Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav is the current tagline in an essentially maritime nation. India lost its freedom as a consequence of sea-blindness and regained it on the wave of a core spirit of maritime freedom that will be seen on the Indian Navy Tableau at the Republic Day Parade. As the media and digital wars release trolls around the arguments of pre-1947 “mercenary” military men (ugh) the revisionist urge is on a drive to reclaim some dystopian idea of a national identity. On the eve of 73rd Republic Day I present this appeal from the maximum port city of Mumbai to usher a Maritime Mahabharat for the true soul of India. That would be an apt Bharat Mahotsav!
It is in the airport of Bangkok that there is a large artistic tribute to the saga of Samudra Manthan. Symbolic it is a churn of the Ocean of Knowledge between Suras (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) depicting the full spectrum of knowledge enquiry to discover the Amrit of wisdom. Two months earlier I had the opportunity to share my thoughts with a young scholarly audience at the Phirozshah Mehta Hall that houses the Department of Civics and Politics at the University of Mumbai. My sense of ownership as the Alma Mater (MPhil & PhD) enabled me to exhort a “Never Forget 26/11” message. A few aspects I reflected on the emerging Indian Maritime Security perspective are relevant to be emphasized on the eve of a national celebration.
What came as a shocking event from the experience of 26/11, that regardless of our security architecture, a few people could hold an entire nation to ransom. It was not that Mumbai was not attacked before but an attack of that sort was a first of the scope of brazenness that was on display. The entire episode put into question several things and the Navy was asked to quickly prepare a proposal. After one week, the Navy was ready with a document. It was not a display of efficiency or scholarship. Rather, repeated appeals by naval and strategic scholars to the government over ten to fifteen years had fallen on deaf ears. A plan to consolidate coastal awareness and security was enabled by updating an existing document. One good thing that emerged out of implemented measures was an evolved mindset among a key stakeholder community. As and when the Navy got through to create coastal security exercises, with fisher-folks and marine police, a visible sense of sea-mindedness was now seen even if absent in higher echelons of governance.
A few changes that unfolded were a new perspective towards the security dimension and an understanding of the maritime challenges in a contemporary geopolitical environment. With an ongoing churn in global politics, wherein you have new partnerships being formed and the ever changing dynamics of these arrangements due to multiple factors. It is a journey that is intense and in politics we learn that there are no permanent enemies, there are permanent interests. Therefore, it is fine if there were a number of QUADs, AUKUS, SCO and many other alphabet soups. Thankfully a maritime mindset is on the vocabulary atleast on the surface.
Another churn was seen when the maritime environment showed the vulnerability of the globalised system during the pandemic. It is not just about health challenges, but shipping faced the threat of a grinding halt with crew change and port operations almost paralysed. Global supply chains barely held on, and the global economy was hit. This affected people everywhere with seafarers the worst. Thankfully in India, DG Shipping had taken some timely decisions including extending the validity of seafarers’ certificates that were expiring. In Spite of efforts being made to help people and seafarers, people were stuck on the ship. Due to contractual nature of crew manning, delays bring financial difficulties. For a season, seafarers were brought to a subaltern status that have plagued them through Indian maritime history.
Seafaring must be understood and evolved into the policy framework to involve further aspects of adding value to the coastal states. Their skill and knowledge can be utilised to develop coastal regions into economic zones. The pandemic has made us realise that globalism is not just a subject of academics, it’s a strategy of survival. No country can be self-sufficient, we may attempt to be atma nirbhar (self-reliant) but we will be always be mutually ‘nirbhar’ (dependant).
The third churn that has been taking place is in the techno-operations domain at sea. Shipping will evolve with a direction to decarbonisation and green fuel. Autonomous ships are being planned. Now can you imagine if someone hacks it in to such a domain, how challenging will governance of the domain face? We need to be better equipped at matters of accountability, transparency, and efficiency which would require reliance on better and safer technology. Research and development of this segment can put us in a better space and redirect Indian growth through the maritime domain. Another crucial focus needs to be on the coastal economy and maritime communities, who must return into the mainstream attention from a continuing subaltern status.
What can our contribution be to incorporate these changes? Can we examine the themes and emerging methodologies for research especially in the maritime domain? There is a dire need to re-promote multi sector studies. One thing I learned from the sea is that every subject is connected to each other. In real life all subjects are utilised at the same time. Please recognize in the future research we will be lacking literature and data, because nobody has the data on block-chain, nor is sufficient data on de-carbonization. In the broad spectrum of humanities, our idea of the tools that are need for analysis are evolving. We are still struggling to demystify the fear of research that is so deeply entrenched today. The rigour of research is nearly absent in bureaucratic circles and higher echelons of governance (across all arms). There is a crying need for a multi-dimensional collaborative approach in academics where we have to connect with one another. So what's the takeaway for us?
My takeaway for some of us in the strategic and scholarship community, especially the younger ones is to read every day, observe every day and evaluate on a continuing basis. What my learning was yesterday may not be valid anymore. The second is identifying a specific segment to do a deep dive in research. Can we identify those individual components in the security complex, in these things? The main idea here is that you can get going with a strategy of effectiveness without having to be stuck with standard stale content.
This season has brought attention to a continental way of thought anchored on what is heritage and who deserves our tribute with memorials in focus. India does not have a mere 75 years of Constitutional existence. It cannot shun indigenous maritime might that sustained amidst five centuries of colonial onslaught. It is also not just a matter of what happened from the Harappan – Saraswati Civilisational era. May we never forget that what we recognise as geographical India began a 100 million years ago in a maritime voyage northwards from Gondwana to crash into the Eurasian Plate and form this might of Sagar Sampann Bharat (Sea Fulfilled India). It would be to our peril to shun a maritime mindset and choose a continental thought fuelled by two front or the added half front threat fears. The seas herald a heart of freedom. Citizen of Indian Republic need to heed the monsoon call in the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav. May our maritime resurgence take fresh flight.