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The Indian Navy: From a ‘Cinderella Service’ to a Saviour of the Seas
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Pritika Datta | Date:19 Oct , 2017 0 Comments

Understanding the Indian Navy as simply a military wing of the armed forces in a crucial area like the Indian ocean is a trap that is easy to fall into. The Navy needs to be understood as a product of a “strategic national culture”, reflecting the thought currents and motives of the forces in power. Once this strategic national culture is taken cognizance of, it becomes easy to contextualize the following operations and its relative strength.

A Historical Trajectory

The beginnings of this can be traced to the Indian nation emerging from the ashes of colonialism in 1947. A pertinent and common fear of a nascent post-colonial State is the army as a rival power that may vie for political supremacy in a fragile democracy. This fear was also accompanied by the chaos and horror that was Partition and the political climate in neighbouring Pakistan where the military played an influential role from the start.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, an idealist who shared the liberal contempt for violence was wary of the military. This showed even in his personal strained relations with the upper echelons of the military during his time. This had a deeper implication in the form of the bureaucracy becoming the bridge that facilitated coordination and communication between ministers and the armed forces, therefore, the military contributing organically to decision-making in relevant matters of the country was an anomaly. A manifestation of this was seen economically in the budget where the Navy was allocated the paltriest sum, a trend that continued, thereby earning the navy a title it has shrugged off only recently: the Cinderella Service (neglected by its sister services: the army and the air force.)

One reason to justify this nature of neglect, albeit inadequate, is the continental nature of conflict in the country. Be it a long-drawn insurgency in the north-eastern corner of the country, separatist struggles in Kashmir and Punjab, as well as the Naxalite movement in the Red Corridor, the army needed the money and the focus to contain all the unrest within the country.

It would be historically inaccurate however, to make it seem like Nehru completely choked any sort of development of the Navy at large. The ‘1948 Plan’meant for the Navy, witnessed the commissioning of a destroyer: INS Delhi, that the Prime Minister sailed to in 1950. Critics believe this move was largely tokenistic in nature, however whatever little progress was made was undone in the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

The lethal blow dealt to the Indian State in the year 1962 had grave consequences for the Navy. Its institutional relevance now questioned and underplayed, the link between foreign policy and naval power was tenuous, at best. This lull continued for close to a decade where the Navy was most definitely written off as the Cinderella service of the forces.

The fairy godmother of the Navy came in the form of the war with Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. The Navy was deployed in both theatres of war: the Arabian Sea as well as the Bay of Bengal and redeemed itself to usher in an era where it would become a crucial part of Indian foreign policy.

This was also in lieu of the change of leadership and its vitality to succeeding Prime Ministers. Post Nehru’s death in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri was mostly engulfed by the war of 1965. With the rise of Indira Gandhi however, matters began to change gradually. She realized the impact of a strong presence of the armed forces and made optimum use of it in the war where Bangladesh was born. This project was pursued far more aggressively by Rajiv Gandhi, who paid personal attention to a robust relationship between the Navy, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s Office. As a result, there was the acquisition of the INS Vikrant and INS Viraat.

Once due governmental importance was given to the Navy, it proved its worth in the following events:

  • Foiling of the attempts of a mercenary coup in the Island of Maldives in 1987.
  • In the Sri Lankan civil war of 1987, the Indian Peacekeeping Force went a long way in trying to contain the nefarious LTTE, fighting decisive battles and aiding the Sri Lankan government in all its efforts. This operation culminated in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
  • The involvement of the Navy in the UN peacekeeping operations in Somalia between 1992 and 1994.
  • The rescue of the hijacked Japanese merchant vessel ‘Alondra Rainbow’ in 1999 where the Japanese took note of India’s capability as a naval power which further cemented the favourable relationship that exist and thrive even today.
  • In a world shocked by the ugly face of terrorism, the Navy was a part of the Operation Sagittarius in 2002, where American ships were escorted safely to Mozambique.

These achievements of the Indian Navy were applauded worldwide as well as within domestic boundaries. Public sentiment reached an all-time high during the Navy’s pivotal role in the rescue operations following the deadly tsunami that hit the southern coast in 2004.The internal security angle was supplemented by the leadership of the country becoming more conscious of the security of its citizens worldwide. This was reflected in the evacuation of 2000 civilians from a war-torn Lebanon in 2007, which again earned the Navy a great amount of appreciation.

Even with these crowning glories, the Navy still remained the wing of the armed forces with fewest military personnel and least share of funding. As result of this, systemic problems remained in the organization. A glaring view of these problems were seen when the coast guard was unable to pre-empt any signs of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack that had the country at a standstill in 2008. The need for modernization, technology and due attention to the Navy become all the more evident at this point.

In the current scenario, given the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, frisky neighbours and heightened tensions in South Asia, the neglect of the Navy will not only be a foolhardy step, but also fatal. However, apart from the traditional function of a deterrent in the image creation of the country, the Navy has affected Indian foreign policy in a nuanced manner.

Naval Buildingor Cementing: of Diplomatic Ties?

A preliminary understanding of Indian foreign policy would imply a robust relationship between two nation States would only be furthered through joint naval exercises. This is the case with Japan and Myanmar where joint military exercises between the countries only help in the building of mutual trust in a region plagued by suspicion and scepticism. The relationship is firm enough for India to consider the deportation of Rohingya refugees and be one of the few buyers of Japanese bullet train technology.

This argument can be used to explain why India has strong naval ties with Japan and Myanmar, but not China and Pakistan. A basic acknowledgement of goodwill is therefore a pre-requisite for naval relations to prosper.

The question of Israel becomes perspicacious in this regard. India is dependent on Israel for defence imports, and this dependence has grown with the onslaught of time. With the aggravation of this dependency, we also notice a softening of the Indian stance on Palestine. There seems to be a stark contrast in Nehru condemning Israel as a belligerent aggressor and Modi visiting Netanyahu and seeking to strengthen cultural ties. This might just lead to an alliance forging on the basis of defence. Whether this alliance is strategic, or skewed to benefit one country, only time will tell.

Conclusion: Symbolism in ships

In locating the Indian Navy in the context foreign policy, we can see a consistent electoral importance to non-defence spending, psephologically always the easier choice. However, the dynamism of foreign policy forces the leadership to bear in mind looming threats and externalities, rather than making the ostensibly easier choice.

The recent strengthening of the navy can also be seen in the context of a socially mobile bourgeoning population with energy needs. The Bay of Bengal happens to be an untapped energy source that both China and India seem to have their eyes on. In the present circumstance, it is a tedious task to keep China out of any discussion about Indian foreign policy. Now that it virtually owns Hambantotaright under India’s nose, the Navy will have to be more alert than ever, and this pilfers into a militaristic and rhetoric fuelled realpolitik in foreign policy.

On a concluding note, the Navy may not have always received its rightful place in foreign policy owing to a tension between the priorities of the government and the armed forces. In the sediscussions, it comes out quiet clearly that the navy is by no means a Cinderella, rather an unsung hero and a saviour of the seas and nation in more ways than recognized in academia and popular culture in Indian civil society and beyond.


1. Sikri, Rajiv. “Defence and Diplomacy.” In Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy, 243-257.

2. Singh, Jasjit. “Security Concerns and China’s Military Capabilities: The Eagle, the Dragon, and the Elephant.” In Power Realignments in Asia: China, India and the United States, edited by Alyssa Ayres and C. R. Mohan, 113-136.
3. Navlakha, Gautam. “Lessons from the Mumbai Attack*.” In Mumbai Post 26/11: An Alternate Perspective, edited by Ram Puniyani and Shabnam Hashmi, 125-137.
4. Holmes, James R, Andrew C Winner, and Toshi Yoshihara. 2010. Indian Naval Strategy In The Twenty-First Century. London: Routledge.
5. George, K. Tanham. “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay.” Santa Monica: Rand (1992): 2.
6. Menon, Shiv Shankar. “Maritime imperatives of Indian foreign policy.” Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 5, no. 2 (2010): 15-21.


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