The perennial clashes along India’s borders with Pakistan and China, which has recently again taken a more aggressive turn at the Chinese side after the attack on Indian soldiers by the Chinese troops, has yet again ignited a debate regarding the cost India has been paying due to the strategic blunders that were committed during the Nehruvian era.
Not just the gifting of territories to Pakistan and China, the Congress party under the leadership of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is responsible for India ceding territories with much crucial strategic significance. The indecisions of the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru has cost the country much more than just vast swathes of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh.
Nehru’s lack of strategic comprehension and his inability to bargain hard with the Britishers has resulted in India losing one of South Asia’s most strategic islands after the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – the Coco Islands.
Historical claims on Coco Islands
Coco Islands, which lies to the 1255-km south-east of Kolkata, is one of the most important islands of South Asia. The Coco Islands, which is geologically an extended division of the Arakan Mountains or Rakhine Mountains, submerges as a chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal for a long stretch and emerges again in the form of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These strategic islands, lying north to Andaman islands are part of the same topography as India’s Andaman & Nicobar Island. However, the Coco islands are now part of Myanmar, the reason being reluctance of the Indian leadership to hard press for the claim on these islands.
In the early 19th century, the British government in India established a penal colony in the Andaman for the convicts in the Indian subcontinent and the Coco Islands were a source of food for it. The British government had reportedly leased out the islands to Jadwet family of Burma.
The leasing of control of the Coco islands resulted in poor governance of the islands, which made the British government in India to transfer its control to the government of Lower Burma in Rangoon. In 1882, the islands officially became part of British Burma. The islands became a self-governing crown colony even after Burma was separated from British India in 1937.
Just like Lakshadweep Islands and Andaman and the Nicobar Islands, the status of Coco Islands was in limbo when the Britishers decide to quit India in 1947. During the last few days of the British rule in India, the imperialists were contemplating every possible action that could sabotage the emergence of a strong India.
In such a context, the British Raj was planning to deny the free India certain strategic locations including the islands of the Lakshadweep, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and also the Coco Islands. The British wanted India to break into different parts which would make them dominant and could still hold power.
British wanted to deny India its strategic islands
The imperialists had their eye on many strategic islands in the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, which they thought could be useful for keeping their dominance intact in the region. The Britishers thought that the non-inclusion of these islands with free India would also devoid India a strategic influence in the region, which will enable them to keep India in check.
As per an article in The Tribune India, written by KRN Swamy, the official documents accessed many years after Independence revealed information pertaining to British empire’s plans over these strategic islands.
The report dated June 13, 1947, by the Joint Planning Staff of the British Army stated, “The Lakshadweep Islands, which are sparsely inhabited coral strips, assume strategic importance from the airport of view if we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances, they would be essential for our air reinforcement and the support route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. British Navy cannot use the islands as they are only open anchorages. If we cannot assume that the successor states in India will give us these facilities then we will have to rely on Ceylon, provided we can exclude the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the transfer of power”.
The same day, the Indian and Burma Committee of the British cabinet considered the report of the chiefs of staff. In their minutes they stated, “The claim by Pandit Nehru is that Hindustan will automatically succeed to the position of India as an international entity… and Pakistan is merely a seceding minority”. “This claim, is naturally enough, contested by Mr Jinnah!” wrote the cabinet.
On July 5, 1947, Jinnah wrote to the secretary of state for India.
“Clause 2 of the India Independence Bill allots Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Dominion of India. These islands have never formed the subject of discussion or agreement between parties any time. Their sudden inclusion in India raises a very grave issue. They are not part of India, historically or geographically. They were British possessions administered by Government of India and are not in the same category as other chief commissioner’s provinces, being reserved to Governor General under Constitution Act of 1935. Majority of population consists of tribes who are not connected with peoples of India by ethnical, religious or cultural ties. Pakistan’s claim to these islands is very strong since the only channel of communication between eastern and western Pakistan is by sea and, these islands occupy important strategic position on sea routes and provide refuelling bases. Dominion of India has no such claim. They should form part of Pakistan.”
Australia, a former colony of the British empire became aware of this plan of British and wanted clarity as to whether the British would keep full control over Andaman Nicobar Islands as they wanted full consideration could be given to vital concerns of Australia.
“Keeping back Andamans and Nicobars would be particularly useful against an aggressor which was ‘strong in land but weak in sea and air power.’ Australia felt that minimum Britain could do, if they could not retain the islands, was to secure long term leases for naval and air facilities,” the Government of Australia wrote to the British empire.
On the other hand, the Lakshadweep Islands were under the surveillance of Pakistan which wanted to occupy them desperately.
Sardar Patel intervened to save Lakshadweep
However, the statesmanship of Sardar Patel saved these Islands for the country as he put strong negotiations with the Britishers and did not yield to the British pressure. Keeping in mind of the strategic importance of the Lakshadweep islands, Sardar Patel made sure that the Indian Navy was placed in Lakshadweep even before Pakistan could think and made sure the islands were under Indian control.
The British empire, who were aware of the tactfulness of Sardar Patel, was not ready to take any risk in negotiating Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The British were aware that any non-inclusion of Andaman would trigger National sentiments and could spoil their game.
British empire convinced Nehru to let go Coco Islands
As the British Empire lost both Lakshadweep and the Andaman Islands, they prepared to take control of at least one strategic islands in the Bay of Bengal and began negotiating for the Coco Islands, comprising Great Coco Island and Little Coco Island. The British, who wished to take control of these islands, sought to secure its defence requirements by proposing for a tripartite agreement for strategic use of these Islands.
The chiefs of staff of the empire never wanted the Coco Islands to become part of free India, but instead wanted it to be governed by Commissioner under the Governor-General of India till the agreement ended. They wanted the Governor to convince Indian leaders that the Coco Islands belong to two new dominions and not free India.
So, the Viceroy Lord Mountbatten knowing the shrewdness of Sardar Patel, took the matter to Nehru and convinced the proposal in an informal terms in which he highlighted that India would lease these Islands to Britain for communication purposes.
Lord Mountbatten on July 19, 1947, reported that he had spoken to Nehru, who was quite friendly and had said that there was no objection to an official approach being made, though he could not commit himself until all implications had been considered. Following this talks, an official request to make the proposed arrangements was sent to Government of India, who agreed to it “without prejudice”.
The decision of Nehru not to hard press the British for the control of Coco Islands has emerged out to be another historical blunder of the former Prime Minister. These islands, which were later taken over by Burma, has now been used by Chinese to keep an eye on India. The strategic islands are now utilised by the Chinese military to spy on the country, where they have already built an airstrip and radar station.
If it was not for Sardar Patel’s brinkmanship, perhaps, India would have lost Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands just like former Prime Minister Nehru gave away the opportunity to take control of the strategic Coco Islands, which has now emerged as a national security risk to India.
Chinese presence in Coco Islands
The Coco Islands give Indian an immense strategic advantage in the region, considering its proximity to the strait of Malacca which is a crucial point for the global supply routes of oil from the Gulf. With the reports of increasing military activities of China on the Myanmar-controlled Coco Islands, the region becomes another hotspot for potential Chinese notoriety.
Coco Island, which is north of Andamans is strategically important to India. China, which has been eyeing to encircle India in the Indian Ocean Region with its aggressive ‘String of Pearls’ policy has shown keen interest in this island since last four decades. Since the early 1990s, there have been frequent reports of China using those islands for military and naval purposes. There are even reports that the islands have been leased out to China in 1994, but Mynamar denies it.
But it is well known in defence circles that the islands, specifically the Great Coco Island, is under the Chinese control and they have established a strong military presence there. They have signal intelligence facilities, maritime bases, and radar facilities that they use to monitor the activities of Indian armed forces, especially the Indian Navy based in nearby Andamans. The Great Coco Island had a short airstrip or around 1000 metre that allowed operation of small aircraft. But the Chinese have now extended it to an almost 2500 metre runway, which is used solely for military planes as no civilian plane fly to there.
An analysis of satellite images shows that the runway was extended only 5-6 years ago, during the time when China increased its military presence in other countries. Apart from extending the runway inward, the Chinese also reclaimed lots of area on the coast to extend it towards the sea also, which can be clearly seen in the two images from Google Earth given above, from 2006 and 2020.
China has also installed a SIGINT facility to monitor Indian missile launches into Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. It is noteworthy that all Indian missile tests happen on the eastern coast along the Bay of Bengal, and thanks to the monitoring station at the island, now China can closely watch such launches and estimate even the classified details of the missiles, apart from being able to monitor movements of Indian navy.
The Radar station at the island is located at the highest point of the island at around 90 metre altitude, giving it the best monitoring capabilities.
Therefore, thanks to its strong military presence at the Coco Islands, the Chinese are able to maintain a close watch on India’s defence preparedness. Had the Island not went to Myanmar and remained with India, China would not have such a strong military presence so close to India. Hence, not being able to retain Coco Islands cost India dearly, and it must be considered as a costly strategic blunder by the Nehru government.
China has already established its presence in several seaports around India. It has taken the control Hambantota port in Sri Lanka using its ‘debt-trap’, they are developing the Gwadar port in Pakistan as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), invested in the Chittagong port in Bangladesh and has won the rights for the Kyaukpyu port project in Myanmar. Along with all these, the Coco Islands located so close to Indian territories provide China a great advantage over India, which not have happened if history went in a different direction at the time of independence.