New Delhi: In an unprecedented security breach, the classified agreement signed by India to develop military facilities and station Indian military personnel at Seychelles’s Assumption Island has been leaked online, raising questions about whether the project’s details will need to be reworked.
On Tuesday, the Seychelles president inaugurated a session of the Indian Ocean nation’s parliament with an address in which he called on legislators to ratify the agreement signed by the two countries at the end of January 2018.
However, a day before, on March 6, a user named ‘Partu Kote’ uploaded a 9 minute, 20 second video on to YouTube, along with URLs to three Google Drive folders containing the entire text of the 2018 final agreement, the 2015 version and a “secret side letter” provided by Seychelles to India in 2015 outlining the conditions under which Indian military personnel would operate on the island.
The video alleged that the Seychelles government had ‘sold off’ the island to India to build a ‘military base’, reprising arguments raised by Seychellois activists against the project.
The description of the YouTube post was more ominous. “Secrets released. Check out these documents,” it began as a preamble to posting the three web links mentioned earlier. All the pages of the documents were photographed separately and uploaded onto a Google drive accessible to anyone.
The leak is a major breach as the full text of the agreement has not officially been made public and the two governments had only shared it within themselves on a limited basis.
Under the Seychelles constitution, parliament has to ratify an agreement for it to come into force. Outside of the Seychelles government, the text had already been officially shared with the leader of the opposition, Wavel Ramkalawan, who has been supportive of the project. On Monday, a copy was also shared with the ombudsman – the main anti-corruption office – following a request. At the time of the tabling of the agreement, the speaker would have got a copy.
Besides the links to the uploaded copies, the video also included photographs of pages of the classified Detailed Project Report (DPR), which had been commissioned by India and shared with the Seychelles government. The DPR pages containing site drawings for the airfield and other installations all figure in the YouTube video.
The Wire has learnt that the uploaded documents are authentic. The leak, it is believed, was the work of an insider within the Seychelles government who had access to the documents.
While the video and the documents had been posted on March 6, they were brought to the Indian governments’ notice on Wednesday. The total views were nearly 3,000 at the time this article was published.
Besides the uploaded documents, the video, which makes sweeping claims against India, has set off alarm bells in the Indian establishment because of the inclusion of pages from the DPR. These show the design, dimensions and location of some of the buildings on the islands like the air traffic tower and airstrip.
The leak of these particulars could require revision of the plans and, therefore, further delay the implementation of the project.
The Wire had asked the Ministry of External Affairs whether it was aware of the leak of the documents, assessment of its impact on the project and also on the modality of taking up the breach with Seychelles. The ministry has, so far, not made any official comments.
The Indian government is likely to inform the Seychelles government that this is a serious breach of trust. Incidentally, Seychelles President Danny Faure is scheduled to arrive on Friday to take part in the first International Solar Alliance summit in Delhi on March 11.
During the 2015 Indian ocean tour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India signed agreements to develop infrastructure on two islands – Agalega in Mauritius and Seychelles’s Assumption. These projects were touted as part of India’s efforts at consolidating and spreading its footprint in the Indian Ocean region, against the backdrop of the rising Chinese naval presence.
However, the Assumption project has not taken off since the Seychelles government had not brought the agreement for ratification in the last three years.
Last year, the Seychelles government informed India that it wanted to revise some of the clauses and sign a new agreement – in order to tamp down on domestic fears about the nature of the project. In his last foreign tour, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar inked the revised pact on January 27.
Devirupa Mitra on the revised agreement India and Seychelles signed to allay local fears
An interview with Wavel John Charles Ramkalawan, Seychelles’s leader of opposition
George Thande on Seychelles’s debt-for-nature deal
Since then, a group of vocal activists have been holding protests against the project, claiming that it would impact the environment and impinge on Seychellois sovereignty.
The first public hearing on February 24 was reported to be fiery, with the audience expressing largely negative feedback. When asked about the agreement being kept secret, the Seychelles attorney general Frank Ally said, the “agreement being a military one cannot be put in the public domain, but rest assured that the contents of the agreement will be made available”.
Diplomatic sources had earlier described the size of the opposition in Seychelles to the project as being relatively small, but the leak of the classified documents could be a substantive blow.
2015 agreement vs 2018 agreement
The March 11, 2015, bilateral agreement was six pages long and contained 12 clauses. The new 2018 agreement also has a dozen articles, but it is spread out over 15 pages.
The validity of the 2015 pact had been only for ten years, while the revised agreement doubles that period, with provisions for renewal after every decade.
Unlike 2015, there is a preamble in the revised agreement which lists out the rationale for the agreement to allow India to develop Assumption island. These are the ones also publicly made by President Faure in his address to the national assembly about improving the capacity and power projection of Seychelles over its widespread Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The first article in the agreement deals with the “purpose” of the agreement, which is framed as assistance by India to Seychelles for “development, management, operation, utilization and maintenance of aviation, maritime, communication and miscellaneous infrastructure and facilities”.
Article 1 of the 2018 agreement makes it clear that the infrastructure will be on “a part of the island”, while the 2015 text made no such distinction and referred to the entire Assumption island.
The 2018 agreement also mentions that the island continues to be owned by Seychelles, while the facilities will be jointly managed with India.
The modified article 3 on the “obligation of the parties” lists seven duties for India and five commitments by Seychelles. India’s ‘obligations’ include conducting hydrography, setting up marine, aviation, communication and surveillance infrastructure, training Seychellois defence forces and funding the entire project.
“Stationing of personnel at the cost of the Government of the Republic of India for the design, construction and development of Facilities, for the management, operation and maintenance of the Facilities and for providing training” is one of India’s key responsibilities.
In the 2015 agreement, India had only agreed to the stationing of personnel “for the design, construction and development of facilities and for providing training for the operation and maintenance of the facilities”.
Seychelles’s fresh responsibility as per the latest agreement is to conduct an environmental impact assessment study by “an approved independent person”, with the cost to be borne by India.
Just as in the original deal, the execution of the project will be conducted by a Joint Project Monitoring Team (JPMT). However, there are now significant changes in its scope three years on.
The JPMT was to have been chaired by the Indian high commissioner earlier, now it will be jointly co-chaired with the Seychelles secretary of state for foreign affairs. This panel will have the final say in the design of the project, along with the Seychelles government.
Incidentally, while the YouTube video claims that the plans have been approved, the DPR has not yet got the green light from the JPMT, according to Indian sources.
The 2018 agreement also has an annexure which lists out 12 “key specifications”, that range from constructing a jetty that can accommodate ships with capacity up to 3,000 deadweight tonnes, a runway of 2,700 metres to a medical clinic.
The main transformation, however, is in article 6 which deals with the operation, management and maintenance of the facilities.
In 2015, article 6 was a single paragraph which stated that the Indian side “agrees to deploy adequate personnel for training and support to the Seychellois side with respect to operation and maintenance of the facilities as may be mutually agreed to by both parties”. The details of the deployment “shall be decided separately by the parties”, it added.
These modalities on the stationing of Indian military personnel were spelt out by Seychelles minister for foreign affairs and transport Joël Morgan to MEA secretary Navtej Sarna in a confidential letter dated March 11, 2015, the same day as the signing of the agreement.
The two-page letter was actually a confirmation by the Seychelles government to the proposals made by the Indian side.
India had proposed in 2015 that the both countries “shall have the right to utilize the facilities developed, as and when required, by Government vessels and aircrafts, including military ships, aircrafts and other platforms” in support of the activities mentioned in the agreement.
Further, the facilities could be used by “bona fide” commercial air and maritime traffic, “military, quasi-military or government and aircraft of other countries, provided that such use is not inimical to the national interest of either Party”.
There was no bar on Indian military personnel wearing their own uniforms. Indian soldiers could also bear arms after informing the Seychellois side about the details of arms and ammunition on the island under certain circumstances. The three situations were delineated as “military exercises”, to guard certain facilities for the project and for “self-protection” during periods of security threat or internal disturbances.
According to the letter, Indian armed forces personnel and civilians posted in Seychelles for the project would be subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian law in case of any offence committed.
The other provisions were that the Indian military forces could operate their “communication facilities” in support of the designated activities and that official Indian documents would not be subject to customs inspection.
The letter and the original document were together treated as the agreement.
But they were together consolidated into the larger revised bilateral agreement that was finally signed in January. From being a single paragraph, article 6 in the 2018 agreement is now the most detailed part of the text.
In the 2015 agreement, the first listed circumstance of “genuine military need” that would permit Indian personnel to carry arms as a “military exercise”. This has been replaced by “military purposes” in the 2018 pact. The other two conditions remain the same.
Also, for the first time, there is clarification on the storage of arms and ammunition by the Indian military. Storage has been prohibited except for the three conditions as spelled out for bearing arms.
Another change is that the 2018 agreement now states that the “law of Seychelles shall apply to all personnel stationed at the Facilities”. This means that as per the pact, if any Indian personnel commits an offence on the island, they would be subject to Seychellois jurisdiction.
A new clause has also been added in the 2018 version that India would deploy an Indian naval officer for operation and maintenance, with the Seychelles defence forces doing the same for “smooth coordination of respective operations”.
Another fresh insert was that the “joint management and administration” of the facilities will be entrusted to the “senior most officer from the defence forces of the Government of the Republic of Seychelles and the Government of the Republic of India deployed at the facilities”.
India also committed in the latest pact that no vessels or aircraft carrying nuclear weapons will be allowed to “land, dock or use the facilities”. The Indian government also promised that it will not use the facilities “in any way whatsoever for the purposes of war”.
As mentioned earlier about the 2015 agreement, there is similar language in the 2018 document on the use of the facilities by other countries – with an addition that India and Seychelles “will hold consultations in all cases involving third parties”.
The 2018 agreement stipulates that the facilities have to be constructed within two years of the granting of the contract. Once the construction is completed, a joint working group would be set up to smoothen the implementation.
The main mechanism for dispute resolution would be “diplomatic channels” and both countries agreed to waive off any claims on damage to property or harm to any personnel during the discharge of duties.
A new termination clause inserted in the latest pact allows Seychelles to “suspend” the usage of facilities in “exceptional circumstances” till the “circumstances that warranted the suspension have mitigated”. However, in such a case, both India and Seychelles will have to enter into talks “promptly” for the resumption of the usage of the facilities.
If one country wants to completely terminate the agreement prematurely, it would require a written notice period of at least a year.