An effective constable of the Indian Ocean The Statesman 27 Mar 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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An effective constable of the Indian Ocean

An effective constable of the Indian Ocean The Statesman 27 Mar 2024

          After a nearly 40-hour operation, on 16th March, the Indian Navy’s INS Kolkata accompanied by INS Subhadra, employing sea-guardian drones, air dropping of marine commandoes from a C17 aircraft, led to the rescue of Maltese flagged MV Ruen from the hands of Somali pirates, who had seized the ship in Dec last year and were planning to exploit it to further their piracy.  

The incident occurred 2600 Kms from the Indian coast. It led to the arrest of 35 pirates and release of 17 hostages, including 7 Bulgarian nationals. The C17 aircraft flew for 10 hours to complete the mission, displaying inter-service cooperation, while sea-guardian drones were controlled from an almost similar distance.

The navy issued a simple statement mentioning, ‘(the operation) highlights the commitment of the Indian Navy towards reinforcing peace and stability, and also to thwart the resurgence of piracy in the region.’ The navy has currently deployed two warships in the Gulf of Aden and 10 in the Northern and Western Arabian Sea to monitor strategic waterways following increased attacks by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea and piracy by Somali pirates. Piracy has returned to the region after a gap of almost six to seven years.

Some of the navy’s successful rescue operations in recent months include that of the Iranian Fishing Vessel (FV) Al Naeemi, with 19 Pak nationals from Somali pirates in end January. Another piracy attempt on FV Imam was also thwarted around the same time. On 23rd Dec last year, MV Chem Pluto suffered a drone attack outside India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The damage was assessed, ship repaired and towed to an Indian port.  

In Jan this year, MV Genco Picardy was supported when it suffered a drone strike in the Red Sea. Indian ships alongside those of the US and France rescued MV Marlin Luanda when it came under attack from anti-ship missiles fired by Houthi rebels. There have been many more incidents involving missile strikes and hijacking which have been thwarted by the navy.

Speaking to reporters in Goa, the naval chief, Admiral Hari Kumar stated, ‘We are committed to ensuring there is peace at sea. We will not allow piracy to resume. We are aggressively targeting it. We will not allow the Indian Ocean to be disturbed, especially with regard to trade. The job of a Navy is to protect peaceful shipping.’ His words indicate that the navy has proved that it is a responsible net security provider in the Indian Ocean.

Successful rescue operations by the navy received worldwide praise. The Bulgarian foreign minister, Mariya Gabriel, thanked India for the rescue of MV Ruen. She tweeted, ‘I express my gratitude to the Indian navy for the successful operation to rescue the hijacked vessel Ruen and its crew members. Thank you for support and great effort.’ The Indian foreign minister, Dr S Jaishankar, responded, ‘That’s what friends are for.’ A similar message was sent by the Bulgarian President, Rumen Radev, which was replied to by PM Modi.

The global media also praised the actions of the Indian navy in rescuing and supporting ships in trouble. Europe based historian and researcher, Martin Sauerbrey, tweeted, ‘India takes over. Superpower rising. Stop drooling over China.’ British journalist, Mark Urban, criticized China for not responding to distress calls. It was only after being globally chastised that the Chinese navy began escorting their own ships.   

Writing in The Diplomat, James Holmes mentions, ‘It is fitting for India to act as a steward of maritime security in the Indian Ocean, where it regards itself as a beneficent hegemon.’ He adds that India did not join the US led coalition due to its tradition of non-alignment. He further states, ‘New Delhi could make India the constable of the Indian Ocean.’  

            Though India is not part of the US led Multinational Force in the Red Sea termed ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian,’ it has cooperated with naval vessels from different countries depending on the situation. India’s trade worth USD 200 billion flows through the Red Sea and hence attacks on shipping in there are a matter of concern.

Another possible reason for India not joining the US led force is its close ties with Iran, which backs the Houthi’s. Enhanced naval deployment indicates the ability of the navy to protect Indian interests as also provide confidence to global shipping transiting the region.  

          With the opening of a new naval base, INS Jatayu, in the Minicoy islands, strengthening its facilities in Andaman and Nicobar, enhancing its engagements with Mauritius, induction of MH 60 R helicopters and US manufactured drones, the ability of the navy to monitor sea routes will enhance. India is sending the message that it has the ability to secure the Indian Ocean from any threats.

          Jaishankar summed up India’s intent, stating, ‘We will not be considered a responsible country when bad things are happening and we say I have got nothing to do with this.’ Similarly, summing up the increased role of the navy, the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, mentioned, ‘increasing naval power not only protects us from our adversaries, but also provides an environment of security to other stakeholders in the Indian Ocean.’

          Admiral Hari Kumar highlighting the navy’s role mentioned that the force, under Operation Sankalp, in the past 100 days have saved 110 lives. It responded to 13 attacks, rescuing 102 individuals including 27 Pakistani’s and 30 Iranians.  India’s determination to assist all in trouble, ignoring nationalities, is an indicator of the country considering the Indian Ocean as its backyard as also impartiality in its operations. The Indian government, enacting the Anti-Piracy bill in Jan 2023, bringing the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea under its ambit, has added teeth to anti-piracy operations.

India’s increased naval deployment and successful operations are an indicator of the its growing naval power, confidence in its equipment and ability to coordinate multiple resources employed simultaneously to monitor an area spread over 2 million square miles. It is a message to inimical nations that the region is India’s backyard and it possesses the capability to dominate it. If piracy has to be curbed and eradicated, the Indian navy will have to continue playing a major role.     

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