There are moments in the life of a nation when we are united in our emotions. The nation came as a whole, at the dawn of freedom, to exult in our ‘tryst with destiny’. The nation grieved together when the Mahatma was assassinated, it rallied together in the wars we fought, it went euphoric when we triumphed in the 1971 war, or when we won the cricket World Cup in 1983, when Rakesh Sharma went into outer space, or more recently, when Neeraj Chopra won our first gold medal in athletics at the Olympics. Today, the Indian Navy will produce one such moment when the indigenously built INS Vikrant is commissioned at Kochi, in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
There are several points of reference from which to look at this spectacular achievement — the induction of the largest warship ever built in India, an aircraft carrier to boot. Let us consider them one by one. First, while it may be mere coincidence, September is a significant month for the Navy from a historical point of view. It was on September 5, 1612, when a squadron of British ships arrived at Swally, off Surat and the Honourable East India Company’s Marine (also called the Indian Marine) was formed. The British and some Indian officers of an earlier era believe — incorrectly in my opinion — that this was the foundation day of the Indian Navy. Coincidentally, it was on the same date, many centuries later, on September 5, 1934, that the Indian Navy Discipline Bill was passed, after six years of deliberations, giving final legislative approval for the constitution of the Royal Indian Navy, a few days later. After Independence, INS Hansa was commissioned on September 5, 1961, and today, it is not only India’s largest airbase but also has umbilical links with the aircraft carrier as it houses carrier-borne aircraft squadrons. Last year, Naval Aviation was presented the President’s Colour on September 6. Even more significantly, the Indian Navy’s journey of ‘Making in India’ began in September 1960, with the commissioning of INS Ajay, a small Seaward Defence Boat (SDB).
That leads us to the second point of reference, namely, the Indian Navy’s consistent and continuing endeavours at atmanirbharta much before it was echoed in other quarters. From Ajay to Vikrant is a splendid journey of 62 years, in which the Navy has designed, and the country’s shipyards have built, everything from survey ships, amphibious vessels, auxiliaries and corvettes to state-of-the-art frigates, destroyers and ballistic missile submarines. Building an aircraft carrier is the very acme of this pursuit and an achievement that the nation should justly feel proud about. It is a journey not just from 100 tonnes of Ajay to 45,000 tonnes of Vikrant, but of blood, sweat and toil as the Navy’s designers, constructors, system integrators and planners battled challenges from technology denial to lack of local industrial ecosystems to produce the cutting-edge equipment that the Navy needed. And yet, because it persevered through all odds, it can reap the benefits of not just increasing the indigenous content with every succeeding ship but also contributing in a big measure to the country’s industry, especially in the MSME sector.
The next point relates to its role in the operational matrix. The many virtues and unique abilities of aircraft carriers are well-known. Their emergence as the kingpins of battle in World War II and their subsequent role in wars, power projection, in dissuasion, coercion and much else, across several theatres around the globe, is by now, well recognised. Indian Navy’s planners had perceptively envisioned a Navy that had balanced fleets with a mix of different types of ships, centred around aircraft carriers. As India’s heft and stature in the international community increases, there will be a commensurate rise in our interests and responsibilities, both regionally and globally. Carrier Task Forces (CTFs), as the most powerful fighting forces at sea, are best equipped to secure these interests or discharge our responsibilities. More importantly, as we face an aggressive China that is seeking to put pressure on India, in the Indian Ocean Region, the availability of adequate CTFs, is an important guarantor of security and to retain our freedom to use the seas for our benefit.
The last point relates to historical legacy. The new INS Vikrant carries forward the name of its illustrious predecessor, which served the Navy with distinction from 1961 to 1997. At that time, India was the only one amongst Asian and African nations to have an aircraft carrier and it was a matter of prestige for India. Majestic in its look and size, she was a household name with brand equity that went beyond the Navy. However, she was not about pomp and show alone. She was involved in the Goa Liberation of 1961 and her aircraft took part in the 1965 war. Her finest hour was in the 1971 war for liberation of Bangladesh when she dominated the Bay of Bengal. As the flagship of the newly formed Eastern Fleet, her dazzling exploits led to the strangulation of the then East Pakistan and the ultimate denouement of the surrender of more than 90,000 Pakistani troops. Later, as she sustained peace in a fragile neighbourhood, she also became the cradle of naval aviation responsible for grooming budding naval aviators in the tough art of flying over sea and operating from the deck. It’s no surprise then that she was venerated as ‘Mother’ and many a tear were shed when she finally bid adieu. The new Vikrant inherits that mantle and illustrates the time space continuum that seafarers and our countrymen hold dear. Bearing the motto, translated as “we win over those who dare to fight”, she carries the hopes and expectations of generations of Navy persons.
Well-intentioned critics or aircraft carrier sceptics may raise questions about the aircraft mix, the time for it to get fully operational, or the need for greater indigenisation in the ‘fight’ component of the carrier or even the standard ones about cost, comparison to submarines or stationery air bases as effective fighting platforms. I am sure that the Indian Navy as a dynamic, progressive and intellectually forward-looking entity, while making allowance for these doubts, will have the appropriate answers as we move forward. But for today, let us celebrate this special moment in Indian history. Today, the whole of India is Team Vikrant.
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