‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ – This cliché has permanently defined Indian boundaries. There may be a poetic feel to this phrase but ultimately it is the wrong description of our country’s extent. At least it is partially wrong. While India’s Northernmost Point is correctly described as Kashmir, Kanyakumari is the wrong place. Indira Point (which was earlier known as Pygmalion Point) in Nicobar District happens to be the Southernmost Point of India.
The importance of any frontier region hardly needs any elaboration. But it is true that Andaman and Nicobar Islands, despite being one of the frontiers of India, is the least known and at times even neglected as a frontier region. To most of the Indians, the only identity of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is the Cellular Jail where many freedom fighters were sent for life transportation by the British.
Andaman and Nicobar is a group of islands. It lies at a fair bit of distance from the ‘mainland’ territory of India to the southeastern direction. Location of this region has been one of the principle reasons that for a long period of time it did not feature in the policy making. Only in recent years has there been a rise in the attention received by this region. The dominance of territory and territorial security in strategic thinking meant that maritime dimension of security received relatively lesser importance. Most of the strategic thought was devoted to the northwest and northeast where India shares its territorial boundaries with Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. The concept of maritime boundary, although not altogether absent in the Indian strategic discourse, is finding relevance only in the past few years.
The potential of Andaman and Nicobar Islands lies in multiple areas such as strategic, economic and connectivity. In the current situation the strategic area assumes immense importance. Geographical location of this region makes it a strategically crucial region for India. Andaman and Nicobar is located in close proximity to Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar. This proximity is of course through the sea. So these three countries share maritime boundary with India (Myanmar also shares land boundary with India). In a way the location of Andaman and Nicobar make Thailand and Indonesia the neighbours of India and not emerging neighbours.
The issue of connectivity in India is always linked only with the Northeast. The connectivity of Northeast with rest of India is important and should be prioritized. But the connectivity of Andaman and Nicobar with the mainland India is vital. In addition the Northeast is considered as India’s gateway to Southeast Asia. But owing to the location Andaman and Nicobar is an equally strong contender to be the gateway to Southeast Asia. The importance that Southeast Asia has assumed in India’s foreign policy since the past two and a half decades makes a strong case for Andaman and Nicobar Islands to act as a bridge between India and Southeast Asia. The Look East Policy and Act East Policy could be more effective and more successful with increased participation of Andaman and Nicobar.
Besides being India’s link to Southeast Asia, Andaman and Nicobar is important from the point of view of India’s maritime security in the Indian Ocean. In both the regions – Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean – one of the main challenges for India is containment of China. China is taking rapid strides for expanding its influence through land as well as sea calls for a prompt action from India’s side. The growing strategic importance of Andaman and Nicobar has led to establishment of a strategic command known as Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) in 2011. The functions of this command include defence, diplomacy and policy formulation. This is a step in the right direction. Already a number of tasks are carried out in the functional areas of this command like defence co-operation and military exercises with the Southeast Asian countries.
As mentioned earlier, Andaman and Nicobar Islands has a lot to offer in the economic sector also apart from strategic sector. The untapped marine resources could boost the economy of this region and lead to its development. Development of these islands as ports would help in increasing trade and commerce through sea. Again this would benefit the region as well as the country.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a region with a great potential. It is a frontier of India though lesser known than the territorial frontiers. Strategic and economic development of this region would ultimately strengthen India and would make it ready to successfully meet any challenges that may arise in future.
(The author is an Independent Researcher based in Vadodara and can be reached at – email@example.com)