Nothing major in Mauritius

Just returned from a short visit to 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. Met some prosperous businessmen — all Bihari stock (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 asked about the North and South Agalega Islands proximal to peninsular India, they said the Mauritian govt 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 like 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 & radar station on Mauritius took a long time, becoming operational some 10-15 years after the Indian govt 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, for instance, which was also eyeing these islands for military use. The long lag time between agreement and its partial realization was owing to the usual and familiar systemic problems, among them, 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.

But the chief military purpose of the Agalegas never quite took off — not least ‘coz (as revealed in my book’Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’ the IAF leadership even less than the naval brass were not all that into having an airfield on North Agalega 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 elint stuff, 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 even as Delhi endlessly and uselessly debates and discusses — and then in a low key, their military utility, India secured an understanding from the Mauritian govt that no other country would be permitted to establish anything remotely of military use there.

So, 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 last the Indian govt considers a stellar accomplishment! Port Louis, meanwhile, is only concerned, by way of quid pro quo, that India maintain the current financial system enabling Mauritius to continue as the primary channel for re-routing Indian monies (black and white) back into India w/o tax liabilities. This middleman role is lucrative and constitutes a large part of the revenue of this stat — and very small price for India to pay.

This habitual disregard by a succession of strategically feeble-minded Indian govts 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 govt under Narendra Modi would reverse. No such luck. Among the first countries he visited, Modi may have signed some agreements, including re: 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 surefire 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, in the circumstances — Mr Modi, NSA Ajit Doval — for India to preempt 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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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4 Responses to Nothing major in Mauritius

  1. raja says:

    deeply paining to know the details.

  2. Dr. Karnad, an excellent review., If I may, however insert a little bit of information that may put Indian involvement in perspective – the Coast Guard ship you mention is now decommissioned – CGS Vigilant which never worked properly. It has been replaced by an Indian made vessel – the MCGS Barracuda (Garden Reach Shipyards) which was in India for the IFR 2016. India is also supplying some Water Jet FACs and interceptor boats to Mauritius. It has also supplied practically all Mauritian maritime recce assets and the commander of the Mauritian Coast Guard is an Indian naval officer. The question is why not take the next step and establish bases there?

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