Lakshadweep India’s choke point
Lakshadweep is a highly sensitive location with great security and strategic significance. It is unfortunate that it is in the news for absolutely wrong reasons. The recent draft rules proposed by the administrator are being touted as “anti-locals” and sought to be made a rallying point by certain vested interests mainly from Kerala. The accusation made by some Kerala-based groups that the Bill seeks to relax the prohibition rules only results in exposing the shameful double standards of the agitators and their string pullers themselves.
The draft Bill ‘Lakshadweep Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation 2021’ and other Bills for infrastructure development made available in public domain by the Lakshadweep administrator in January this year invited comments and suggestions from the public. The Bill has been criticised as “Goonda Act” although the draft does not mention the words “Goonda Act” anywhere. In fact the Bill seems to have heavily borrowed its contents from similar Bills passed by a number of state governments (like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala). Some of these Acts passed by state governments have even more stringent provisions than those proposed by the Lakshadweep administration. The draft Bill seeks to empower the administration to order preventive detention of a “bootlegger”, a “depredator of environment”, a “drug offender”, a “property grabber”, a “cruel person” etc., all these words probably taken from the ‘Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 2007’ passed by the then Communist government.
Lakshadweep is a highly sensitive location with great security and strategic significance. It is unfortunate that it is in the news for absolutely wrong reasons. The recent draft rules proposed by the administrator are being touted as “anti-locals” and sought to be made a rallying point by certain vested interests mainly protesting from Kerala.
The accusation made by some Kerala based groups that the Bill seeks to relax the Prohibition rules only results in exposing the shameful double standards of the agitators and their string pullers themselves. The truth is that it was the Communist government in Kerala which reversed the Prohibition rules framed by the previous Congress led United Democratic Front (UDF) government.
The hoax of “beef ban” and ‘state interference in the eating habits of citizens’ is yet another canard being circulated by these vested interests obviously with the intention of communalising the protests. Nothing can be farther from truth. The ‘Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021’ is very similar to the rules and regulations that are in place in almost all other states. There are laws in many states banning illegal slaughter houses and utterly unhygienic illicit beef trade that anti-social elements and the beef-mafia is carrying out. The local population is mainly fish eating one and the consumption platter does not include beef in a big way. Even otherwise considering the amount of beef that is traded in a place with a very small population, there seems to be an illegal export of beef from the Island. In any case after the Maharashtra government came up with a similar law which was upheld by the Bombay High Court an appeal against the ban is pending before the Supreme Court.
The ‘Draft Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021’ seeks to introduce two-child norm for elected representatives. This is being projected as imposition of “Saffron agenda” on a ‘predominantly Muslim’ population of Lakshadweep. This accusation again is far from truth and does not stand scrutiny. A number of states, some of them not ruled by the BJP, (such as Assam, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh), already have some form of the two-child norm in place for those wanting to contest for elected posts or government jobs.*
Other objections such as overlooking the development of Beypore port or ‘seeking to destroy the unique culture of Lakshadweep’ do not merit serious consideration and appear to be mere political manoeuvres.
There can be no two opinions on the fact that any government which seeks to make changes in the existing rules and regulations needs to consult the local population and build consensus especially on contentious issues. The local administration and the Union government should go ahead with its plans of ensuring security and order in Lakshadweep, but also take the local population into confidence, educate the people and defeat the game plans by vested interests to politicise and hinder the development agenda.
None of the allegations directed against the administrator hold water when seen in proper the context and the purpose for which this exercise is being undertaken. The perilous part of the protests is not merely blocking development but an attempt to stop the Union government and the local administration from securing the safety and security of the Island. The anti-administrator protests, far limited in the Island itself and more vocal in the nearby Kerala, are aimed at preventing the Island from being developed and made more secure.
There is an apprehension that massive development projects can damage the fragile marine ecology by disturbing the coral reefs that forms a protective ring around these islands. Lakshadweep has a population density of 1899 persons per sq. km, which is the third highest in the country. One way of tackling this issue will be use the available area only for security and strategic infrastructure and strictly forbid tourism. To say that the local population is greatly dependent on tourism for its survival and therefore the need to increase tourist infrastructure, is a highly debatable idea and far from truth.
Lakshadweep is an archipelago of twelve atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks. The small (32 sq. km) but strategically salient Lakshadweep is actually part of a vast submerged Chagos-Laccadive mountain range of in the Indian Ocean. The 200 km wide funnel referred to as Nine Degree Channel (named after the latitude) near the island is an important sea lane of communication linking the Persian Gulf with East Asia. The South Western Naval Command based in Kochi keeps a hawk’s eye on not just all the Pacific bound cargo but acts as a bulwark against piracy.
Over the years piracy has assumed greater proportions and also a commercial angle to it. In December 2010 a Bangladesh-flagged ship MV Jahan Moni manned by 25 crew members and carrying forty one thousand tonnes of nickel ore meant for some destination in Europe was hijacked by Somali pirates. The piracy took place at just seventy nautical miles west of Minicoy Island off the Lakshadweep Islands, well within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone. This was probably the first instance of piracy so very close to India’s coast. The Coast Guard and the naval security establishment went into panic mode as the pirates were said to be chasing the Bangladesh ship for more than hour in the Indian waters. The seriousness of the incident gets amplified when seen in the background of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Mumbai attackers came from the sea and could have used the facilities of sleeper cells enroute to Mumbai. It is possible that Jihadi elements were using the Lakshadweep Islands as a base to provide logistic support for clandestine activities including terrorist plots. The security establishments had got inputs that members of terrorist outfits have been frequenting these Islands. After the 2008 Mumbai attack an enquiry was conducted and it was pointed out that jihadi outfits could pose a security challenge if Lakshadweep was not secured.
Following the hijacking of a ship a decade ago, the security establishment swung into action. Subsequently coastal security exercise (Neptune II) was conducted to plug the holes in coastal security, surveillance and vigilance in the uninhabited islands was increased, new Coast Guard station (DHQ12) was established and watch towers and radar sensors were set up to keep an eye on the entry and exit points. It is important to note that even as Indian navy gradually modernises its security apparatus, the pirates and forces that are inimical to India’s security interests have been upgrading their technology at a much faster pace.
The navy therefore created a strong network of Defense strategy. The Surveillance network included Automatic Identification and Long Range Tracking systems, night vision cameras, 46 radar systems and 16 command and control stations. Another 38 radar stations and five command centres were set up by 2015 to prevent piracy and terrorist sleeper cells from getting into active operational mode in the Islands.
The revival of Quad, the timely transition from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific and the renewed interest in the emerging maritime capabilities of India are pointing towards geographic and geopolitical centrality of India. The success of the Quad as a security architecture greatly depends on the combined strength of the naval assets and bases of its members in the Indian Ocean and the Indo-pacific. Lakshadweep becomes an important chock point as far as the secured sea lanes of communication are concerned. Strategic analyst Robert Kaplan writes in India’s Riveting Centrality, “India stands astride the Indian Ocean… the world’s energy interstate, the link for megaships carrying hydrocarbons from West Asia to the consumers in the burgeoning middle-class concentrations of East Asia. India, thus, with the help of the Indian Ocean, fuses the geopolitics of the Greater West Asia with the geopolitics of East Asia — creating an increasingly unified and organic geography of conflict and competition across the navigable southern rim of Eurasia.”
While the general narrative is that India can act as the much needed counterbalance to China’s growing presence in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi’s immediate concern should be to build sufficient anti-access strategic infrastructure in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood. The Malacca Strait is one of the seven major choke points of the world. Lakshadweep sits at the middle of the two important choke points, Malacca Strait to the East of India and Strait of Hormuz to our West. Thus the Island becomes an important point of convergence in the West to East Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC). The Indian Ocean is also believed to hold about forty per cent of the global oil reserves, about sixty per cent of Uranium, forty per cent of gold and almost ninety eight per cent of diamond supply. China’s encirclement of India through ‘string of pearls’ strategy requires a strategic vantage points in the Indian Ocean which could be at a safe distance from Hambantota, Gwadar and Karachi.
There are reports of China’s nuclear powered submarines operating in the Indian Ocean under the guise of anti-piracy operations. These can be deployed for a very long time without being detected from the shore points. But a vigilance mechanism in an island like Lakshadweep can transmit voluminous details about every activity in the vicinity. While India can pre-empt any building up of naval force posturing in Gwadar or Karachi either by Pakistan or China, proactive naval deployment in the Nine Degree Channel close to Lakshadweep will strengthen New Delhi’s capability to intercept non-trade cargo and keep a vigil on activities that imperil out security in the Ocean.
India has no doubt an advantage in the Malacca Straits and has also signed an agreement with Australia on using Cocos Island for military base, stationing and refuelling of anti-submarine warfare aircrafts and other strategic and defence purposes. A similar infrastructure in Lakshadweep can be built without the involvement of any country and which could act as leverage against China and/or Pakistan in the event of any of their misadventures in the West or North. New Delhi does not harbour any intention of being an impediment in the global trade or naval supply chain mechanism, rather has never considered such a move even in times of conflicts. But all options are open for India and the Quad should be aware that Indian navy has a clear edge over the PLA Navy (PLAN) and can counter China’s misadventures in the north or moves in the ocean with a blockade of cargo in the Indian Ocean especially the Nine Degree Channel near Lakshadweep.
Navy is already coordinating part of these security fortification projects from its INS Kadamba base in Karwar, Karnataka, and the largest naval infrastructure project of India as part of ‘Project Sea Bird’. Once completed, this three billion project will form part of larger coastal security framework and is all set to be the biggest naval base in the east of Suez Canal.
Lakshadweep is an important and strategic location for country’s force projection and can be developed as a base to act as a deterrent to China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific and India’s extended neighbourhood.
(The author is a commentator on foreign policy, strategy and security matters. He is the Secretary General of Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS).)
By Seshadri Chari