With its predominant position in the Indian Ocean, India faces imponderables and added responsibilities with such regularity that its Navy appears fully occupied with unforeseen contingencies in peacetime. These range from providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, to escort on request from other nations, to search and rescue operations.
For long, Indians were obsessed by the continental nature of their land, rested secure under the impression that the Himalayas provided a natural barrier. This is because man is essentially a continental creature and because India lost touch with the sea seven centuries ago. We remained blissfully ignorant that India was one of the important maritime powers from the third millennium BC till the 13th century AD and used the sea for a thriving trade from the Mediterranean in the West to South East Asia and beyond in the East. We remained ignorant even when violation of sovereignty was blatantly practised by European powers, first for commerce and subsequently for colonisation. Things have changed slowly but surely since independence and the Indian Navy has started to receive adequate attention for the last couple of decades.
In any country, the Navy is different from the other two forces—not just because it operates on water—but because the sea does not display boundaries. It is this character of the medium of the seas that makes navies eminently suitable for tasks other than just fighting and protecting. History is replete with examples of use of navies by their parent nations in furtherance of foreign policy. It was Oliver Cromwell who famously declared that “a man of war is the best ambassador”. For most maritime nations, the relationship between Navy and foreign policy is closely linked. It is conspicuous in some and subtle in some others. But the realisation of the potential of navies as instruments of statecraft has certainly dawned on all maritime nations in the last century. Ken Booth, the famed international relations theorist and author first propounded the theory of a Navy being best suited “as an instrument of state policy” and defined its trinity of functions: military role; policing role and diplomatic role with the ‘unity’ of this trinity being provided by the idea of ‘use of the seas’. For aeons, the predominant use of the seas has been for transacting commerce over sea lines of communication (SLOCS). Obviously, the seas are also used for naval manoeuvres; for transporting troops; for assault on an enemy at sea or on land; for exploitation of resources there from; and most importantly, for exercising diplomacy.
While the military role is the obvious raison d’être of any navy, the policing or constabulary role deals with brown-water functions of actual ‘policing’ by the navy. It is performed by the Coast Guard where one exists (as in our case since 1978). Primarily concerned with patrolling the coast to ensure law and order—just like the civil police—the role also include protection of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) against poachers and patrolling of harbours and the near waters against economic or environmental law offenders. In many ways, the Coast Guard feeds nation building through developmental interaction with the coastal communities, protection of fisheries, installations and ports. This effort is supplemented by the Navy whenever and wherever required, to fill the void due to insufficient resources and to ensure seamless monitoring.
The third side—diplomatic role—was always recognised and used to great advantage by the “haves” amongst navies. After a turbulent 20th century, this role has assumed great importance even amongst small maritime nations. The diplomatic role does not necessarily start and end with sweet diplomacy alone. As a matter of practice, more often than not it assumes a political hue. The primary purpose for using a navy in the diplomatic role is to further policy objectives, generally intended to seek favourable disposition on one end of the scale and to affect the thought process and attitudes of targeted governments, on the other. A navy possesses the power to wield influence through flag showing or mere presence off a foreign shore, or, through the threat of use of force. Gunboat diplomacy encompasses all of these and does not necessarily imply coercive diplomacy alone. These measures comprise an alternative to the gruesome prospect of going to war and have shown promising evidence of effectiveness. What makes warships so suitable as “ambassadors”? It is their unique attributes of flexibility (mix of capabilities); versatility (ability to perform a variety of tasks); mobility (capability to be able to mobilise quickly and go long distances at various speeds); endurance (ability to sustain at sea for extended durations); force projection (ability to project power on another’s shores by posturing and if required, by firepower or by landing troops). From its very beginnings after proclamation of the Republic, India has practised the art of naval diplomacy on various occasions with success.
As a practitioner of this role, the nation has always used the Indian Navy as a tool to further foreign policy objectives as well as for specific diplomatic missions. Activities like bilateral/multilateral exercises with like-minded nations, overseas deployments, rescue missions (on request or suo moto), hydrographic survey assistance, training courses in India and practical capsules in host countries are routinely conducted by our Navy. What are of import within this role are classical diplomatic forays that have been staged on many occasions with rich dividends. These have included flag showing, presence missions, and even an odd coercive diplomacy venture as was on display in the North Arabian Sea, for the better part of a year, during Operation Parakram (post attack on Indian Parliament).
In a manner of categorising, even the anti-piracy missions being undertaken by the Indian Navy since early 2008 fall under the role of coercive diplomacy. These uses of a Navy are sometimes grouped within the political role of sea power and are routinely called to order. The latter variety (coercive ventures) are invoked to avert war, or, to obtain desired results without going to war. Celebrated naval strategists like Mahan and Julian Corbett predominantly advocated preparation for and conduct of naval warfare. Even they touched upon characteristics of influence and prestige that can be wielded by ships but not to the extent the last 100 years have witnessed.
After World War II, we have seen the longest period without a major war, though the number of international crises and bush fires have seen a rise. The use of the navy in these situations has shown the success that navies have had in both persuasion and coercion, giving credence to the belief that intelligent and dynamic use of the navy can prevent escalation of war. A navy’s use is particularly suited to dealing with crises where diplomatic negotiations may not produce results. This is so because a navy can appear quickly off the trouble spot, apply force (at times without firing a shot) and just as quickly disappear, leaving little animosity behind.
The Indian Navy has also honed the skills of evacuation of Indian citizens and citizens from other countries from a third country engaged in war. The first such (twin) operation code named “Shield” and “Bolster” was successfully enacted for deinduction of Indian peacekeeping troops during the Somalia crisis, at the eruption of uncontrolled civil war in December 1994. A Task Force of the Indian Navy used threat of force over two Somali port cities under warlord control—Kismayu and Mogadishu—and stayed on station till safe retrieval of an Indian Army contingent by air and sea. The second such opportunity came during the Lebanon War (Israel vs Hezbollah conflict) of July 2006. A Task Force of the Indian Navy was on its return passage through the Suez Canal after an overseas deployment in the Mediterranean, when this war had suddenly broken out. With many Indian citizens stranded in Southern Lebanon, the Government asked the Navy for quick evacuation. The Task Force turned back for “Operation Sukoon” and made repeated forays into Beirut (through the war zone), ferrying evacuees to Larnaca, Cyprus, for onward airlift by Air India. A total of 2,280 people, including Indians, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Lebanese and a couple of (Indian) Americans were evacuated. Apart from the evacuation, tonnes of relief material including food was offloaded by these ships at Beirut, to be distributed by the Indian Embassy as required. Naval ships are called floating (moving) cities. Their versatility makes them easily adaptable to any contingency in far of regions.