The Indian government’s plan to set up and develop its first overseas military base at Assumption Island in the Seychelles was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian Ocean tour in March 2015. Modi visited the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Sri Lanka with a view to boost India’s regional diplomacy and capabilities.
The island nation of the Seychelles, strategically located in the context of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), has long been an Indian ally. During Modi’s 2015 visit, an agreement was reached between New Delhi and Victoria to jointly develop Assumption Island. The agreement was important because it gave India an opportunity to place its strategic assets directly in the Indian Ocean.
The government of the Seychelles, based in Victoria on Mahe Island, is 1,135 kilometers (705 miles) northeast of Assumption Island. Seychelles authorities believe that, if the base is developed and upgraded, it will help increase the capacity of the country’s Coast Guards to patrol its 1.3 million square kilometer (500,000 square mile) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for illegal fishing, drug trafficking and piracy. The government of India is looking to invest $550 million to build the base, including renovating its airstrip, upgrading the jetty, and constructing quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard. Indian soldiers will be deployed at the base and help train the Seychelles’ forces. Since 2003, India has maintained a military cooperation agreement with the Seychelles, has set up a Coastal Radar Surveillance (CRS) system in 2016, and donated three fast-track patrol vessels and one Dornier aircraft to the Seychelles Defense Forces.
The principal aims for India’s decision to build up an overseas military base in Assumption are manifold. First, a military base on the strategically located island will be useful to ensure safe passage of shipping vessels and containers in the Southern Indian Ocean region. Second, the base will allow the Indian Navy to closely monitor the Mozambique Channel and thwart any piracy attempts, since much international trade transits through this region. Third, the base will be a resource for other shipping nations. And finally, the base could counter Chinese unilateralism and increasing securitization of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
However, since the agreement was signed, a number of issues and criticisms have cropped up and progress toward its ratification remained slow. The deal has faced immense protest from locals who view the Indian presence in the small island nation as a threat. Various stakeholders in the Seychelles, ranging from politicians and lawyers to government officials, believe that the nation is capable of building its own military base and training its own soldiers, and does not require foreign assistance.
The principle hurdle to the deal came from the Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) led by Wavel Ramkalawan. The LDS has held a majority in the parliament since its victory in the 2016 legislative elections. The LDS, a coalition of four opposition parties, including the Seychelles National Party, won majority votes in 15 out of 25 constituencies, while the ruling Parti Lepep won the remaining 10. This election win was historic because for the first time there was a transition of power in a branch of Seychelles’ government – the legislature.
The country’s laws mandate that any agreement must be ratified by the National Assembly. However, the then-President James Michel did not bring the agreement before the National Assembly even though he had the numbers in parliament. The main ambiguity lay in the fact that although an memorandum of understanding had been signed, the details of the text agreement were not made public, which aroused suspicions. After the transfer of power, current President Darry Faure, in order to gain the support of the National Assembly, made the text of the agreement with India public. Certain clauses related to the capacity of the military structure required modification and some technical issues such as positioning of jetty also needed amendment.
On January 27, 2018, then-Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar signed the new “‘revised” agreement for the development of Assumption Island. This revised agreement, supported by Seychelles President Darry Faure, described the project as one of “utmost importance” to the Seychelles and one that “attests to the kinship and affinity that exists between India and Seychelles.” Although there was a proposal to table the agreement in parliament in December 2017, it did not take place.
The revised agreement in January saw many changes from the original agreement. It was clarified that the island is still under the sovereignty of the Seychelles and that India will not use the base in times of war or allow vessels with nuclear weapons to use the facilities. Despite the introduction of these new clauses, the leader of the opposition, Ramkalawan, recently said that the LDS coalition “will not ratify the Assumption deal. This deal is dead.”
The details of the revised agreement leaked in early March and surfaced on the internet along with a YouTube video, complete with maps and location of proposed facilities. Demonstrators carrying “Hands off Assumption” placards have continued to protest in Victoria since January. Following the leak, local news media reports quoted Faure as denying that land on Assumption Island has been sold to India.
A number of reasons for opposition to the deal have been put forward. First, locals fear that the Indian presence and influx of workers in the small island nation will lead to Indians dominating the economy, thereby affecting the local working population. Second, many locals consider a foreign power building a military base as an attack and intrusion on their sovereignty and national pride. Third, stakeholders in the Seychelles do not want their territory to be embroiled in a regional conflict between India and China. The government of the Seychelles has maintained cordial relations with both India and China and would not like to be in a position of choosing sides if conflict arises. Fourth, opponents also cite Assumption Island’s relative proximity to the Aldabra atoll, a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to the world’s largest population of giant tortoises.
Although there are various conflicting opinions on India’s Assumption Island military deal, the fact of the matter remains that the deal is still being debated in the Seychelles’ parliament. Since the leak, Faure’s government has ordered a probe. Vice President Vincent Meriton opined that “the deal is still in a conception phase, and there is no clear cost attributed to it at the moment.” The core issue is that both the Indian and Seychelles governments should have taken a stride toward transparency and made the text available to public and the language of the text less ambiguous. Secrecy has only helped in raising suspicions that Seychelles’ interests will be harmed.
However, both the old and the revised agreements indicate the terms clearly. Although the Indian government is financing the project, Seychelles can suspend the functioning of the defense base in certain circumstance, such as during an epidemic or if India is at war. The project is in the interest and benefit to both India and the Seychelles and other countries as it increases surveillance and logistics capability in the IOR.
Abhishek Mishra is a doctoral candidate in African Studies at the University of Delhi.