy’s first ever overseas deployment in support of United Nations Humanitarian Relief Operations.
The international community began to send food supplies to halt the starvation, but vast amounts of food were hijacked and brought to local clan leaders, who routinely exchanged it with other countries for weapons.
In the late 80s, a civil war had broken out in Somalia after a military campaign against the incumbent government, that saw serious clan-based fighting between rival factions and large part of the country being occupied by the forces of dissidence.
In September 1991, severe fighting broke out in Mogadishu, which continued in the following months and spread throughout the country, with over 20,000 people killed or injured by the end of the year. Agriculture was destroyed and it led to starvation in large parts of Somalia. The international community began to send food supplies to halt the starvation, but vast amounts of food were hijacked and brought to local clan leaders, who routinely exchanged it with other countries for weapons. An estimated 80 percent of the food was stolen. These factors led to even more starvation, from which an estimated 300,000 people died, and another 1.5 million people suffered between 1991 and 1992. By 1992, almost 4.5 million people, more than half the total number in the country, were threatened with starvation, severe malnutrition and related diseases. The magnitude of suffering was immense. Some 2 million people, violently displaced from their home areas, fled either to neighbouring countries or elsewhere within Somalia. All institutions of governance and at least 60 per cent of the country’s basic infrastructure disintegrated.2
The UN Administered Humanitarian Operations
Against this background, in January 1992, the Security Council unanimously imposed a general and complete arms embargo on Somalia. In March 1992, agreements were signed between the rival parties in Mogadishu resulting in the deployment of United Nations observers to monitor the cease fire. The agreement also included deployment of United Nations security personnel to protect United Nations personnel and humanitarian assistance activities.
Operation RESTORE HOPE. Ops Provide Relief proved inadequate in stopping the massive death and displacement of the Somali people (500,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees or displaced). In December 1992, the US assuming the unified command in accordance with resolution 794(1992) launched a major coalition operation, RESTORE HOPE to assist and protect humanitarian activities.
India’s Participation in UN ‘RESTORE HOPE’
By the end of 1991, the situation in Somalia was grave. The international relief efforts were stymied by the fact that, while food supplies were reaching Somalia, armed gangs of the two warring factions looted food shipments and food convoys and prevented food from reaching the starving. There was urgent need to protect food deliveries from the looting gangs.