For too long have Indians looked to their north, because they rightly perceived threat from that direction from where invasions have occurred. Somehow, the south and the long coastline has got neglected, despite the fact that India is located bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
That Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Colombo in 28 years can be attributed to the tense ties due to the ethnic conflict. The visits to Seychelles and Mauritius were also important for security reasons
For too long have Indians looked to their north, because they rightly perceived threat from that direction from where invasions have occurred. Somehow, the south and the long coastline has got neglected, despite the fact that India is located bang in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Avid maritime traders, Indians, however, neglected guarding of their 7,500 kilometer coastline. Land and mountain frontiers dominated their security concerns. No wonder, Europeans came by the sea route and colonized the subcontinent.
Post-independence, too, the Navy remains the ‘silent’ service. The south has been neglected. Hence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Sagar Yatra”, to Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius, marks a major, long-awaited, shift in the neighbourhood strategy. The Indian Ocean should remain in focus. India owes it to its smaller, southern neighbours.
That Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Colombo in 28 years can be attributed to the tense ties due to the ethnic conflict. He was also the first to travel to the north and east of the island nation to empathize with the Tamils and seek a place for them in the island’s political and constitutional scheme of things. Modi urged the Lankan leadership to operationalise the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution and devolve powers to provinces. He took care not to be seen as engaging in diplomatic grandstanding as a “big brother”.
Modi had meant to include the Maldives in his itinerary. But the signs of the Islamic State (IS) volunteers raising their heads amidst preoccupation of the present regime with trying to counter ousted President Mohammed Nasheed made India skip Male to send a clear signal that Delhi had joined the world community’s concerns about threat to political freedom there. The security threat to the region from Islamist youths, earlier said to be aligned to Al Qaida, however, remains.
The visits to Seychelles and Mauritius were important for security reasons. India has in the recent years made some significant moves and rendered valuable assistance to keep the region safe from piracy. India need not parade itself as the inheritor of the interests that the British abandoned when the region got de-colonised.
There is talk India is seeking to make the Indian Ocean “India’s Ocean”, mainly vis-à-vis China that has eyed the region for long and is arming itself with more aircraft carriers in the coming years. It has already surrounded India with several ports and naval bases. Belated though, the Indian offer to develop Trincomalee in Sri Lanka is in the right direction. Equally important was Modi’s pitch on economic ties with each of the nations he visited.
There is concern about growing Chinese presence, but even without that, India needs to use its considerable economic clout to integrate the region in a manner that renders mutually profitable assistance to the little nations who are in need of it.