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Vineet Ravindran asked: How important is India’s ancient naval tradition for the 21st century? What can Indian policymakers learn from it?

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  • Abhay Kumar Singh replies: Being a potpourri of ideas and traditions, a nation-state’s identity is a complex affair. History, traditions, and cultural symbols play a defining role in shaping the national identity, national self-image and strategic culture. The importance of India’s ancient naval tradition needs to be understood in this context.

    India has had a vibrant maritime tradition dating as far back as 2000–3000 BCE, with oceanic trade routes crisscrossing the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Shaped by monsoon winds, intrepid Indian seafarers undertook long-distance oceanic voyages from the Indian Ocean that had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Babylon, as well as the Levant. Similarly, in the east, the cultural remnants of India’s ancient maritime linkages in Southeast and East Asia endure even today. Ancient Indian dynasties such as the Mauryas, Pandyas and the Cholas maintained active strategic linkages with Southeast Asia and even had extra-territorial interests in the region.

    Notwithstanding the maritime orientation of geography, Indian strategic thought progressively got weighted down by continentalism due to excessive focus on its continental borders. The fixation on continental borders was not without consequences, as it has been painfully reminded by K.M. Panikkar that “India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea.” In his view, Indian rulers failed to realise the possibilities of seapower and the political strength it can bring. He considered the arrival of the Portuguese fleet on the west coast of India in 1498 as an epochal event. Indian powers, accustomed to looking only at threats from land forces, did not realise the menace to their security implied in the two Portuguese ships that reached the Malabar shore at the end of the 15th century.

    It is certainly true that there has been a growing realisation of the strategic relevance of the oceans. However, as a nation, India has not yet fully comprehended the strategic significance of seapower and its relation to broader strategic, diplomatic and national security objectives.

    A usable past helps leaders sculpt a maritime strategy that fits national traditions, explains the kind of navy the nation needs and how it should be used, and instils pride and élan within the sea services themselves. A nation-state needs a grand historical narrative to lend direction to, and generate support for an assertive naval strategy. India’s maritime history and ancient naval traditions provide a grand historical narrative not only to shape national maritime consciousness but also to mobilise necessary resources and support for India’s future seapower.

    Andrew Robert, a British Historian, has argued that the state’s seapower identity needs constant refreshment and repetition. States that failed to remind themselves of their sea identity, for any reason, slowly but surely have lost it with associated adverse geopolitical consequences. Circumstances leading to the loss of India’s independence, enumerated above, are a grim reminder of this truism. Hence, it is important to remind India’s younger generation of the country’s rich maritime heritage and the preponderance of the ocean in shaping its destiny.

    Posted on 21 June 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.