Ram Madhav
February 10, 2024

He Who Rules The Sea

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(The article was originally published in Indian Express on February 10, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)

Angus Maddison, renowned British historian, in his monumental work The World Economy: Historical Statistics (2003), argued that India had been the largest economy in the world in the first millennium with a share of almost 33 per cent of the world’s GDP. It began to decline with external invasions and colonisation and touched a low point during the British era in the 18th and 19th century.

Some economists concluded that this record performance of the Indian economy in the first millennium, closely followed by China during the same period, was due to its population size. However, what many didn’t take into account was the domination of Indian rulers over the oceans around them at that time.

“He who rules on the sea will shortly rule on the land also,” Hayreddin Barbarossa, admiral of the Ottoman Navy was famously quoted as telling emperor Suleiman. It perfectly applied to India of the first millennium, when the dominant Hindu rulers had developed powerful merchant and military navies and conquered the oceans around the peninsula. They established trade with the Arab lands in the West and ventured into South China Sea territories, crossing the Malayan Peninsula in the East.

From the earliest sea traders of south India like Manigramam Chettis and Nanadesis to the latter-day South Indian kings like the Andhras, Pallavas and Cholas, they all had made significant strides into the oceans. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, an authoritative work on statecraft written in the fourth century BCE, talks about the functions of officers like port commissioners and harbour masters, highlighting the importance attached to maritime activity in ancient India. The Board of Shipping was one of the six important departments of the Mauryan empire. Fa-Hien, a Chinese traveller, wrote in 415 AD that the ship that took him from Ceylon to Sri Vijaya (present-day Indonesia) had 200 merchants who professed the “brahminical religion”.

India’s economic decline coincided with its decline in naval power. The first millennium was more about trade as there was not much challenge from the seas. But things changed in the second millennium when European powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally the British conquered the seas. The Portuguese were the first to declare themselves as the “Lords of the Sea” and reached Indian shores by the 14th century. Building a navy to secure the coastline became imminent for the first time for Indian rulers, especially on the western coast. The Zamorins of Kerala were the first to respond, followed a century later by the Marathas. Between them, they were able to control the coast from Bombay to Calicut for three centuries.

Unfortunately, the British, who were well-known seafarers, never bothered to develop a strong blue-water presence during their two-century rule over India. The Royal Indian Navy that they established in the early 19th century was small and inconsequential for a country of India’s size. They focused more on mobilising armies from local princes in their war efforts during World Wars I and II. This lack of attention to the seas, sadly, continued after Independence too, with the governments giving greater priority to land-based warfare, completely neglecting the oceans and their potential for the country. The result was that in areas like shipbuilding and naval vessels, India remained a laggard power in the last seven decades. As maritime competition between states picks up momentum, India remains at number 15 in maritime shipping. The Indian Navy has less than 200 combat vessels as against 400 of America and 500 of China.

Interestingly, the first to alert India about the importance of the Indian Ocean for its future was a renowned diplomat K M Panikkar, who served as India’s ambassador to China and France. “So far as India is concerned, it should be remembered that the peninsular character of the country and the essential dependence of its trade on maritime traffic give the sea a preponderant influence on its destiny,” he argued in his book India and the Indian Ocean (1945). His warnings fell on deaf ears. Indian leadership failed to fully appreciate the importance and potential of the region. Although the Indian Ocean Rim Association was formed in 1997 at the insistence of Nelson Mandela of South Africa, the Indian response to it was lukewarm while its focus remained largely Westward.

As the US and European powers like Russia, Britain, France and Germany battled it out through World Wars and the Cold War, the Pacific-Atlantic region emerged as the epicentre of global power politics in the last century. But the dawn of the new century brought new realities. The global power axis has shifted away from the Pacific-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific in India’s neighbourhood now.

Indo-Pacific is a geo-political construct, whereas the Indian Ocean is a natural region. It is home to more than three dozen nations. From the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, this vast expanse of water is the world’s third-largest ocean covering over 74 million square kilometres.

For India, the Indian Ocean is the lifeline. Eighty per cent of its external trade and 90 per cent of the energy trade happens through these ocean lines. Additionally, the Indian Ocean maritime trade routes are the crucial supply chains managing almost 70 per cent of the world’s container traffic.

Moreover, the Indian Ocean, the only ocean to be named after a country, is not just a maritime geography but a civilisation. Over millennia, its waves reached the shores of many countries carrying India’s cultural and civilisational imprint and created a vast sphere of Indic civilisational influence.

Realising the natural goodwill that India enjoys in this region, once described as the “British Lake”, the Indian government has taken several proactive steps towards it. The 7th Indian Ocean Conference, taking place at Perth in Australia is one such initiative. It seeks to bring together nations of the region to address the non-traditional challenges that are common to all of them, such as climate change, ocean levels, natural disasters and supply chain disruptions, as against the traditional security-related challenges that divide and compel countries to take sides.

Click here to read the text of Dr Ram Madhav’s Curtain Raiser Address at the 7th Indian Ocean Conference

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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