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Last Updated: Friday, 14 January, 2005, 14:03 GMT
India wary of opening strategic islands
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC Tamil service

Indian Air Force chief SP Tyagi (L) arrives in Port Blair
The military has kept strict control over aid to the Andamans
Foreign aid agencies have widely criticised India's ultra-cautious stance in keeping them off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Despite widespread devastation there are reports that insufficient aid is reaching people in many of the outlying islands.

Islanders complain about a lack of medical attention and about the way relief operations are being carried out by officials and the military.

Non-governmental organisations have demanded access to the worst-hit remote islands but the government is yet to allow them to operate beyond the capital, Port Blair.

It insists it has the ability to supply aid.

India cites security concerns and a desire to protect endangered aboriginal tribes from outside influence as reasons for not allowing visitors to many parts of the island chain.

Some islands are off limits even to Indian citizens.

Foothold

Why do the Andamans attract such a policy?

One reason given is the need to protect the aboriginal tribes on the islands from outside influence.

But the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, more than 1,200km (750 miles) from the mainland, are also strategically located.

Their southernmost point is just 150km from Indonesia's Sumatra and their northernmost fewer than 50km from the Coco islands controlled by Burma

In effect, they give India a foothold in south-east Asia.

"The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are crucially located, offering a strategic view over the shipping traffic between the gulf and the Malacca straits," says Commodore C Uday Bhaskar of the Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

The location suits India's grand ambition of becoming a regional naval power capable of extended operations beyond the range of shore-based support.

The Andamans' natural harbours and coral reefs offer perfect locations for ships and submarines.

It is a Cold War mentality. India is sensitive about its military installations in the Andamans
Suba Chandran,
defence analyst

Despite opposition from Pakistan, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands became part of India when the British left the subcontinent over five decades ago.

But the Andamans remained away from public glare as the government developed the mainland.

The strategic importance of the islands was realised during India's 1971 war with Pakistan, when the Indian navy used them as a base to blockade and attack the naval bases and ships of what was then east Pakistan, now Bangladesh.

In the following years, more Indian naval assets were added and air bases were built.

When the islands developed, more people from mainland India settled there.

Integrated command

But while India realised the islands' strategic importance, defence cuts and unfavourable economic conditions in the early 1990s dogged military development.

Air force base on Car Nicobar
The air base on Car Nicobar is the only clear military damage

But in the late 1990s, the then-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition diverted more resources to bolster India's military capability.

In 2001, India established an Integrated Services Command of army, navy, air force and coast guard in the Andamans.

With the new set up, India aims to control maritime trade activities in the region and counter sea-borne terrorism and piracy.

There have also been media reports that some air and sea assets of India's Strategic Nuclear Forces Command would be placed in the region.

But veteran Indian nuclear affairs analyst, K Subramanyam, says: "Nobody will place their strategic assets in a remote place like the Andamans as they would become an easy target."

With so much military and strategic significance, it is not surprising that Indian officials are wary of foreign aid agencies in the Andamans.

Suba Chandran, a defence analyst at the Delhi-based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, says: "It is a Cold War mentality. India is sensitive about its military installations in the Andamans."

Other than damage to the Car Nicobar air base, it is unclear whether the navy or air force suffered major tsunami losses here.

However, nature's fury could force Indian military planners to rethink future expansion plans in the islands.


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