Kerala’s western coast along with the Lakshadweep archipelago, situated in the Arabian Sea 200-400 kilometres off the coast, had been a theatre of intense conflict in the past where powerful European navies fought among themselves and with kings of erstwhile Malabar and Travancore. They wanted to control the trade through the Arabian and the Lakshadweep seas (North East Indian Ocean).
Eventually the British gained complete control of the blue waters of the Arabian and the Lakshadweep seas including the Nine Degree Channel, a 200-kilometre wide channel in Lakshadweep Sea that separates Kalpeni and Minicoy Islands, which is the passage of nearly all merchants ships between Europe and the Middle East with South and South East Asia. After the end of British dominance, the Indian Navy rose to become a major force in the region.
Though the area underwent geopolitical realignments that haven’t led to the end of conflict/ Meanwhile new threats to the geopolitical security of India have begun to surface, along the Kerala coast and the Lakshadweep seas. Realising the importance of the Nine Degree Channel, China is trying to build up their influence in the region by setting up bases in Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Djibouti port in Africa. Along with them, non-state players including the Islamic terror groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Al Qaeda; pirates and drug cartels have set their eyes on the region. Radical Islamists want to take advantage of the demography of Lakshadweep and convert it into a forward base to attack Kerala exploiting the chinks in maritime security along the long and porous Kerala coastline. The growth of radical Islam in Kerala and their influence along the coast have already created entrepots for extremists along the Kerala coast.
The increasing threat means the security of the Kerala coast and Lakshadweep are at stake and calls for the development of infrastructure and maritime capabilities of India. Let’s analyse the diverse threats.
Terrorists, Pirates and Drug Cartels
The Lakshadweep seas and Kerala Coast have become a hotbed of terrorists, pirates and drug traffickers since early 2010. In 2011, a patrol vessel of the Indian Navy sank a pirate mother vessel and killed ten pirates and captured 15 in a battle known as Battle Off Minicoy Island. The same year 77 Somalia nationals who were spotted in two vessels near Lakshadweep were arrested. They were allegedly planning an attack. Scores of terrorists and pirates were intercepted and arrested by The Indian Navy and The Indian Coast Guard thereafter at regular intervals.
Security breaches were reported many times from the Kerala coast involving illegal entry and activities by foreign ships in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of India off the Kerala coast since early 2000. In 2013 a Sierra Leone flag bearing ship MV Seaman Guard Ohio of Advafort company which had on board a huge cache of arms was spotted off the Kerala coast a few times. Media reports said the ship berthed at Kochi on August 23 to pick up provisions, but no declaration of arms on board was made. It moved around in the Arabian sea before moving to the Bay of Bengal where the ship was intercepted off Thoothukudi and detained by the Coast Guard of India following a tip-off, and its crew were arrested, on October 11. Reports that appeared in Malayalam newspapers at the time said the weapons were arguably for terrorist groups.
On July 4, 2015, an Iranian fishing boat (Dhow) with 12 crew members was intercepted by the Coast Guard after it was found in Indian waters 100 km. off Alappuzha. The media reported that the police had recovered banned satellite phones, Pakistan identity cards and other gadgets from the boat.
Though Kerala has eight coastal police stations and more than 30 patrol boats and other boats, they are ill-equipped to face the challenges. The idea of separate coastal police with personnel trained by the Coast Guard had been approved already, but the coastal police continue to be a force where officials disliked by the government are relegated. Their interceptor boats are criticised to be incapable of handling crises. Several media reports have appeared that unknown boats and ships have often been spotted in the territorial waters of Kerala, but coastal police have been helpless in intercepting them.
On March 18, this year the Indian Coast Guard seized 300 kg of heroin, five AK 47 rifles and 1000 live rounds worth Rs 3500 Cr from a Sri Lankan boat off Minicoy islands. Though a coast guard press release didn’t announce the destination there were unverified reports that it was heading towards Kerala. Earlier, on March 5, the coast guard impounded a Sri Lankan boat and its crew had admitted that they had jettisoned 200 kg of high-grade heroin and 60 kg of hashish sighting the coast guard.
In another major haul, on April 20, 2021, The Indian Navy seized drugs worth Rs 3000 crore from a Sri Lankan fishing vessel off Vizhinjam along the Kerala coast. A press release of the Navy said the origin of drugs and weapons was Pakistan and the spoils of narcotic trade feed terrorism and radicalisation. On May 25, 2019, the media reported that the Kerala coast was put on high alert following intelligence inputs that 15 ISIS terrorists had set off from Sri Lanka to Lakshadweep and they may carry out attacks in Kerala.
According to sources, presently, gold smugglers, narcotic syndicates and terrorists have established links with sections of fishermen from the island and Kerala and are trying to use them to carry out their operations in different destinations including Kerala. This happened after security and checking were beefed up in airports along the western coast of India. As airports have become difficult to operate now, anti-national groups prefer harbours.
China is making rapid and sustained efforts to strengthen its influence along the west coast of India. The commercial investments made by Beijing in the development of Gwadar Port in Pakistan and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka sync with its military policy to encircle India. China already owns a naval base adjacent to Doraleh multi-purpose port in Djibouti, East Africa. Influence in all those ports has strengthened Chinese capabilities in the Indian Ocean. The increased influence of China in the Maldives is another major worry for India.
China’s strategy is to make investments for infrastructure developments of commercial ports and slowly force the host countries to give permission to build naval bases. Though the Gwadar port is said to be a commercial port, China’s modus operandi makes it possible to use it as a hub of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in times of need. Though Sri Lanka asserts that the Hambantota port is purely a commercial venture, the US has expressed apprehensions that the port would be turned to a forward military-based by China.
More worrying to India is the increasing Chinese influence in the Maldives. China has heavily invested in the island chain. Chinese investments there range from housing, airports to tourism, energy and telecommunication sectors. There are reports that China now controls the supply of provisions and food items to the Maldives.
In the meantime, to reduce the dependency of merchant ships travelling to China through Malacca straits, China is exploring alternative routes including developing the Thai canal aka Kra canal to link the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean bypassing Malacca Straits. India’s capabilities at Andaman, which lies at the mouth of Malacca straits is a matter of worry for China.
While China has been able to build a strong naval force over the last decade, still the PLAN lacks the strength to dominate the Indian Ocean completely. Maritime experts point out that China still lags behind the US and the Indian navies in the Indian ocean through the PLAN is catching up. The PLAN also lacks airpower and anti-submarine warfare capability in the Indian Ocean. To thwart Chinese designs and to retain the edge, India has to develop airbases and ports in the Lakshadweep and Andaman archipelagoes.
The Quad military alliance, the Malabar naval exercises involving India, the US, Japan and Australia; all highlight India’s willingness to ensure a free, open and inclusive vision of development in the Indian Ocean instead of Beijing’s closed and authoritative vision.
Apart from developing the capabilities of the Navy and improving infrastructure, India also needs to ensure internal security along the Kerala coast and in Lakshadweep to thwart emerging challenges. Radical Islamists have strong influence along the Kerala coast and have connections with foreign terror groups. Communal riots in Kerala in the last two to three decades including The Poonthura riots, The Thaikkal riots, The Marad massacre, and the Kasaragod riots all happened in the coastal belt of the state. That calls for strong laws and a will to ensure internal security.