Somalia has come to gain international importance not because of its never-ending civil war, or its classification as a failed state, but because of its infamous sea-pirates. Piracy off the Horn of the African coast has developed as a lucrative profession for some time now. Despite naval operations by a number of countries, Somali pirates have had a free run. The latest feather in their cap has been the hostage situation with Indian sailors. What are its repercussions on India?
The hostage situation poses a very real security dilemma for India. India’s past responses to hostage situations will ensure that all necessary measures are undertaken for the safe release of the hostages. In addition, however, India should also make use of this opportunity to take affirmative action against piracy which can go beyond addressing immediate security concerns to enhancing India’s strategic position on the global stage.
India’s initiative in quelling the menace of piracy has been led by the Indian Navy (IN). The IN has had its fair share of success since it started its anti-piracy operation in October 2008. On last count, the IN had prevented about 29 attempts by pirates and neutralized three of their mother-ships. As many as a 120 pirates have been apprehended by the navy, whose release has been demanded by the pirates in exchange for Indian sailors who currently are being held hostage. In addition to IN’s anti-piracy operation, it has also undertaken the responsibility of securing the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius, at the request of the respective host governments.
It is up to India to ensure that these states with their uninhabited islands do not fall into the hands of pirates. This can lead to a situation where piracy will not only be confined to the coastline of Somalia but also spread to a larger part of the Indian Ocean, which will have a negative impact on both regional and international trade and commerce. These anticipated incursions have already invited the attention of the world’s navies. If the IN does not take the initiative now it will lose its primacy, thereby playing a secondary role in the Indian Ocean.
Piracy presents India with an opportunity to project its power well beyond its frontiers. The current phase of anti-piracy operations has also given India a degree of legitimacy as a formidable navy without being seen as either intrusive or as an aspiring hegemonic power. This is so as the IN’s responsibility is not only to safeguard India’s interests but also to cater to the security needs of island nations in the Indian Ocean. This has already extended the area of operation of the navy to the southern parts of the Indian Ocean. A permanent Indian naval presence in these parts has the potential to counter the ‘string of pearls’ by projecting itself as the guardian of the Indian Ocean, the world’s foremost sea lane of communication with the choke points of the Malacca Straits, Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden.
Such initiatives will allow the India Navy to redraw its frontiers without changing boundaries. That is to say, the Indian sphere of influence could spread beyond its immediate vicinity to a larger arena where its presence was negligible in the past. At the same time, the IN would be in a position to project itself as a primary military entity in these waters instead of being a secondary player, a role it has been confined to thus far.
On the flipside, India would have to augment its naval capabilities to a much greater extent, and also involve itself in building the capacity of the littoral states. This will be a necessary course of action towards the strength-projection of the Indian navy. As for the littoral states, India’s help will not only be confined to security issues but also in direct economic and political assistance.
The Indian Navy is in a make or break position, and it is up to New Delhi to ensure that the navy’s shortcomings are challenged and its mandate successfully widened. The future course of action will thus determine the potency of India’s presence in these waters and the consolidation of its presence on a global scale.