After its glorious run, INS Vikrant fades into history

The sight of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Vikrant being dismantled at Darukhana ship-breaking yard in Mumbai could be disturbing.

Around 150-plus workers are engaged 24x7 to break the 19,500-tonne ship that played heroic role in the 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh.

It is a sad tale of nearly 18 years – which saw political issues, protests by fisherfolk, environmental activism, bureaucratic hurdles – and above, all apathy and lack of interest that led to Vikrant being scrapped. She had served the Indian Navy for 36 years and was a pride of the blue-water force. The issue had figured in Parliament and in Maharashtra Legislature several times.

Three persons who wanted Vikrant to be converted into a maritime museum were former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, former Defence Minister George Fernandes and Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray. While Vajpayee and Fernandes are not in good health, Thackeray, who had saved the ship from being auctioned earlier, is no more.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during one of the election rallies ahead of Lok Sabha elections, had lamented that there was no war memorial in India. If Vikrant had been saved, there could have been an extension of National War Memorial – in Mumbai. But the new government – at the Centre – did not get much time to respond – and the condition of the hull of the ship was in a pretty bad shape.

During her seven decades of existence, Vikrant faced rough weather several times. Whether it is in United Kingdom or in India, she had faced problems – but the glorious period of the aircraft carrier was in 1971, when she took part in the India-Pakistan war when Bangladesh was liberated.

She was laid down in November 1943 and launched as Hercules in September 1945 – but construction was stopped after the second World War ended. In 1957, she was sold to India and in 1961 she was commissioned as INS Vikrant on March 4, 1961. She was decommissioned on January 31, 1997.

The project faced rough weather several times including protests by fishermen and a section of environmentalists. She was also saved twice from heading towards scrapyards. Among the major problems that she faced, as financial constraints on part of the Maharashtra government, which took the lead and decided to convert her into a museum.

The proposal to convert her into a museum was mooted by then  Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi – the day she was decommissioned. The Navy had decided to auction it twice - in 1999 and 2000 - but Bal Thackeray intervened and met Indian Navy officials and halted it. The Centre also sanctioned some funds to Shiv Sena-BJP alliance government, then headed by Narayan Rane, in 1999 for her upkeep.

When the Congress-NCP Democratic Front (DF) Government came to power, there was stiff opposition from the fisherfolk towards the project.

However,  then CM Vilasrao Deshmukh, during an official visit to USA had visited a museum aboard a carrier during an official tour to the USA, expressed confidence that the museum could be built on Vikrant.

When Sushilkumar Shinde took over the reins of the state and elections approached in 2004, the momentum slowed down. However, when Deshmukh took over again, he had speeded up the project. Ashok Chavan, as CM, also took keen interest in the project.

Then Tourism minister Chhagan Bhujbal also played a crucial role by taking keen interest in the project. However, in the meanwhile, 26/11 terror attack took place and there were security issues too. During the tenure of Prithviraj Chavan as CM, the government communicated to the Indian Navy that it was not in a position to convert her into a permanent museum.

She was to be permanently berthed off the Osyter Rock near the Radio Club alongside the Gateway of India - and the museum would have been a great tourism spot for Mumbai. (A temporary museum aboard the ship that was now known as IMS Vikrant (Indian museum ship) – was operational for few years and opened on special occasions only.)

The presence of an aircraft carrier in the inventory of any Navy provides tremendous reach, flexibility and certainly power. Its ability to cover vast distance with its integral air helps it to exercise sea control and at the same time, it ensures air cover to the other units in company. The aircraft carrier is certainly an instrument of diplomacy as well. A museum on board an aircraft carrier serves a purpose. The Western world has a few of them.

Vikrant, the ship

The ship had a length of 700 feet, an extreme beam of 128 feet (width) and a draught of 24 feet. Her displacement is around 20,000-tonnes.

She was also armed with powerful anti-aircraft guns. While Chetaks and the Westland-make Sea Kings operated from this ship, the initial batch of aircraft were the Sea Hawks. The ship was also equipped with a catapult launch and arrester wire recovery. Later on, the ski-jump was added and the carrier was made capable for Sea Harriers, which are short-take-off and vertical landing type.

The ex-Royal Navy ship was one of the six majestic-class light fleet carriers and her keel was laid in 1943. The first active operation in which INS Vikrant took part was for liberation of Goa in December 1961. The first war operation was the Indo-Pak war of 1965, but unfortunately, she was undergoing her periodical refit at that time. Vikrant’s real opportunity to show her prowess came in the 1971 Indo-Pak war when Bangladesh was liberated.

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