ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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India's Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier

An exploration of what the Andaman and Nicobar Islands mean to India--as a nation and as a state. This article suggests that the manner in which it has been visualised as a peg in the country's geopolitical strategy reduces the possibilities its location and history provide to India. It further argues that it would be self-defeating to view these islands merely from a geopolitical angle and not factor in the many histories of the people who inhabit it at present.

I have been searching for the origin of the term “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for some time now without much success. The term appears to be of World War II vintage, probably of American origin; but I have yet to identify the original usage or author. Etymology aside, the phrase “unsinkable aircraft carrier” is now associated with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), the 750-km long archipelago that is a Union Territory of India, but whose northern tip lies much closer to Myanmar than Kolkata and whose southernmost point is just a few score kilometres from Indonesia. It was here, between 1942 and 1945, that the Japanese set up an occupation government, and planned their invasion of India and the defence of their Southeast Asian territories. In his Concise History of Southeast Asia (1961), the historian Nicholas Tarling identifies ANI as part of Southeast Asia, albeit without explanation. And, as the 2004 tsunami made clear in an entirely different way, the environmental challenges faced by the ANI have much more in common with Phuket and Aceh than Vizag or Kozhikode. Go a step further and it is not unreasonable to propose that the ANI are Southeast Asian lands that happen to belong to India.

ANI as “unsinkable aircraft carrier” is au courant due to rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific maritime zone. Furious building activities in the South China Sea, contested for now mostly via legal challenges and diplomatic sparring, are the most obvious cause for this perception of rising tensions. That latent tensions can become much more, in a flash, was made clear when riots broke out in May this year against Chinese-owned factories in Ho Chih Minh City over the presence of a Chinese oil rig in what were understood to be Vietnamese waters. To these genuinely alarming developments we can add ongoing territorial disputes between Japan, Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan and China over islands that are claimed by more than one party and often by more than two. All these states are increasing their naval budgets.

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