Assumption Island: Latest Issue Between India and Seychelles

Seychelles President Danny Faure paid official visit to Indian recently. PM Modi after meeting with Danny Faure said that India and Seychelles will ensure mutually beneficial steps regarding stalled plans for a military base at the island of Assumption.

Even as India geared up to welcome Seychelles President to India, Seychelles has cancelled the agreement with India to build a military facility on Assumption Island. Seychelles government blamed the opposition leader, Indian-origin Ramkalawan. The deal cannot go through without the opposition being on board.

The island nation of Seychelles, strategically located in the context of sea lanes of communication (SLOC), has long been an Indian ally. Both India and Seychelles, since the latter’s independence in 1976, have shared a multi-faceted partnership, and excellent friendship, one which is based on mutual respect and on trust.

Assumption Island is a small island in the Outer Islands of Seychelles north of Madagascar, with a distance of 1,135 km (705 mi) southwest of the capital, Victoria, on Mahé Island.

In 2018, Seychelles and India signed an agreement to build and operate a joint military facility on a portion of the island.

The deal for an Indian military base in Seychelles was declared ‘dead’ by the Island’s opposition party. The plans for an Indian military base in Seychelles stirred up public protests by activists who believe that the islands must stay away from the brewing India-China regional conflict.

Modi announced several initiatives for the strategically located country, including the grant of $100 million Line of Credit for the purchase of defence hardware.

On the project of Assumption island, we have agreed to work for the welfare of each other,” said Mr. Modi. The statement is the first from the Prime Minister since the National Assembly of Seychelles earlier refused to ratify the naval base that India has been planning to build on Assumption to provide a foothold in the western Indian Ocean.

It is not clear how both sides would take the project forward in the absence of a parliamentary ratification.

Modi declared that both sides would intensify cooperation to carry out hydrographical studies of the maritime region and have declared exchange of necessary oceanic maps between two sides.

India also gifted a Dornier aircraft to Seychelles. India is ready to finance three civilian infrastructure projects in Seychelles under Special Grant. Government House, New Police Headquarters and the Office of the Attorney General is included in this.

Assumption Island was discovered by Captain Nicolas Morphey on 14 August 1756, and was named after the religious feast of the next day. In 1908, the island was leased to Mr H. Savy of Mahé, who built a coconut plantation on the island. The first settlement was in the northern part of the island.

During a visit 2 years later, he realized the guano potential of the island. The villagers transferred their labor force to guano mining camp, that operated from 1907 until 1983. The camp was the location of the current village. After that, the villagers were employed as fishermen, usually of bêche-de-mer, until it was declared protected. In the mid 1960s the island was proposed as an American military base, including a deep sea port. After strong protests from environmental organizations, this plan was rejected. In 1990 The airfield was built.

India plans to invest $550 million dollars (446 million euros) in building the base to help it ensure the safety of its vessels in the southern Indian Ocean. It also says the base will be a resource for other shipping nations.

Assumption is very close to the Mozambique Channel where much of the international trade is transiting, and not just for India but for other countries as well, and our interest is that our trading vessels are safe.

India has had a military cooperation agreement with the Seychelles since 2003 and the deal would give it use of the Assumption base for up to 30 years. Indian soldiers would be deployed on the island and help train Seychelles’ troops.

The pact with Seychelles was first announced during Narendra Modi’s visit to the strategic Indian Ocean archipelago nation in 2015.

But ratification of the 2015 agreement has been slow with a new, amended pact only signed between the two countries on 27 January. It was clarified that the island is still under the sovereignty of Seychelles and that India will not use the facility in times of war or allow vessels with nuclear capabilities to use the facilities. Certain clauses related to the capacity of the military structure required modification and some technical issues such as positioning of jetty also needed amendment.

Seychelles politics had been on a boil since a highly classified document about the arrangement with India was leaked online in March. Opposition leaders had then demanded that the project be dropped citing sovereignty concerns, and that a base might affect the ecology of the region.

The project remains controversial with small weekly demonstrations in the Seychelles capital. Indian presence in Seychelles is a sensitive matter. Some fear an influx of Indian workers who, they say, might come to dominate the economy, while others consider a foreign power building a military base an affront to sovereignty and national pride.

Opponents of the plan also cite Assumption’s relative proximity to Aldabra atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to the world’s largest population of giant tortoises.

Environmentalists worry about the possible impact of a large military presence so close to an ecosystem that has survived precisely because of the absence of people.

Seychelles has maintained cordial relations with both India and China and would not like to be in a position of choosing sides if conflicts arise.

Whether the agreement will “move forward” will ultimately depend on India’s diplomatic handling of the situation . India’s credentials as an established democracy, and non-interference in Seychelles’s domestic affairs is well-appreciated by Seychelles.