Media Release on ICWA International Conference on “K.M. Panikkar and the Growth of a Maritime Consciousness in India, 23-24 March 2021
1) The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) organized an International Conference on “M. Panikkar and the Growth of a Maritime Consciousness in India, 23-24 March 2021. The conference was held virtually and it had a total of 29 speakers from India and abroad. The speakers constituted a multi-disciplinary group of academics, historians and naval analysts. A Call for Papers was issues last year in July 2020 and pre-selected papers were presented at the Conference.
2) At the Conference, Director General, ICWA, Dr. TCA Raghavan delivered welcome remarks. He stated that Sardar K M Panikkar’s life and works form a fascinating narrative encompassing a wide diversity of roles, positions and interests. His contributions in different capacities are of immense significance and merit closer study for any clear understanding of the diplomatic and intellectual history of modern India. He highlighted that Panikkar’s historical and literary works have influenced contemporary thought and perceptions and played a formative role in orienting independent India’s maritime consciousness.
3) The first session was on ‘KM Panikkar: Life and Works’. Dr Sebastian Prange, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia was the commentator and moderator of the session. Speakers included Prof Himanshu Prabha Ray, Former Chairperson, National Monuments Authority of India, Patrick Bratton, Associate Professor, US Army War College and Dr. Raghul V. Rajan, Assistant Professor, Aligarh Muslim University Centre. It was stated that Panikkar made attempts to strengthen the discourse on maritime history in the post-independence period. He explained how the British imperial defense was based on its maritime strength. However, in British India, sea power was totally overlooked and emphasis was on land- based assets and threats. Speakers highlighted Panikkar’s emphasis on need for independent India to have a strong navy along with investment in mercantile shipping in coastal waters. Speakers recognized that Panikkar’s thinking and his works are versatile and relevant in contemporary times.
4) The second session was on ‘KM Panikkar and Maritime India’. Joao Teles e Cunha from University of Lisbon was the commentator and moderator for the session. Speakers included Mr. Asad Latif, Former Visiting Research Fellow, ISEAS, Singapore, Commodore Abhay Kumar Singh (Retd.) from MP-IDSA and Ms. Athira Anand, Research Scholar, IIT Madras. Differences between European and Indian strategic thinking were noted. Speakers argued that Panikkar’s works recognized the significance of South Asia beyond the framework of colonial space, highlighting that future of Southeast Asia cannot be divorced from India. It was noted that Panikkar had promoted the idea of regional security community in the Indian Ocean region. Critiquing the Eurocentric historiography of sea-power and continental fixation of India’s strategic outlook from Mughal to British India, he regarded Indian Ocean as a critical area for India’s freedom. Panikkar stressed on giving equal importance to continental and maritime dimensions in India’s strategic thinking.
5) The third session on the second day of the Conference was on ‘The Epoch of Atlantic Power Dominance in the Indian Ocean: 15th-19th Century’. Prof Himanshu Prabha Ray was the moderator and commentator for the session. Speakers included Prof Ravi Arvind Palat, State University of New York at Binghamton, Amruta Karambelkar, Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation, Cmde. Odakkal Johnson, Director Research, Maritime History Society and Dr. Krishnendra Meena, Associate Professor, CIPOD, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The session focused on discussing the phase of European power dominance in the Indian Ocean shifting from Portuguese to Dutch and later France and Britain. It was stated that Indian and Arabs traded freely in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese who brought in the notion of sea control which never existed in the Ocean. The 18th century Bay of Bengal Battles had a lasting impact on Indian history, influencing the emergence of armed maritime power and Indian Navy. Importance of ships and ship building in shaping European dominance in the Indian Ocean was also highlighted. One speaker highlighted how Panikkar discussed about imposition of commercial economy and how Indian society was unable to succeed in becoming a capitalist economy.
6) The fourth session was titled ‘Rise of the Pacific: Geopolitical Contestations in the Indian Ocean: 20th-21st Century’. Dr Mahmood Kooria from Leiden University, The Netherlands was the moderator and commentator for the session. Speakers included Professor Falendra Kumar Sudan, University of Jammu, Mohor Chakraborty, University of Calcutta, Ms. Priyanka Choudhury and Ms. Krishna Kataria, Adjunct Research Associates, Maritime History Society and Mr. Akshay Honmane and Ms Heena Sofi from Mumbai. The session discussed the 20th and 21st century geopolitical churnings in the region as the global strategic and economic attention has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific region in recent years. Extra regional players like Germany and France are emerging as key players as they realize the potential of the region. It was also stated that there is a need to think deeper on the nuances of the Indo-Pacific outlook for a long-term perspective on building an understanding of structural challenges and long-standing problems faced by the region.
7) The panel discussion on ‘KM Panikkar and the Growth of a Maritime Consciousness in India’ was chaired by Dr Sanjaya Baru, Distinguished Fellow, MP-IDSA and Member, Governing Council, ICWA. The panelists included Rear Admiral Raja Menon, Indian Navy (Retired), Vice Admiral M P Muralidharan, Former Director General, Indian Coast Guard, Former Member, Armed Forces Tribunal, Ambassador Biren Nanda, Former Ambassador of India to Australia, Indonesia and ASEAN, Professor Lawrence Prabhakar, Advisor, Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi and Prof Rila Mukhjerjee, Professor, University of Hyderabad. It was noted that India became inward-looking mainly during the colonial phase. Post-independence, India has had a land-centric approach to its security; it is only in the recent past that a growing maritime consciousness is being seen in Indian strategic thinking, largely owing to growing links with Southeast Asia, West Asia and Africa. KM Panikkar was the first thinker who pushed for a maritime consciousness in India looking beyond continental security concerns. Panelists highlighted that Panikkar anticipated the rise of China in the Indian Ocean as a strategic challenge and also that India was destined to play a crucial role in the strategic future of the Indian Ocean. He also foresaw entry of the US in the Indian Ocean. Panikkar’s ideas could be seen as realist and constructivist. He has envisioned destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers as necessary for India’s naval power. India’s Act East Policy and Project Mausam bear the imprint of Panikkar’s thinking. Speakers reiterated that India needs to balance its continental and naval power. The panel also emphasized the idea of Blue Economy which is getting increasing traction in the oceanic debates.