India’s White Knight


A waterway, river or sea is not an obstacle but a means of trade and communication. Also, in the modern world, the guarding of ocean territories is a big responsibility of a country’s naval force. The Indian Navy has built up an enviable reputation for not just protecting the country’s territorial sovereignty, but also playing a crucial role in ensuring safety in the neighbourhood, says Brig. Suresh Chandra Sharma.

India has a maritime tradition dating back to the Vedic period. A tidal dock was built at Lothal on the Gujarat coast during the Indus Valley civilisation and Kautilya’s Arthshastra has a chapter on the state department of waterways. India had regular sea trade with neighbouring countries, which also helped in cultural influences both ways. We had developed the direction finding instrument, the Matsya Yantra and availed the use of the monsoons for journeys to Africa and back. The Chola kings had a near monopoly over the trade in the Indian Ocean and collected toll from all ships, which amounted to a significant revenue. Due to wars with neighbouring states, the Chola strength, both on sea and land declined, and the supremacy over the Indian Ocean passed on to the Arabs and later to the European powers. India had faced invasions from the North West routes and the Mughals paid little attention to the Navy. The singular exception was the Maratha Navy of Shivaji whose Sarkhel (Admiral) Angray had won a resounding victory over the British fleet. He enforced his authority on the coastal trade but lacked an ocean going Navy. The British were able to thus establish an empire in India.

A brief history of the Indian Navy

The East India Company had established a Marine Corps to protect their ships in 1612. In 1830, it was renamed as Her Majesty’s Indian Navy. Manned by British officers and Indian sailors, it took part in the First Opium War in China in 1840 and in the Second Burma War in 1842. It was renamed as the Royal Indian Marine in the First World War and took part in mine sweeping and operational tasks. Sub Lieutenant D. N. Mukherji was the first Indian to be given a commission in 1928. In 1934, the force was renamed as the Royal Indian Navy (RIN). It took part in the Second World War and two officers Lt. (later Vice-Admiral) Krishnan and Engineer Lt. (later Vice-Admiral) D. Shankar were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). The title ‘Royal’ was dropped after Independence. India’s share after Partition came to about 33 vessels and was inadequate for a large peninsular country. The Indian Navy drew up plans for a balanced force. It could not be implemented in full due to lack of funds. In 1961, the Navy took part in the liberation of Goa and destroyed the Portuguese frigate Afonso de Albuquerque. Due to land-based conflicts with Pakistan and China, the Navy was given low priority for funds and was directed not to undertake any offensive operations in the Indo-Pakistan War in 1965. It was later decided to strengthen the Navy too. The change in its capabilities was demonstrated in the 1971 War by the bombardment of Karachi and blockade of East Pakistan.

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean washes the shores of three continents, 30 littorals and 1282 islands. The region has 40% of world’s oil and gas reserves. It accounts for 20% of the global sea trade. Two thirds of the world’s oil and gas cargo pass through this ocean. The cargo between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has to transit through this region. India has 15,000 kms of land border. The peninsula has 11 major, 20 intermediate and 200 minor ports. Nearly 95% of trade by volume and 72% by value are by sea routes. The Indian Ocean region remained peaceful for two decades after the Second World War. Presently, it faces challenges of political instability, conflicts, piracy, drug traffic and maritime terrorism. Protection of these sea routes and demarcation of our maritime boundaries are priority tasks.

The role of the Indian Navy

  • To deter or defeat external aggression in cooperation with the Army and Air Force.
  • To ensure security of sea trade routes in cooperation with the Coast Guard.
  • To ensure stability in India’s maritime zones of responsibility.
  • Provide maritime assistance (including disaster relief) in India’s neighbourhood.

Territorial integrity

The primary role of the Navy is to deter, in conjunction with other Armed Forces, any threats or aggression. The Indian Navy has acquired the capability of exercising sea control as demonstrated in the 1971 War. With two Aircraft Carrier Groups, one each for Western and Eastern fronts, it can challenge and destroy enemy forces before they come near our coast. The Carrier Groups are supported by replenishment ships and destroyers equipped with the latest versions of Brahmos and Barak missiles. Modernisation is a continuous process. Acquisition of six submarines by Pakistan and establishment of a naval base at Gwadar with assistance from China will require to be countered by additional forces of the Indian Navy. We were caught off guard during the Kargil War and Barak missiles had to be imported from Israel as an emergency measure. A new factor is the build up of submarine forces by many countries including Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The modern non-nuclear submarines have enhanced underwater endurance of up to eight days and carry an impressive array of missiles.

The recent launch of the first of the new batch of Scorpene class submarines will help in building up Indian Navy’s submarine strength which was affected by a series of accidents in recent years.

Security of sea routes

Security of choke points which are narrow channels is important for the international community due to the high volume of oil traded through them. The Strait of Hormuz, leading out of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca and Sunda straits linking the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, and Babel-Mandab connecting the Arabian Sea with Red Sea leading to Suez Canal are critical for the international energy market. Even a temporary blockade of these choke points can cause serious damage to industrial production. Attacks on merchant ships can be by state or non-state agencies. USS Cole was attacked in 2000 and French tanker, Limburg, in October 2002, off the coast of Aden, Yemen.

Coastal security implies check on pirates, terror groups, smuggling and drug trafficking. There should be no interference with exploration or exploitation of off-shore oil and minerals from the sea in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends to 200 nautical miles. The fishermen should have complete security to carry out their work.

The international community has sent ships to patrol the area to deter the pirates. There has also been a nascent regional response to the piracy incidents and three information sharing centres were planned to be established in Yemen, Djibouti and Kenya. An estimated 150,000 Indian nationals serve in the International Merchant fleet, and several Indians have been taken hostage during acts of piracy. The Indian Navy carries out regular patrolling. This builds confidence amongst the users and enables the fleet to learn about the environment. The neighbouring countries have appreciated the lead given by it. The piracy in the straits has declined since 2005 due to patrolling by the littoral states. There have been continuous efforts by various countries to ensure uninterrupted transportation of oil. China is planning to build pipelines from Gwadar in Pakistan and from Myanmar to China to avoid the Straits of Malacca.

Coastal security

Coastal security implies check on pirates, terror groups, smuggling and drug trafficking. There should be no interference with exploration or exploitation of off-shore oil and minerals from the sea in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends to 200 nautical miles. The fishermen should have complete security to carry out their work. A three tier system has been evolved for coastal security comprising Marine Police, Coast Guard and the Navy, the Navy being responsible for coordination. The attack on Mumbai alerted the Government of India (GOI) against similar events. It has been reported that the Marine Police has been handicapped by a lack of budget for fuel and maintenance support for the vessels. There could be hesitation on the part of police personnel to embark on sea mission. Sea faring requires training and familiarisation with the sea. The Coast Guard too needs to have more platforms. The proposal to install electronic identification kits is possible against non-state agencies but not against state sponsored groups. These devices can be duplicated or tampered with. An effective measure is to enlist the cooperation of the coastal communities as is done in other countries, notably in Europe. During the Second World War, every German spy who landed on the coast in UK was caught by the people and handed over to the police. During the 1965 war, all the paratroopers dropped by Pakistan in Punjab were rounded up by the people. We should aim at a similar outcome in the coastal region.

Promote stability in the region

The Navy is the best force for quick and meaningful action in the region since it can transport men and material quickly to the desired place. In 1983, the Navy planned Operation Lal Dora against a feared coup in Mauritius. It was able to avert a coup in Seychelles in 1986. In 1988, a group of Maldivians assisted by mercenaries from the rebel Tamil secessionist gained control of the capital. India responded to the request from the President of Maldives. The paratroopers established control over the capital. The coup plotters fled in a hijacked ship. Peace was restored. The international community appreciated the quick response by the GOI.

Humanitarian aid

The Navy plays an important role in providing humanitarian relief in times of natural disasters. The Indian Navy launched massive disaster relief operations in 2004 to help Indian states, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami. Twenty seven ships and over 5000 naval personnel were deployed. This was one of the largest and fastest force mobilizations undertaken by the Navy. Rescue teams reached neighboring countries within 12 hours of the tsunami. During the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict, the Indian Navy evacuated 2,286 Indian nationals, 436 Sri Lankan and 69 Nepali citizens from wartorn Lebanon. In 2006, Indian naval doctors provided medical facilities in Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and East Timor for more than 100 days. In 2007, Indian Navy supported relief operations for the survivors of a cyclone in Bangladesh and in 2008, Indian Naval vessels were the first to launch international relief operations for victims of cyclone in Myanmar. Recently, the Indian Navy evacuated stranded Indians and citizens of 28 other countries from Yemen in war like conditions. INS Mumbai was unable to enter the port and waited at the anchorage. Twelve small crafts were used to ferry 30 people at a time. Earlier, it had conducted similar evacuation from Iraq, Libya and Ukraine.


The Indian Ocean is a critical and dense waterway since two thirds of the world’s fossil fuels and trade between Atlantic and Pacific regions moves through these waters. The Indian Navy has learnt to dominate the seas and carries out patrolling for safety of the sea lanes in cooperation with the littoral states. The Indian Navy’s dynamism has paved the way for maritime cooperation. It has the capability to guard against an attack on the sovereignty of the country. It has rendered prompt help to friendly states against coups and insurrection and with humanitarian aid in disaster relief. It has moved from the earlier strategic domain of Red Sea to Malacca Strait to the Pacific at the historic moment of withdrawal of Soviet Navy from this region and an understanding has reportedly been concluded with USA.

The Indian Navy lives to its credo in war and peace- Anything, Anytime Anywhere.


Brigadier Suresh Chandra Sharma (retd.)

The writer served in the Army for 30 years. Post retirement he served the telecom industry with multinational and Indian corporates. He is also a freelance journalist and has interests in national security issues.