Military & Aerospace

Revival of Maritime Outlook in Modern India: The Role of KM Panikkar
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Issue Vol. 36.2, Apr-Jun 2021 | Date : 09 Jul , 2021

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It is apparent that 21st century India is once again looking towards oceans for her security and economic prosperity. Her interactions with nations across the entire Indo-Pacific and beyond are on the increase. The maritime arena will undoubtedly will be a major enabler in providing necessary linkages. Needless to say, the role played by KM Panikkar in revival of this maritime outlook in modern India cannot be overlooked.

Speaking at the Commissioning Ceremony of Mauritius National Coast Guard Ship Barracuda at Port Louis, Mauritius, on 12 March 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The seas forged links of commerce, culture, and religion with our extended neighbourhood across several millenniums. Our more recent history has focused our attention on our continental neighbourhood. But India has been shaped in more ways by the seas around us. Today, 90% of our trade by volume and 90% of our oil imports take place through sea. We have coastline of 7500 km, 1200 islands and 2.4 million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone. India is becoming more integrated globally. We will be more dependent than before on the ocean and the surrounding regions”. The importance of the seas for economic growth, prosperity and hence security of India could not have been put across more succinctly. It has also been brought out that while there was an active sea faring past, for a period of time maritime arena did not receive the attention it deserved.

India’s Maritime Heritage

Archaeological evidence found in Mohenjo-Daro (3000-2500 BCE), indicates that even at the time of Indus Valley Civilisation, Indians had regular seafaring activities. The Rig Veda mentions sea voyages and has a prayer seeking blessings for safe passage across the seas, “Do thou convey us in a ship across the sea for our welfare”. It also emerges that shipping was a systematic and regulated activity in ancient India. Manu Smriti the ancient legal text has provided for maritime trade rules. Kautilya’s Arthashastra compiled over two millennia ago, indicates the post of a Chief Controller of Ports and aspects of port dues and customs duties. It further talks of a Chief Controller of Shipping and Ferries, who was responsible for a variety of maritime activities including welfare of sea traders and seamen, ensuring sea worthiness of ships and tackling piracy. Arthashastra clearly states that pirate ships and enemy boats violating territorial limits should be destroyed. Mauryan Empire had a Board of Shipping to look after shipping related activities.

Historian Radhakumud Mookerji, had analysed India’s maritime activities and linkages from historic times with civilisations and countries across the world through trade and commerce in his book ‘Indian Shipping – A History of the Sea-borne Trade and Maritime Activity of the Indians from the Earliest Times’,published in 1912. Mookerji wrote,“We have ample evidence to show that for full thirty centuries India stood out as the very heart of the Old World, and maintained her position as one of the foremost maritime countries. She had colonies in Pegu (in modern day Myanmar), in Cambodia, in Java, in Sumatra, in Borneo, and even in the countries of the Farther East as far as Japan. She had trading settlements in Southern China, in the Malayan peninsula, in Arabia and in all the chief cities of Persia and all over the East coast of Africa. She cultivated trade relations not only with the countries of Asia, but also with the whole of the then known world, including the countries under the dominion of the Roman Empire, and both the East and the West became the theatre of Indian commercial activity and gave scope to her naval energy and throbbing international life”.

About three decades after Mookerji, Sardar KM Panikkar, a diplomat, historian, strategic thinker and statesman, propounded similar views when he said “Millenniums before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become an active through fare of commercial and cultural traffic” in his study titled ‘India and The Indian Ocean’. He had further observed that “The close connection between the early civilisations of Nineveh and Babylon and the West coast of India is borne out by indisputable evidence and this was possible only through the navigation of the Arabian Sea”. Panikkar had expanded on the subject in a later study entitled ‘Asia and Western Dominance’ where he said“Indian ships had from the beginning of history sailed across the Arabian Sea up to the Red Sea ports and maintained intimate cultural and commercial connections with Egypt, Israel and other countries of the Near East. Long before Hippalus disclosed the secret of the monsoon to the Romans, Indian navigators had made use of these winds and sailed to Bab-el-Mandeb. To the East, Indian mariners had gone as far as Borneo and flourishing Indian colonies had existed for over 1,200 years in Malaya, the islands of Indonesia, in Cambodia, Champa (in modern day Vietnam) and other areas of the coast. Indian ships from Quilon made regular journeys to the South China coast. A long tradition of maritime life was part of the history of Peninsular India”.

Decline in Maritime Activities

Mookerji in his study had also lamented the adverse effects on Indian shipping and ship building under colonial rule. He wrote that “There can hardly be conceived a more serious obstacle in the path of her industrial development than this almost complete extinction of her shipping and shipbuilding… We have trade relations with every quarter of the globe, …the entire trade lies at the mercy of foreign shippers, who are at liberty to impose on us whatever freights they wish to charge for the use of their ships”. Stressing on the importance of shipping industry for economic development he said “It therefore behoves Government and all who are interested in the progress of India to be fully alive to the importance and necessity of reviving and restoring on modern lines a lost industry so vitally bound up with the prospects of Indian economic advancement”. However, despite the forceful arguments of Mookerji on the importance of having indigenous shipping and the relevance of maritime outlook for progress and development of a nation like India, it did not receive the attention it deserved. The obvious reason was that in the pre-World War I era, India was under British rule and it was evidently not in their interests for a colony to develop such capabilities.

Panikkar had gone further back in history and analysed the reasons for decline of maritime activities in India. He observed that sometime towards the end of the 13th century, maritime outlook started waning in India and by early 16th century, command of the sea was lost by Indian rulers. Panikkar brings out that “The Mughals with their Central Asian tradition had no recognition of the importance of the sea… The result was that during the 200 years of Mughal greatness, not only was the sea entirely under alien control, but …foundation was being laid by others for a more complete subjection of India… The importance of the sea came to be recognised by the Indian Rulers only when it was too late”. This resulted in the European powers starting with the Portuguese taking control of the oceanic waters around India and the Indian Ocean becoming a virtual British lake by the end of the 18th century.

Need for Maritime Perspective

By early 1940s, it was evident that colonial era was nearing its end in the Indian sub-continent. The Naval operations during World War II in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and more specifically the entry of Japanese Navy into Indian waters,brought into focus importance of control of the seas for security of India, something taken for granted when for close to 150 odd years Britain was unchallenged in the Indian Ocean. It was during this period that KM Panikkar emerged with his analytical works to highlight the need for a maritime perspective to further India’s national interests. His insightful books of 1940s and 50s, played a significant role in the revival of maritime outlook in independent India.

Panikkar’s book ‘India and the Indian Ocean’ mentioned earlier, was published in 1945. It was an in-depth analysis of the influence of sea power on Indian history. Quoting Khairuddin Barbarossa’s famous saying,“He who rules on the sea will shortly rule on the land also”, Panikkar opined that “The history of no country illustrates this principle better than that of India. There had been invasions and conquests of India from the land side on many previous occasions. But such invasions and conquests have either led to transient political changes or to the foundation of new dynasties, which in a very short time became national or Indian. In fact, it may truly be said that India never lost her independence till she lost command of the sea in the first decade of the sixteenth century”.

Panikkar’s Thrust for Maritime Development

It clearly emerges that Panikkar’s views were conceived from his study of the prosperity enjoyed by India, due to her long and dominating presence across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean Region and beyond, from ancient times to about the 15th century and the adverse effects on the nation, due to subsequent European dominance of the seas around India. His later works on the subject such as ‘The Strategic Problems of the Indian Ocean’,‘Asia and Western Dominance’, ‘A Survey of Indian History’ and ‘Geographical Factors in Indian History’,also emphasised the necessity for India to shed its continental mindset and embrace a maritime vision.

The impact of geographic location on India, with mountains in the North and oceanic waters on the other three sides was analysed by Panikkar in ‘Survey of Indian History’. In his assessment, since India was “a peninsula washed on its three sides by the Indian Ocean, she was from the earliest period of history a country with dominant interest on the sea”. He was even more emphatic on the influence of the seas on the newly independent nation in the updated 1951 edition of his book “India and the Indian Ocean”. He opined that “While to other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is the vital sea. Her life lines are concentrated in that area. Her future is dependent on the freedom of that vast water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless the Indian Ocean is free and her own shores fully protected”.

Panikkar had also forcefully argued the need for independent India to develop as a Naval power when he said, “India’s security lies on the Indian Ocean: that without a well-considered and effective Naval policy, India’s position in the world will be weak, dependent on others and her freedom at the mercy of any country capable of controlling the Indian Ocean. India’s future therefore is closely bound with the strength she is able to develop gradually as a Naval power”. He had also clubbed in the economic angle, “The commercial interests of India, though they have changed character have also increased… Her vast markets and her great natural resources can be reached through the Indian Ocean and her recent industrial growth, with consequent expansion of trade, emphasises the necessity of safe sea communications… Unless India is prepared to stand forth and shoulder the responsibility of peace and security in the Indian Ocean, her freedom will mean but little. She will be at the mercy of any power which has the command of the sea.”

In ascertaining India’s potential to emerge as a maritime power, Panikkar was influenced by the theory and elements enunciated by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan in his late 19th century magnum opus ‘The Influence of Sea Power Upon History’.Examining the six elements of Mahan, viz geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, character of the people and character of the government and additionally considering factors of scientific achievement and industrial strength of the country, Panikkar had assessed it feasible for India to emerge as a sea power. He also observed that some changes were needed in Mahanian doctrines due to the emergence of Air Power.

Panikkar had also talked of India needing to have a long term and short-term policy in naval matters. The long-term objective in his view was for India to develop as a naval power capable of defending her interests in seas vital to her and of maintaining supremacy in Indian Ocean Region. He had also forecast a period of around 25 years for India to develop the necessary scientific, technological and industrial capability to do so. Panikkar also wrote of the need for a short-term policy that can be practical under the limitations of national economy. Even in the short term, he argued for the development of a balanced regional Navy capable of operating a task force in own area and having the ability for joint operations with Fleets of friendly nations at global level. He was very clear that Navy is not for defence of land, but to secure control of seas to prevent enemy from approaching coast or interfering in trade and commerce and of being capable to blockade enemy coast and destroying his forces. Panikkar also recommended the types of vessels a balanced Navy should acquire and spoke of changes needed in maritime affairs due to emergence of air power and more importantly the need for a Naval Air Arm as against merely having an Air Force. He was also for developing a mercantile marine, having specialised maritime training institutions and highlighted the imperative need to develop at any cost indigenous ship building and repair facilities with supporting industries.

Support of Nehru for Enhancing Sea Power

The efforts of Panikkar to revive maritime awareness in the newly independent nation,was able to get the necessary thrust as Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru,shared a similar vision. Nehru evidently a voracious reader,was possibly also influenced by writings of Panikkar. Nehru referred to Panikkar’s book ‘Geographical Factors in Indian History’ and how Panikkar had brought out the significance of sea in Indian context in a note to his Defence Minister in September 1955. Nehru also expressed the view that “not all the land forces can protect us from sea attacks. The Air Force can protect us to some extent but only to a very limited one just near our borders. The sea has no frontiers like the land which has it. India, therefore, has to play an important role in the ocean surrounding her. I do not mean to say that we should presume to control these oceans. That is too big a task. But we should be strong enough to resist the control of any other power”. The same year, while addressing a parliamentary party meeting, Nehru had remarked,“We have to be equally conscious of both land and sea apart from the air, which is common to both… the whole conquest of India by the British, and the French and the Portuguese and all that came because we lost on the sea… it is lack of this conception of sea power that has been our undoing often in the past… for a country like India, the sea is most important from the defence point of view and obviously from the trade point of view”.

Nehru had also generally endorsed the views of Panikkar on the type of Navy and importantly on the need for an aircraft carrier. Nehru had opined“the Defence of India and the development of our trade…require a certain capacity for sea defence… the Destroyer type, that is, small fast-moving ships which can easily manoeuvre. These Destroyers or Frigates should be the main base of our Navy… An aircraft carrier also normally speaking is desirable… It is really a moving airstrip which can be sent anywhere and stationed anywhere. Its mere presence gives strength to the Navy… It gives us certain command over the area where it can reach”.


It would be evident that the well-researched findings and forceful arguments of Panikkar and the appreciation by Nehru of the importance of sea power for a nation like India, resulted in the revival of maritime outlook in India. This vision led to the thrust for development of ports and associated infrastructure all along the coast, revival of mercantile marine and ship building. More importantly the growth of Indian Navy from a virtually coastal force at the time of independence, into a major maritime force with an air arm and an aircraft carrier by 1961, is reflective of the revival of a maritime outlook. Over the years,India was also able to develop a balanced Navy capable of operating well away from own waters and a Coast Guard to safeguard her Exclusive Economic Zone. Even as India was developing her economic, industrial and scientific capabilities, the Navy took necessary steps for indigenous construction of major warships in the 1960s. We have come a long way since then and are today into construction of major warships and submarines, including aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. In keeping with the 21st century concept of Indo-Pacific, India’s maritime forces are operating deep into the furthest reaches of both the oceans and also carry out regular exercises with maritime forces of other nations.

Panikkar had also expressed the view that in order to be a nation with a maritime outlook and a naval power, it is important for India to create “a naval tradition in public and sustained interest in oceanic problems and a conviction that India’s future greatness lies on the sea”. The fact that India has developed an awareness on the importance of the seas would be clear from the views enunciated by the Prime Minister at Port Louis in March 2015 as quoted earlier. Similar views were reiterated by him at the Shangri La Dialogue in June 2018, when he said “The Indian Ocean has shaped much of India’s history. It now holds the key to our future… It is also the lifeline of global commerce… The Indo-Pacific is a natural region. It is also home to a vast array of global opportunities and challenges. I am increasingly convinced with each passing day that the destinies of those of us who live in the region are linked… We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air… our sea lanes will be pathways to prosperity and corridors of peace…”

It is apparent that 21st century India is once again looking towards oceans for her security and economic prosperity. Her interactions with nations across the entire Indo-Pacific and beyond are on the increase. The maritime arena will undoubtedly will be a major enabler in providing necessary linkages. Needless to say, the role played by KM Panikkar in revival of this maritime outlook in modern India cannot be overlooked.

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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

Vice Admiral MP Muralidharan

was the first Commandant of Indian Navy Academy at Ezhimala.

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