In 1971, India and Pakistan were on edge, preparing to fight another war, this time over the liberation of East Pakistan (now the independent state of Bangladesh). The nation was in chaos, India’s economy was stunted and New Delhi was struggling to find global support on its stance against Islamabad.
During this period, a young researcher from the Ahmedabad-based Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Paramjit Singh Sehra, was making his way into the hinterlands of Punjab amid blackouts and air-raid sirens close to the Pakistani border, for an altogether different purpose. He was out to seek the blessings of his parents before embarking with the Soviets’ 17th Antarctic expedition to become the first Indian to visit the frozen continent, and the South Pole.
However, the tone of the expedition was admittedly more military than scientific, reflecting the tensions between the power blocs led by the US and the Soviet Union. The trip, organized between the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and PRL, was primarily looking to visit the Soviets rocket meteorological launch station in Antarctica.
Sehra, who volunteered for the assignment, boarded the Soviet research ship Professor Viese without the climate acclimatization training one normally gets before heading into such hostile environments. The Soviets let him go with them at his own personal risk.
Sehra eventually became the first Indian to visit the South Pole, and spent a considerable amount of time at the Soviet Mirny Antarctic observatory and circumnavigating the Antarctic continental shelf on-board the ice-breaker Navarin, touching base with a host of Soviet coastal stations, resupplying them and choosing new spots for more stations Moscow wanted to build. “It is really a fairyland where even the fairies do not dare dwelling,” he later wrote about his experience.
During this phase, Sehra’s ship also stopped at Punta Arenas in Chile, said to be the southernmost city in the world, to restock and replenish. Punta Arenas is also home to a small community of Sindhi businessmen, and upon meeting and telling them about his Antarctic adventure, Sehra writes in his log that while dining with the community, they were unable to understand the magnitude and significance of his expedition.
“He (one of the Sindhis) could not understand the significance of the scientific expeditions very much and remarked: isda matlab aih hoya ke hun Punjabi log South Pole ate Antarctica wich bhi ja ke rehen lag pai hai. Ih daso ke othe ja ke tusin kadha business karoge, ate iska ki phayeda hovega? (Does it mean now Punjabis have started settling at the South Pole also? Please tell me what business you will be doing there and what kind of profit will come?)”.
At the end of his successful journey, Sehra was awarded the Soviet Antarctic medal, and this was the start of India’s presence on the frozen continent.
India’s Antarctic ‘invasion’
Indira Gandhi, then prime minister, was committed to showcase the country as a growing power, and one committed to the international order, specifically after India’s victory in the 1971 war under her leadership. Even though India, part of the Non-Aligned Movement, took no sides during the Cold War, it always had a leaning towards Moscow.
But Gandhi was keen to follow in the footsteps of her father, Jawahrlal Nehru, and engage in all major global multilateral forums to portray the subcontinent as a worthy and responsible contributor to the global order. Under her guise, India began formulating its first strategies for Antarctica during the same time when the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea was being finalized.
This was perhaps seen as a ripe time for India to stamp its authority on the Indian Ocean, specifically in areas such as seabed mining. Much of the discourse presented to justify such a programme was based on scientific research, a lot of which had been conducted on back of Antarctic weather being critical to Indian monsoon patterns.
India launched its first Antarctic expedition in December 1981 from the shores of Goa, with a pit stop in Mauritius to pick up equipment and supplies, only a few months after Gandhi set up the department of ocean development and initiated the expedition program on priority.
A noted Indian marine biologist, the late Syed Zahoor Qasim, was a critical part of the expedition; he later described the importance of the frozen continent to India as the only place where the Indian Ocean communicates with the Antarctic waters, being closed by landmass and the Himalayas towards the north.
“What a wonderful opportunity the first Indian Antarctic expedition gave to a young team of our scientists. Drawn from seven different research institutions, they worked on common objectives of significant national importance. It also proved India’s capability to undertake Antarctic exploration of a high order…” Gandhi had said after the expedition’s success.
India had hired the icebreaker ship MV Polar Circle from Norway—the country had a number of such vessels available, and also it was neutral enough, despite being a Nato member, that it would not look as if New Delhi had taken help from one of the two central power blocs to undertake its Antarctic journey. The expedition took 77 days, carrying 21 scientists, personnel, technicians and navy officers, successfully covering a journey of 21,366km.
The launch of this first expedition caught many by surprise as it was organized and executed discreetly. The New Scientist magazine covered India’s landing in Antarctica under the tongue-in-cheek headline that said "Indians quietly invade Antarctica", as New Delhi was not a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.
Till date India only holds "consulting" status. In fact, no country holds a permanent status. The last category of states is those who have either made a territorial claim on Antarctica or reserve the right to do so.
The politics of the treaty
After World War II, there was a significant interest in Antarctica on three major fronts, political, economic and military. Despite the hugely inhospitable climate, questions over mining and potential for military bases by the likes of the US and the Soviet Union were being thrown in the air.
India, a young independent nation was also trying to make its mark in as many multilateral international forums as possible. India’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York and diplomat extraordinaire, the late Arthur Lall, made two attempts in the 1950s to raise the question of Antarctica at the UN General Assembly and put India’s stance forward, albeit without much success. India, at this time, had decided that the potential of mining in Antarctica was something it could not afford to miss out on.
India only joined the Antarctic Treaty under the ambit of Indira Gandhi in 1983 as it flagged off its third expedition to the frozen continent. Gandhi, a much more hawkish prime minister than her father, was taking India’s influence in Antarctica seriously.
During her first tenure as prime minister, it was reported that she had asked for a secret study to be done after a two-page memo on Antarctica landed on her desk.
The study was codenamed Operation Gangotri and was initiated after the memo of a meeting between an Indian diplomat and a US-based Indian scientist, who provided information on Antarctica based on a CIA report, was sent to Gandhi as a routine update.
The memo invigorated her interest in the potential of establishing a presence in Antarctica, and she silently commissioned a study in 1977 to take this plan forward. However, the dark period of the Emergency sidelined this project, which was eventually picked up again once Gandhi came back to power in 1980.
In May 1981, Gandhi under her own leadership quietly set up the department of ocean development (now under the ambit of the Union ministry of earth sciences) and Operation Gangotri was born. At this point—in fact, to this day—the Antarctic Treaty has been run like a closed-door club, predominantly by states that also continue to maintain their interests over territorial claims on the continent. However, by 1983, India had begun work on its first base in Antarctica, aptly named Dakshin Gangotri.
Only three people other than her reportedly knew the entire plan of Operation Gangotri, and these were cabinet secretary Krishnaswamy Rao Saheb, additional cabinet secretary K. Saigal (who was a former member of the intelligence committee) and foreign secretary Ram Sathe. It was Sathe who later selected Qasim to lead India’s first expedition.
After Dakshin Gangotri’s success (the base was decommissioned in 1990 after being submerged in ice) and India ratifying the Antarctic Treaty the same year with the status of a consulting member, New Delhi joined negotiations over mineral rights to prepare for when commercial exploitation of the continent will begin (which, as it turned out, was never to happen).
India found it hard to build consensus on the Antarctic within the Third World itself, let alone trying to dent the developed world’s grasp. The two prevailing views were those of India and Malaysia, the latter initially having a fraught relationship with the entire treaty negotiations system.
The Indian stance was to advocate for the Third World to be a considerable party in Antarctic governance, and not allow the 1988 Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources Activities to take centre stage; the convention was later disbanded in favour of the much more accommodating and wholesome Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (also known as the Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, or AEP), which India signed in 1992 and activated in 1998. The same year, India also launched the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research based in Goa.
Antarctica under the evolution of the Antarctic Treaty has been left to its devices. Mining, the dumping of waste, militarization and other such activities are not allowed under the treaties that govern the continent, and will not be allowed till at least 2048, when AEP will be open for review. Countries still hold on to their territorial claims, however, as the Antarctic Treaty system neither supports or denies these, leaving them in a state of limbo.
Today, India has two active research bases in Antarctica and conducts significant scientific work on the continent. After Dakshin Gangotri, India in 1989 set up its flagship base, Maitri, which remains so till date. In 2012, another base was commissioned, called Bharati. Indira Gandhi, who saw India’s presence in Antarctica as a “life-long dream”, was assassinated a month before the India's fourth expedition set sail in December 1984. She had suggested the name Maitri.
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