Explained: Aden, the war-torn Yemeni port’s deep India connections
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The Southern Transitional Council, the UAE-backed Yemeni separatist group, said on Sunday that it had taken control over the city of Aden, currently the seat of the Middle Eastern nation’s internationally recognised government.
Aden, Yemen’s fourth-largest city, was a part of British India for 98 years, during which time a strong connection between Yemen and India was forged.
How did Aden become a part of British India?
Since antiquity, Aden was part of the route connecting India and Europe. In the 16th century, the city was ruled by the Portuguese, followed by the Ottoman Turks, and was then absorbed into the Sultanate of Lahej in 1728.
By the dawn of the 18th century, although Aden has lost its past glory, the city became strategically important for the British as they were seeking frontiers to protect their colonial possessions in India during the Great Game.
Thus in 1839, the British conquered Aden and merged it with British India, where it became a part of the Bombay Presidency. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Aden’s importance increased further.
The city’s location at the mouth of the Red Sea enabled it to become a port of call for ships between India and Europe. In 1932, the central government in New Delhi took charge of Aden’s administration from the Bombay Presidency.
In 1937, as part of implementing the Government of India Act of 1935, the colonial authorities severed Aden’s official ties with India, and created a separate entity called the Colony of Aden, and continued to rule the city until it became a part of South Yemen in 1963.
Aden was the only such ‘extension’ that British India had in the Middle East. During the time that it was part of British India, the Indian rupee was Aden’s official currency, and a garrison of 2,000 Indian soldiers was stationed there. A regular fortnightly steamer service between Mumbai and Aden was started in 1855.
Indians in Aden
As a coaling station, ships carrying passengers from India to Europe plied here. According to the website of the Indian Embassy in Sanaa, Mahatma Gandhi visited Aden in 1931, along with Sarojini Naidu and Madan Mohan Malviya, while he was on his way to London to attend the Second Round Table Conference.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose visited Aden in 1919 and 1935. The famed engineer, water works expert, and former Diwan of Mysore, Bharat Ratna Sir Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, visited Aden in 1906 to work on its drinking water and sanitation system.
By the 1950s, a large Indian diaspora emerged in Aden, and the city boasted of Hindu and Jain temples, and an Agiary for its Parsi community. The number of Indians in Aden had risen from 8,563 in 1856 to 15,817 in 1955.
Reliance Industries founder Dhirubhai Ambani was also a part of Aden’s Indian diaspora for a short while.
After the British departed Aden in 1967, a large section of the diaspora too, left. Yet, many among the Bohra, Khoja and Kachchi communities stayed in the city, some taking Yemeni citizenship.
Due to the many decades of political strife that followed the end of British rule, fewer Indians sought to come to Aden, and the numbers of the diaspora steadily declined.
In 2015, matters came to a head, when Yemen’s internal security deteriorated to an extent that the Indian government was forced to launch Operation Raahat to evacuate a majority of the Indians who had remained in the country.