An unnecessary controversy has erupted over the interception of a suspect boat by the Indian Coast Guard and its destruction off the coast of Gujarat on New Year’s Eve.
On New Year’s Eve, the Indian Coast Guard, acting on intelligence inputs received from India’s premier technical intelligence agency the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) thwarted what could well have been a terrorist attack on India’s off shore assets like Bombay High or on naval bases on the West coast or on a city in a repeat of 26/11. The Coast Guard intercepted a suspicious looking fishing boat reportedly carrying four persons about 365 kilometres (197.08 nautical miles) off Porbandar Coast. The suspect boat is known to have sailed from Keti Bunder, near Karachi and according to a statement (considered to be vague and giving rise to speculations) released by the Indian Ministry of Defence “was planning some illicit transaction”. According to media reports, the NTRO intercepted a call on 31st December 2014 (according to some reports it was 30th December 2014) originating in Karachi about a Pak fishing boat planning to conduct an illicit business in the Arabian Sea. The NTRO is reported to have been tracking the boat right from the time it left Karachi. The NTRO alerted the Coast Guard about the suspect boat, which in turn dispatched Dornier aircraft to trace the vessel.
A Coast Guard vessel CGS Rajrattan was diverted to the area of the suspect boat after it was detected by the Dornier. At the time of interception around midnight of 31st December, the suspect boat was unlit and was not on the usual route adopted by fishing vessels. The suspect boat did not have a name and was approximately 365 kms west-south west of Porbandar. When the Coast Guard vessel warned the boat to stop for further investigation, it tried to escape to the Pakistani side of the maritime boundary by increasing speed. The CGS Rajratan gave chase to the suspect boat for nearly one hour before managing to stop the boat after firing warning shots. The four persons on board the boat finding themselves cornered, hid themselves and set the boat on fire resulting in an explosion. The boat sank in the yearly hours of 1st January 2015 and the persons on board were believed to have been killed in the explosion on the boat.
Pakistan, as usual, was quick to deny the Indian claim that the fishing boat was of Pakistani origin and it was ferrying terrorists and/or explosives. It raised question marks about the incident and denied that such an incident was of India’s making to tarnish Pakistan’s ‘image’. The Pakistanis were not alone. There were seasoned commentators in India and members of the opposition who questioned the veracity of the government’s claim.
A leading English daily, the Indian Express in its article raised several doubts over the encounter including suggesting the “use of disproportionate force” by the Coast Guard vessel. According to the article, “highly placed government sources” had stated that the intelligence had no link to terrorism and made no reference to any threat to India. The article seemed to suggest that NTRO intercepts pointed to small-time smugglers of liquor and diesel ferrying bootleg cargo from Gwadar to other fishing boats which were to have carried it into Karachi’s Keti Bunder Harbour. The article also raised doubts about the weather over the area at the point where the suspect boat was interdicted.
If a section of the media and certain members of the opposition have been foolish to question the government and the security agencies involved in the operation about the veracity of the incident, then it is pertinent to point out glaring lacunae in respect of the questions raised. Firstly, what was an unmarked fishing boat with lights put doing 365 kms west south-west off Gujarat coast? Secondly, if the persons on board were petty smugglers ferrying liquor or diesel, why did they try to evade capture and flee? Thirdly why did smugglers blow the boat when cornered? Since when did firing warning shots across the bow aimed at suspected terrorists amount to use of lethal force? It is preposterous to even suggest that the Coast Guard personnel shot and destroyed the boat.
If the boat was engaged smuggling as has been suggested in the Indian Express article, between the port of Gwadar and Karachi, a rational explanation is owed to the readers as to what was the boat doing off Porbandar coast? The location of the purported smuggling route Gwadar-Karachi and the point of interdiction are miles apart. Again the theory that those on board were petty smugglers ferrying diesel to India is laughable because diesel is dearer in Pakistan as compared to India. And if it was drugs, then the contraband could have been dumped in the sea and they could have subjected themselves to search by the Coast Guard.
A question has been raised as to the basis on which a boat was intercepted beyond India’s territorial waters. And whether India had committed a breach of international law in so doing? The incident, indeed had taken place approximately around 197.08 nautical miles of the Indian coast, well within India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under international law (the law of sea) freedom of navigation is guaranteed and no boarding is generally the norm. However in exceptional circumstances, a naval ship may verify the boarded vessel’s right to fly its flag or may check its documents and further examine the suspect vessel if suspicion persists. In this case the suspect boat did not fly any flag and it was only subsequently identified as ‘Qalandar’. Given the tenuous relationship existing between India and Pakistan and sea route having been taken by Pakistan sponsored terrorists to attack Mumbai on 26th November 2008, India was well within its right to have asked the boat to stop for inspection. Also India’s energy resources are located in the proximity of the interdiction point.
The NTRO-Coast Guard operation can be criticized only on the ground of not having followed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) laid down in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike. In order to avoid a blunder of the scale of 26/11, the Indian Navy was appointed as the nodal agency for coastal security and INS Angre in Mumbai was designated as the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) for the western maritime frontier.
Hotlines to coordinate with various agencies, and state-of-the-art rapid messaging service technology to communicate with ships were installed to thwart any threat in real time. The JOC (West) was to operate under the command Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (FOC-in-C) of the Western Naval Command. Non-adherence to any SOPs, howsoever serious it may be, is a matter to be reviewed by the concerned ministry or the Cabinet Committee on Security. However, that cannot be equated with doubts being raised about the encounter itself.
Pakistan while having vehemently denied any link to the suspect boat, captured two Indian fishing vessels with twelve fishermen within 72 hours of the incident.
India cannot afford to let even a single suspect vessel slip past as had happened in March 1993 and November 2008. The bottom line is irrespective of the fact whether the boat carried hooch, drugs, diesel or explosives or terrorists, it deserved to be destroyed and the Coast Guard’s action unless there is cogent evidence to the contrary needs to be defended and commended.