With a coastline of 7,500 km, India has a history of seafaring dating to five thousand years at least. The world’s first tidal dock is believed to have been built at Lothal, near the present-day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast around2300 BCE during the Indus valley civilization.
The Rig Veda written around 1700 BCE, credits Varuna with knowledge of the ocean routes and describes naval expeditions, with reference to Plava the side wings of a vessel which give stability to the ship sailing in stormy waters and Matsya yantra, a compass used for navigation in the 4th and 5th century AD. The earliest known reference of an organization devoted to ships and sailing in ancient India is from the Mauryan Empire, 4th century BCE.
Emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s Prime Minister Kautilya’s Arthashastra has a chapter on the state department of waterways under navadhyaksha, Sanskrit for Superintendent of hips(Chapter XXVIII in Book II, “The Duties of Government Superintendents” of the Arthasástra of Kautilya). The term, nava dvipantaragamanam, Sanskrit for sailing to other lands by ships, is mentioned in this book in addition to appearing in the Buddhist text, Baudhayana Dharmasastra using the term, amudrasamyanam (Sanskrit for sea voyage). Sea lanes between India and littoral countries in the Indian Ocean theatre were the trade routes for many centuries. It was through these that Indian culture also spread widely and influenced.
While the Maurya, Satavahana, Chola, Vijayanagara, Kalinga, Maratha and Mughal empires had powerful navies, it was the Cholas who did very well in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia.
It was under the reigns of Raja Raja Chola and his son, Rajendra Chola (between 985 and1044), that the Cholas launched naval campaigns, subdued many kingdoms and expanded their empire to South- East Asia by occupying the region which included Myanmar, Malaya, Sumatra etc., and even sent ambassadors to countries as far off as China.
To counter Portuguese attempts at extracting trading privileges, Manavikraman, known as the Samoothiri Raja of Kozhikode began a naval build-up and appointed Mohammed Kunjali as Marakkar (admiral) of his fleet. Over the next century, the Samoothiri Rajas successfully repelled various attempts by the Portuguese to overthrow their rule, with each side enlisting various allies over time.
After four generations of Kunjali Marakkars having served the Samoothiri Rajas, differences between Mohammed Ali, Marakkar IV, and his masters increased, culminating with his self-declaration as the “Lord of the Indian seas”. The Samoothiris then collaborated with the Portuguese to defeat Mohammed Ali in 1600.
Later, they allied with the Dutch East India Company to defeat the Portuguese. The Maratha Empire established by Chhatrapati Shivaji in 1674, had since its inception, a naval force, consisting of ships with cannons mounted on them. The ‘Pal’ was a three-masted Marathaman-of-war with guns fitted on the broadsides. The Maratha chief of Satara appointed Kanhoji Angre as the Darya- Saranga, who rose to dominate the Western coast of India from Mumbai to Fangoria (now Vengurla, in Maharashtra), except for Janjira which was affiliated with the Mughal Empire.
Until his death in 1729, he repeatedly attacked the colonial powers of Britain and Portugal, capturing numerous vessels of the British East India Company and extracting ransom for their return. On 29 November 1721, a joint attempt by the Portuguese Viceroy Francisco José de Sampaio –-Castro and the British General Robert Cowan, with a combined fleet of 6,000 soldiers in four Man-of-war besides other ships led by Captain Thomas Mathews of the Bombay Marine against Angre’s fleet failed miserably. Aided by Maratha naval commanders Mendhaji Bhatkar and Mainak Bhandari, Angre continued to harass and plunder the European ships until his death in 1729.
The English East India Company, established in 1600, was defeated by the Portuguese in 1612, at the Battle of Swally (Suvali). This defeat, piracy and the need to protect commerce, led the East India Company to raise a small navy. The Company built a port at a coastal village Suvali, near Surat, Gujarat and raised a force named Honourable East India Company’s Marine, which received its first fighting ships on 5 September 1612.
This force protected merchant shipping off the Gulf of Cambay and the rivers Tapti and Narmada. Its ships also helped map the coastlines of India, Persia and Arabia. By 1686, with most of English commerce moving to Bombay, the force was renamed the Bombay Marine. Since its inception, the British recruited Indians in this force only as lascars.
While over a long period Bombay Marine was involved in combat against the Marathas, the Sidis had participated in the Anglo- Burmese Wars, it was only as late as in 1928, that the British sanctioned commissioned Indian officers for this force. In 1830, Bombay Marine became Her Majesty’s Indian Navy.
British commitments for Her Majesty’s Indian Navy increased following the capture of Aden leading to the creation of the Indus Flotilla. In 1840 the Navy fought in the China War. Her Majesty’s Indian Navy resumed the name Bombay Marine from 1863 to 1877, when it became Her Majesty’s, Indian Marine.
The Marine then had two divisions; the Eastern Division at Calcutta (now Kolkata) and the Western Division at B o m b a y ( n o w Mumbai).In recognition of the services rendered during various campaigns, Her Majesty’s Indian Marine has titled the Royal Indian Marine in 1892. By this time it had over 50 vessels.
Following the outbreak of World War 1, when mines were detected off the coasts of Bombay and Aden, the Royal Indian Marine became part of a fleet of minesweepers, patrol vessels and troop carriers and was involved in patrolling, ferrying troops and war stores from India to Iraq, Egypt and East Africa. It was only ten years after WW 1, in 1928 that the Royal Indian Marine got its first Indian commissioned officer, Sub Lieutenant D.N Mukherji who joined as an engineer.
In 1934, the Royal Indian Marine became the Royal Indian Navy (RIN). Ships of the RIN received the refix HMIS for His Majesty’s Indian Ships. At the start of the Second World War, the yal Indian Navy was very small and had eight warships. The onset of the war led to an expansion.
Additionally, Indian Sailors served on-board several Royal Navy warships. A large number of Indian merchant seamen and merchant ships were instrumental in keeping the large stream of raw material and suppliers from India to the United Kingdom open.
During WW II, sloops HMIS Sutlej (U95) and HMIS Jumna (U21) played a key role in Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily. Another sloop HMIS Godavari (U53) sank the German submarine U-198 on 12 August 1944 near Seychelles.
WW II took an immense toll on the British Empire. Having lost a lot of money due to the war effort, Britain was hoping to recover it from its colonies. However, Mahatma Gandhi’s efforts at rallying Indians against the British, while resulting in exposing their hypocrisy, the Salt March and Gandhi telling Indians not to buy British goods, converted India from being a country that was profitable for the British to a country that was a loss and would cost them highly.
British historians P.J. Cain and A.G.Hopkins described the hopeless situation of the British in India as follows: “By the end of the war, there was a loss of purpose at the very centre of the imperial system. The gentlemanly administrators who managed the Raj no longer had the heart to devise new moves against increasing odds, not least because after 1939 the majority of the Indian Civil Service were themselves Indian…. Widespread discontent in the army was followed in 1946 by a mutiny in the navy.
It was then Wavell, the unfortunate messenger, reported to London that India had become ungovernable (which finally led to the independence of India).”
On 18th February 1946, Indian sailors of Royal Indian Navy on board ship and shore establishments at Bombay harbour went on strike and organised a mutiny. The whole mutiny involving 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors, was sparked off owing poor pay and food as well as racist behaviour by Royal Navy personnel towards Indian sailors, and disciplinary measures taken against the sailors who demonstrated nationalist sympathy.
This was indeed a rude shock to this mutiny reached almost 2.5 million strong Indian Army, highly reputed after WW II, then its effect would be uncontrollable. It was time for the British to make a quick exit.
With Independence came the bloody partition of India and Pakistan. The division of naval assets amounted to 32 ships for India and 16 for Pakistan. The new Indian government over the next couple of decades proved to be quite “sea-blind”. The first involvement of Indian Navy came in 1961 when India annexed Goa.
The Portuguese Navy’s four frigates were deployed in the waters off Goa, Daman and Diu, along with several patrol boats, of which only one saw action against Indian Navy ships and was destroyed while the other ships having fled before the commencement of hostilities. Parts of the Portuguese ship Afonso destroyed by Indian frigates INS Betwa and INS Beas are on display at the Naval Museum in Mumbai, while the remainder was sold as scrap.
During the India-Pakistani war of 1965, while Indian Navy was kept out of the loop of planning, it’s then Chief, Admiral BS Soman toured with the Army as an observer in the Western Sector of operations. On 07 September 1965 a flotilla of the Pakistani Navy carried out a small-scale bombardment of Dwarka on the Gujarat coast and a radar station there. Codenamed Operation Dwarka by Pakistan navy, it failed to disable the radar station. The only casualty of the bombardment was a cow.
24 years after Independence, in 1971 when Pakistan perpetrated its third war against India, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Naval Chief Admiral SM Nanda were all set to put India Navy into action. The Indian Navy played a significant role in the bombing Karachi harbour. On 04 December 1971, it launched Operation Trident during which missile boats INS Nirghat and INS Nipat sunk the minesweeper PNS Muhafiz and destroyer PNS Khyber.
The destroyer PNS Shahjahan was irreparably damaged. The operation was so successful that the Pakistani Navy raised a false alarm about sighting an Indian missile boat on December 6. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) planes attacked the supposed Indian ship and damaged the vessel before it was identified as being another Pakistani Navy ship, PNS Zulfiqar which suffered numerous casualties and damage as a result of this“friendly fire”. On 08 December during Operation Python, INS Veer severely damaged Pakistani frigate PNS Dacca and the oil storage depot of Karachi was set ablaze.
On the western front in the Arabian Sea, operations ceased after the Karachi port became unusable due to the sinking of Panamian vessel Gulf Star. An Indian frigate, INS Khukri was sunk by submarine PNS Hangor. On the eastern front, the submarine PNS Ghazi was sunk outside Vishakhapatnam harbour. Indian naval aircraft, Sea Hawks and Alizés, from the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant was instrumental in sinking many gunboats and merchant navy vessels in the Bay of Bengal.
The successful blockade of East Pakistan by the Indian Navy proved to be a vital factor in the Pakistani surrender. Pakistan lost 14 warships and gunboats and 9 merchant vessels including one US ammunition ship. Indian Navy’s only loss was INS Khukri, the Captain of which, Mahendra Nath Mulla, in the best of Naval traditions, went down with the ship after giving his life-jacket to a sailor and ordering all hands off the deck. When the US, in sympathy with Pakistan, sent its 7th Fleet into the Arabian Sea. Admiral Nanda’s instructions to captains of all IN ships were: “If they come too close, invite them on board for a drink”.
Post-1971, Indian Navy took part in IPKF operations in Sri Lanka, assisted counter-terrorism operations in Jammu and Kashmir, been part of UN peacekeeping missions, undertook commendable large-scale disaster relief, effective anti-piracy operations, cooperated and exercised with many foreign navies, assisted Maldives in restoration of government rule and most important, kept the most vital of sea lanes of communications of the Indian Ocean safe and trouble-free.