by Commodore Odakkal Johnson (Retd)

The date, 2nd October has the timeless stamp of being the birthday of two national icons. First being the Father of the Nation: Mahatma Gandhi and second an indelible persona: Lal Bahadur Shastri. One was a “Shanti ke Pujari” or “Priest of Peace” and the other gave the clarion call of “Jawan aur Kisaan” drawing attention to both the Warrior and Waymaker of Sustenance! Allow me to draw attention to the priesthood of peace needed through the warriors and waymakers across the oceanic expanse.

October 2nd needs to trigger our memory for another recall. With an earlier attempt by the Indian Central Legislative Assembly to pass the Indian Naval Discipline Act having failed to be passed by one vote in February 1928, it would take another six years to finally legislate the formation of a Navy! At a historic ceremony on 2 October 1934, at the current location of the Dockyard Dispensary at Naval Dockyard, Mumbai, The Royal Indian Navy came into existence. Despite the “Royal” prefix, it would be the core entity that enabled Indian officers and sailors to learn (then) modern naval warfare, gain global maritime theatre experience during World War II and envision the emerging Indian Navy of a modern Maritime India.

The full saga of the period is found in the book “Timeless Wake” published by Maritime History Society in 2013. It is apt after 87 years to take a big picture perspective of Indian maritime journey amidst ongoing global maritime geopolitics in three elements.

The first element in perspective is training in maritime consciousness across the spectrum. The very first Indian to assume command of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral RD Katari was a trainee with Ship No 001 at IMMTS, Dufferin. This ship was a “Royal Indian Marine” warship of the Great War and had been in action in 1915, and later a cadet training ship for the mercantile marine. The early senior leadership and pioneers of the Indian Navy had been trained for the Merchant Navy and a select few were handpicked to man the warships in Indian waters. Years later as part of a similar process, a nautical trainee ex-TS Rajendra with Ship Number 4641 (November 1982), post a global sea training, transitioned into the Indian Navy in August 1987. Thirty-four years later, on superannuation from the Indian Navy, I can safely say that both the practitioners as well as the promoters of matters maritime need education in the maritime dimension across the spectrum of commerce, culture, connectivity as well as contestations.

Geographical India, even five millennia earlier, had pre-eminence across the expanse of the Indian Ocean; an ocean named after it. The decline of the nation into colonial subjugation in the pre-modern period was aided by growing sea-blindness. It is not enough to reminisce our maritime heritage. The official policy of Security and Growth across the Region (SAGAR) will enhance global collaboration in the Indo-Pacific. Such collaboration can only be sustained by a multi-dimensional awareness from those in governance to the ones leading operations and also the surface level combatants involved in mission-based deployments. With IFC-IOR led Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) the spectrum needs to be fully addressed.

The second element is maximizing maritime reach across marine geography. Few know that contrary to a non-expeditionary mindset ascribed to Indian kingdoms of ancient and medieval India, Raja Rajendra Chola launched the Chola Naval Expedition in the eleventh century CE, designed to extend Indian maritime power across the sea space to bring good order at sea against the scourge of piracy. The maritime strategy builds nations and it needs to go big across the vastness of global space. “Island Carriers” will not cut it!

Admiral Sir John Fisher, the then British First Sea Lord had the gumption to launch the ‘Dreadnought’ series of battleships to enhance maritime power with extended reach. The success of the maiden sea trials of IAC (to be INS) Vikrant was sadly dulled by short sighted advocates of terrestrial missile silos and islands as aircraft carriers. There is an ongoing maritime momentum and so a critical need for strategists, leaders and scholars to converge on sustaining Indian Maritime Resurgence. Cost-cutting may turn too costly!

The third and unsung need would be maritime community empowerment. Traditionally, maritime professionals formed the subaltern segment in authoring the historical narrative. Despite Indian maritime growth and awareness of our maritime heritage, we find even the skilled shipbuilders of crafts in places like Mandvi, Beypore, Thuthukodi or Kalinga facing extinction of their craft. Far beyond government policies, entrepreneurs and organisations across the nation need to reach out to these coastal communities. Fisherfolk, pearl divers, boatmen and many segments of Indian society are custodians of a rich legacy that begets a cry for attention. That appeal extends to preserving even the tangible heritage such as sea forts, old ports and so on as national treasures on the global tourist map. Pride in the very web and waft of our maritime canvas needs a revival to renew a Samudra Manthan or Ocean of Churn for the elusive Amrit (or elixir) of prosperity.

Mahatma Gandhi launched a movement by the Salt Satyagraha. We need a saline intervention into our terrestrial mindset. Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the clarion call based on terrestrial soldiers and farmers. Maybe in the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav Varsh there will be heard a clarion call to seafarers, sea-warriors, and sea-scholars, too! That will usher an India led Priesthood of Peace across the Globe, which is the larger Maritime environment.