Why Are Indian Warships Heading Towards Libya?

Why Are Indian Warships Heading Towards Libya?

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KOLKATA, India —Two Indian ships are steaming towards troubled waters in Libya. That sounds like a reasonable response. Thousands of Indian nationals are still trapped in Libya. Except these are no ordinary ships.

INS Jalashwa is the third largest warship of the Indian Navy. An amphibious vessel, it was the USS Trenton in an earlier avatar. The INS Mysore is a destroyer.

The response has raised some eyebrows.

There are already daily Air India evacuation flights from Libya to Mumbai and Delhi ferrying stranded Indians. India has also chartered a 600-capacity passenger ship, the Scotia Prince for its stranded nationals. The warships will not actually ferry Indians back to India, but just drop them off in Malta.

Some 18,000 Indians were trapped in Libya when the turmoil began. About 12,000 remain. That’s a big number but not that big in the scheme of things: There are 350,000 Indians in Bahrain, which has also been rocked by protests.

The INS Jalashwa was pulled out of high-profile war games and dispatched to Libya. Accompanying the ships are marine commandos.

Navy Chief Admiral Nirmal Verma tried to dissuade the Indian media from reading too much into that. “This is now our standard routine,” Verma told media, according to The Economic Times. “Whenever we send ships in these areas, we have marine commandos on it for the protection of the ships or for the safety of the passengers.”

The Indian Navy was involved in evacuating Indians from Lebanon during the 2006 war in that country. It is also true that the INS Jalashwa is not just a warship. The Indian Express reports that it’s also a full-fledged medical ship with four operating theaters, doctors, paramedics, even a dental center.

But India’s Marine commando-enhanced “humanitarian mission” seems symbolic of its own position on Libya—sending out mixed signals as it hedges its bets. “India’s position is enigmatic,” writes political columnist Sunanda K. Datta-Ray in The Telegraph.

India joined the United States, after some arm-twisting, in the UN Security Council vote imposing sanctions on Qadhafi. But Datta-Ray writes that in 2007, Qadhafi was proclaiming that the sky was the limit when it came to cooperation between the two. Not to be outdone, India’s finance minister was waxing eloquent about India’s “unlimited interest” in broadening ties between the two countries.

During World War II, thousands of Indians died in Libya and Egypt for the cause of democracy. But modern India held its fire on Qadhafi, saying it didn’t want to jeopardize the 18,000 Indians working in Libya.

The unspoken message was Qadhafi was good for business. The Business Standard quoted an anonymous Indian official as saying “that Indians could only work in such large numbers in the region because of the largely secular nature of the dictatorships involved.” In fact, the first group of Indians returning from Libya was probably among the few speaking up for Qadhafi in public. Santosh Chauhan, a laborer, told The Telegraph that under Qadhafi, he got good food and wages. “Then these protesters came… They spread arson and looting,” he said. Other returnees agreed. They talked not about democracy but looted money, mobiles and automobiles."

Now New Delhi is nervous about its standing in a post-Qadhafi Libya. Datta-Ray writes that “no one should be surprised if Western arms and funds are channelled to the “Free Libya” insurgents, as they were to Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Mujahideen.”

India’s warships, at the very least, are sending a message. And the target of the message could very well be, not Libya or even the United States, but India’s prickly neighbor to the north, China.

A Chinese warship, the Xuzhou, was diverted from anti-piracy operations to protect passenger vessels evacuating its nationals. Xinhua called it China’s “biggest civilian evacuation operation.”

Indian media have been carping that China has already evacuated some 32,000 people, and India was lagging far behind. “We are not in competition with China here,” retorted Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao. “We’re focused on the task of bringing back our people safe and sound. Please let’s not devalue this.”

But the fact remains that as Libya burns, Indian and Chinese warships are circling its waters protecting both their nationals and their business interests. It marks, writes Jyoti Malhotra in the Business Standard, “a new phase in the indirect rivalry that was sparked off some years earlier for the exploitation of the continent’s fabulous natural resources.”