This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Maritime security” in India’s national language.
While India does not have a national language, Hindi and English are designated “official” languages for use by the government. The term used to reference maritime security in Hindi is समुद्री सुरक्षा (pron. samudri suraksha). The word samudri means “related to the sea,” and suraksha can simultaneously translate into “defense”, “safety”, or “security” based on the context of its usage. Used together, the words translate reasonably accurately to maritime security. Usage of the Hindi term, however, is limited to speeches, translations of English documents, or to the vernacular media. Since English is the prevalent language in official policy and operational domains, the term maritime security is used commonly in a manner that is aligned with English-speaking countries and their maritime agencies.
India’s official definition for and usage of maritime security
There is no nationally mandated definition of maritime security in India. The Indian Maritime Doctrine—a document issued by the Indian Navy—characterizes maritime security as “freedom from threats at or from the sea.” However, this may not be useful as a definition, as it: (a) lacks frames of reference (threats for whom, and from whom); (b) does not describe the metrics that may be used to determine the presence or absence of threats; and (c) posits maritime security as a state of being, rather than a persistent effort that is normally most visible in times of threat. The other key document Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy does not define maritime security.
In the absence of a national definition of maritime security, there is arguably a lack of consensus within Indian governmental departments on what maritime security entails. The lack of a common framework for maritime security has often resulted in resistance to measures that may be perceived as encroaching upon the authority of a department or an agency. For instance, the Defence Ministry’s proposal for the fitment of radio identification transponders on Indian fishing boats met with significant opposition from the Fisheries Department and unions, as their perception of maritime security (to be able to fish without restrictions) was in conflict with that of the Defence Ministry (to be able to identify all vessels operating off the Indian coast at all times). A national definition of maritime security would be able to provide the strategic context, allowing different stakeholders to see how their role in the system could enable the attainment of national objectives and interests. In the absence of this “big picture” context, efforts of one agency are often viewed as zero-sum propositions by others.
India’s key documents for defining and understanding maritime security
The Indian Maritime Doctrine and Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy are two key official documents that deal with the subject of maritime security in India. Interestingly, both these documents have been promulgated by the Indian Navy, a factor that introduces two significant constraints. First, since the navy is effectively a department of the government, it does not exercise any authority over other peer departments—military or civilian. The legitimacy of the policies held therein, therefore, is contingent upon other departments recognizing these as capstone documents and accepting their provisions voluntarily. Second, though the titles of both documents use the word “maritime”, the contents are quite evidently based on a naval perspective of maritime matters. In fact, the Indian Maritime Doctrine states upfront that, “[t]he Indian Maritime Doctrine (NSP 1.1), however, deals specifically with the concepts and principles of employment of India’s naval power.” Effectively, therefore, the document is more of a naval doctrine, and not what other nations would consider national maritime doctrine. Notwithstanding the limitations, these documents offer good insights into the direction of strategic maritime thought in India.
Ensuring Secure Seas lists India’s maritime interests, one of which is “the safety and security of Indian citizens, shipping, fishing, trade, energy supply, assets and resources in the maritime domain.” Whereas this is a reasonably inclusive conceptualization of maritime security, the ensuing objectives and strategies are highly naval in character. This is understandable considering the navy’s authorship of the book, but the fact remains that the document falters in enunciating a comparably comprehensive strategy for meeting national maritime security imperatives. There is therefore a perceptible discord between the ends and the means, one arising primarily due to the lack of a national government document that has the necessary authority to provide congruence to maritime security imperatives, objectives, and strategies.
India’s elements of maritime security? Environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence.
India’s maritime strategy document delineates between traditional and non-traditional security threats and emphasizes the role of naval operations in mitigating both. To this end, deterrence in the maritime domain is described as an important peace-time role of the navy. The strategy lists terrorism, piracy, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, criminal activities at sea, proliferation of private armed security, and climate change and natural disasters as non-traditional threats to India. While issues such as environmental protection and mariner safety may have been left out of these documents, they are recognized as maritime security challenges, albeit those falling under the ambit of the Indian Coast Guard. Thus, while there may be no official documented recognition of all these issues as aspects of maritime security, there is a reasonably robust operational philosophy that acknowledges them as such.
Evolution in India’s usage of the term “maritime security”
The 2008 Mumbai terror attack was arguably the largest catalyst in transforming perceptions of maritime security in India. Before these attacks, there was little government engagement with maritime security issues, and no established multi-agent organization to deal with it. In the aftermath of these attacks, an attempt was made to bolster institutional mechanisms related to maritime security. The Indian Navy was formally named as the lead agency for maritime security, with greater civilian oversight to enable inter-agency cooperation. While this move has significantly enhanced government and stakeholder involvement in the maritime security process, much needs to be done to create synergy among them. The imminent appointment of a national maritime coordinator, as announced in April 2021, will be a substantial step toward building greater multi-agency operational and collaborative capabilities to provide for maritime security.
India’s maritime security architecture may also evolve as a result of its coast guard acquiring greater capabilities to deal with challenges across a larger part of the spectrum of operations. In recent years, the Indian Coast Guard has acquired several larger patrol vessels, which, supplemented by a capable air-arm, allow it to operate at greater ranges from the coastline, and with increased effectiveness. With time, the navy may benefit from transferring a number of its maritime security functions to an increasingly capable coast guard, so as to focus its efforts on the demands placed by high-end maritime operations in the larger Indo-Pacific region.
Additional context for India
India has a rich maritime tradition. However, the colonial period, and the ensuing years post-independence—when the country faced significant security threats along its land borders to the North and the West—have severely undermined its capacity for maritime thought. The Indian Navy has taken the lead in shaping the national discourse on maritime security, especially through the production of doctrinal documents. However, the navy can play only a limited role in developing a national maritime “culture” that informs governance at all levels. While there is now a political recognition of the importance of the maritime domain to India’s national interests, much needs to be done to establish essential structures with appropriate mandates, capable of shaping the national maritime security discourse.
 Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine (New Delhi: Integrated Headquarters Ministry of Defence (Navy), 2015), https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian-Maritime-Doctrine-2009-Updated-12Feb16.pdf, p. 14.
 See Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy (New Delhi: Directorate of Strategic Concepts and Transformation, 2015), https://www.indiannavy.nic.in/sites/default/files/Indian_Maritime_Security_Strategy_Document_25Jan16.pdf.
 Ujjwala Nayadu, “ICG’s coastal surveillance bid gets lukewarm response from fishermen,” The Indian Express (Ahmedabad, Gujarat), 4 February 2015, https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/ahmedabad/icgs-coastal-surveillance-bid-gets-lukewarm-response-from-fishermen/.
 Indian Navy, Indian Maritime Doctrine, p. 11.
 This is one of the four national maritime interests listed. See Indian Navy, Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, p. 4.
 See https://www.indiancoastguard.gov.in/content/246_3_MarineEnvironmentProtection.aspx for roles of the Indian Coast Guard.
 Abhijit Singh, “India’s Coastal Security: An Assessment,” Observer Research Foundation (2018), https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/indias-coastal-security-an-assessment-45692/.
 Udai Rao, “Opinion: India finally gets a Maritime Security Coordinator,” The Week, 20 April, 2021, https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2021/04/20/opinion-india-finally-gets-a-maritime-security-coordinator.html.
 Abhishek Bhalla, “Rajnath Singh to commission Coast Guard patrol vessel Vigraha,” India Today, 27 August, 2021, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/rajnath-singh-to-commission-coast-guard-patrol-vessel-vigraha-1845861-2021-08-27.