By Bharat Karnad
Recently, I visited the Hindu community-dominated and beautiful archipelagic country, Mauritius—India’s natural anchor in the southwestern Indian Ocean, if only Delhi had the political will and the geostrategic wit to clasp it. I encountered some prosperous businessmen—all Bihari people (the largest portion of the indentured labour the British transported in the 19th Century to that island to work on the sugar plantations, with Tamils next, and smaller representations from other parts of India following in their train).
When I asked about the North and South Agalega islands proximal to peninsular India, they said the Mauritian government was keeping it all very hush-hush. Nobody vouched for this, but there were hints that official permits were needed to fly to these islands. Perhaps, what was being referred to was the electronic intelligence station and radar systems on these islands forming with similar setups in Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives and northern Mozambique, what I have said in my writings and recent book, is a communications and surveillance grid in the so encompassed oceanic expanse. But there’s less here than meets the eye.
The establishing of the communications and radar station in Mauritius took a long time, becoming operational some 10-15 years after the Indian government first began talks and reached an agreement after years of haggling. The then Labour Party regime of Navin Ramgoolam in Port Louis signed it in 1996. The original plan was ambitious. It conceived of a full-fledged Indian presence on the Agalegas under pretext of a resort run by an Indian hotel major—Tata’s or Oberois’s, to deflect pressure from France, which was also eyeing these islands for military use.
The long time lag between agreement and its partial realization was owing to the usual and familiar systemic problems – finding somebody in Delhi to own up the great idea, lead the charge and push in a sustained fashion for it, and getting the monies for such vast project at a time when India was resource-scarce. These private hoteliers (with resorts on the main island) baulked, for instance, at investing in the necessary infrastructure—a desalination plant costing some $150 million to provide a steady supply of potable water, and power plant etc for the supposed resort.
However, the chief military purpose of the Agalegas never quite took off—not least because (as revealed in my book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ ) the IAF leadership (even lesser than the naval brass) were not all that into having an airfield on North Agalega which would be able to receive heavy airlifters and, to complement it, a naval base for a forward Indian naval flotilla presence in around a fine deep water harbour in the neighbouring South Agalega island.
So in the years since, besides the things related to elint, the airfield is ready but not a large jetty to berth a number of warships and the other support facilities. But just so the French (with presence on the nearby Reunion island, part of the French Indian Ocean Territories) or the Chinese (putting down littoral roots in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar) do not sneak into the Agalegas and then in a low key, their military utility, even as Delhi endlessly and uselessly debates and discusses, India secured an understanding from the Mauritian government that no other country would be permitted to establish anything remotely of military use there.
Despite every strategic provocation by China, India has not marshaled the resources it can for such military bases to obtain a sort of hammerlock on the southern and western Indian Ocean, but has prevented other countries from doing so either—which the Indian government considers a stellar accomplishment. Port Louis, meanwhile, is only concerned, by way of quid pro quo, that India maintains the current financial system enabling Mauritius to continue as the primary channel for re-routing Indian monies (black and white) back into India without tax liabilities. This middleman role is lucrative and constitutes a large part of the revenue of this statistics—and very small price for India to pay.
This habitual disregard by a succession of strategically feeble-minded Indian governments for the geostrategic verities is hard to explain. Except, as product of the trademark ennui and inertia that have long since become known as Delhi’s calling card. So, consider this: India has refurbished and lengthened the Farkhor air base in Ainee, Tajikistan, but there’s no sign of the squadron of Su-30s that was to be deployed there. India has the Agalegas for the asking but is doing little in a major military way about it. Similarly, Mozambique’s offer of a naval base for Indian warships to settle in has not been acted upon. This is criminal negligence of the country’s strategic interests that one had hoped the “nationalist” BJP government under Narendra Modi would reverse. However, this has not happened so far.
Among the first countries he visited, Modi may have signed some agreements, including the one regarding the Agalegas, but so far there’s only slight movement.
Why India needs any pretext or cover for a security agreement to lease out the outer Mauritian islands is a mystery—but this apparently is MEA’s contribution to the mess (besides lack of leadership of the issue, shared with MOD).
What will it take to strategically rouse Delhi into acting on the country’s behalf and get going on distant defence—the sure-fire guarantee of India’s long term security? It is only a matter of time before China succeeds in weaning Mauritius away from India, the Hindu majority, notwithstanding, with oodles of financial and economic inducements, investment, and aid, and then we’ll be stuck with having to contend with a Chinese stranglehold on the lower Indian Ocean as well.
Wouldn’t it be better for India to pre-empt such inevitable Chinese moves by confronting them with the fait accompli of a rapidly built-up and fully functional Indian naval and air bases on the Agalegas, Indian military units on the ground, including army and marine commandos on rotational short-term stints, and transfer of armaments, than trying painfully to recover lost ground (as happened in Sri Lanka, Myanmar)? If India did that, Mauritius will finally feel safe, considering it is all but unarmed. (An ancient rust bucket—a small corvette type vessel is seen anchored forlornly off the touristy stretch of Le Caudan, which, apparently, is about all the protection Mauritius can summon for itself.)
Then again with the utterly wasteful and military-wise, near nonsensical Rafale deal hanging fire, are the Agalegas too some sort of a pawn to involve France in the strategic game afoot in the Indian Ocean? This makes no more sense than buying the Rafale as MMRCA because the US is present in strength in Diego Garcia (detached from Mauritian control in 1963 by the departing imperial power, UK, and handed over to the American armed forces) not too far away, and is far more capable than France will ever be.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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