Earlier today, European satellites captured this haunting image of INS Viraat, the Indian Navy’s erstwhile aircraft carrier, as it approached India’s largest shipbreaking yard on the Arabian Sea. The Centaur-class ship, decommissioned in 2017, has become the centrepiece of a wistful debate over a perceived failure to hold on to the ship and convert her into a floating memorial of its rich maritime history.
At Alang, Gujarat’s prized ship-breaking yard, INS Viraat will be broken down over the next few days for scrap and sold to various industries that feed off the carcasses of former giant vessels, including container ships and tankers.
The Indian Navy’s previous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, also of British origin, was similarly broken up for scrap in 2014 after serving 17 years as a museum ship after its decommissioning in 1997. At least two states, including Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, had expressed interest in keeping INS Viraat alive as a museum ship but those never became full-fledged proposals. As a result, INS Viraat has spent two years since its decommissioning idling at the naval dockyard in Mumbai, and will now rapidly be stripped for its still valuable innards.
“Off Alang, the forlorn, but still majestic, carrier is a moving sight, for all of us. But far more soul-stirring for Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, the Captain who saw her through conversion in the UK and then commissioned her as INS Viraat and sailed her triumphantly home in 1987,” said former Indian Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash, who also commanded the Viraat.
Legendary Indian improvisations (or jugaad) have ensured the INS Viraat has had a healthy extended life.
Last month, Admiral Prakash, a war gallantry award winner from the 1971 war, had said, “Enough said about sad demise of Vikrant/Viraat and general lack of interest in preserving military icons. Fortunately the National War Memorial was backed by the PM. Otherwise, statues/memorials are reserved mostly for politicians. Contrast with world capitals replete with statues of military heroes.”
A prominent effort by industrialist politician Rajeev Chandrasekhar earlier this month inviting India’s biggest companies to jump in and save the historic aircraft carrier turned out to be too late for any credible action. While there has been similar anguish by several veterans over the Viraat passing into a scrap heap, several commentators have been of the view that India has bigger priorities than hanging onto an ancient ship, and that Viraat’s passage into scrap is an economical way of ensuring she doesn’t just sit idling in a dock for years while potential owners figure out if they can keep her afloat and alive.
INS Viraat’s Sea Harriers were retired in 2016, a year before the ship was decommissioned. You can read all about the final years of the Sea Harrier fleet in this Livefist piece on the limited upgrade program.
When commissioned in 1987, INS Viraat’s envisaged life was 10 years. A series of Indian improvisations (‘jugaad‘) would ensure she saw a full three decades in service, and all of those years in excellent form. British engineers from the erstwhile Vickers who visited Viraat during a special event many years ago were said to be stupefied by the quality of upkeep of the ship, totally belying their expectations of her longevity and military value.
On 12 May 1987, HMS Hermes became INS Viraat under the command of Capt (later Vice Admiral) Vinod Pasricha. Born in Nov 1959 as HMS Hermes, INS Viraat took its avatar after completing 28 years under the union jack and after having earned glory in the Falklands Campaign of the Royal Navy. The commissioning signal from the Naval Headquarters said: “Your commissioning today marks an important milestone in the development of our Navy’s blue water capability. May your operational prowess match your gigantic name and good fortune attend on you wherever you may sail. I wish all officers and men a happy, challenging and rewarding commission.”
The message from the crew of the Hermes read: “Bringing forward HMS Hermes for hand over to the Indian Navy and commissioning as INS VIraat… It is with a mixture of sadness, pride and confidence that we today handover this magnificent ship to the Indian Navy; sadness in that we with our happy memories witness her passing from the Royal Navy, pride in the capabilities noting that she will be in good hands and confident that she will prove equal and worthy of all the aspirations the Indian Navy have for her as Viraat. The Captain, officers and ships company of HMS Hermes congratulate the Captain, officers and ships company on the majesty of INS Viraat and may good fortune attend all who sail in her quest to control the sea and be all powerful.”
Images coming in from Alang today provide literally the final view of Viraat as a full ship.