In the dying moments of 2014, there was a high octane drama unfolding off the Gujarat coast – intercepts suggested that a suspicious fishing boat was heading from Pakistan towards India with not so noble intentions,relayed in real time to the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) it resulted in a high speed chase and eventually then a fiery end for the boat, its cargo and all aboard! Was a terror plot averted? Or was it a maritime “encounter” with a “staged chase” at the centre of it all ?
Early on 31st December 2014 the National Technical Research Organiation (NTRO) intercepted Thurayya set conversations off the Gujarat coast, between a vessel and its Pakistani handlers who talked of unloading unspecified “valuable cargo” in the vicinity of Porbander. This possibly involved 2 other vessels, all from the Pakistani port of Keti Bander. The message was promptly relayed to the ICG and the Indian Navy (IN) and by evening two fly overs by a Dornier reconnaissance plane positively identified it to be a small fishing boat, which was 365 km off the Indian coast and heading towards Porbander. The ICGS Rajratna was launched to intercept this “uninvited guest” and an hour long chase ensued. A few warning shots and edgy minutes later the boat was set alight by four persons on board who initially hid below deck. Later a huge explosion destroyed the boat and its crew and no remains or debris could be retrieved due to weather and sea conditions.
The ICG and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) recorded all of the above issues as part of their press release and that the boat was planning some “illicit transaction”. No mention was made of any purported terror plot as that was yet to be ascertained.
Since the incident happened in the backdrop of renewed firing on the Line of Control and the strained India-Pakistan relations, the media raised the pitch celebrated it as a foiling of a terror plot.
This Amul advertisement on the Indian Coast Guard depicts the Amul Girl standing alongside two caricatures depicting the Coast Guard personnel on the deck of an ICGS. A reconnaissance helicopter completes the picture of vigilance.A small fishing boat in the background is a reminder of the incident which which inspired the strip.
The Tag Line…A Toast to the Coast Guard…is celebrating the prompt action of the ICG.
The Punch Line…Guard against uninvited guests !….is more a statement on the suspicious boat trying to breach Indian coastal security than for the Amul brand itself.
Then most interestingly we had naysayers coming up with their stories with an alarming regularity and conviction, which suggested they were perhaps amongst the 4 crew members of the star crossed boat.
Manu Pubby of India Today called this an “encounter” and Sunetra Choudhry of NDTV doubted as to how the MoD knew the boat was going to do some “illicit transaction”.Praveen Swami of the Indian Express was the most vociferous and he came out with a piece debunking the official version totally.
Swami doubted India’s claims of “destroying” a terror boat” as “highly placed government sources” told him there wasn’t any terror link at all”. He quoted more “sources” to state that the boat belonged to small time smugglers from Keti Bandar and was ferrying “bootleg cargo” from Gwadar to Karachi. Further “three naval officers” stated there could not have been a chase at all as the larger ICGS would have easily outran the hapless fishing boat. He finally insinuated that “disproportionate” and “lethal” force was used to “destroy” the boat and that the official line was a cover up of sorts. Swami doubted the inability to retrieve debris etc. by quoting an open source site to point out that the contrary to the official version the weather and sea conditions on that fateful night were perfect ! He also blamed the NTRO for violating laid down procedures in sharing information.
This “source and evidence” infested article evoked interest internationally with many Pakistani channels using it to stoke the embers of the “staged chase” theory. It contributed largely to the perception that the Indian Government was fabricating facts for ulterior motives and cast a serious doubt on the credibility of the ICG and created a needless controversy.
Swami tried to showcase his reach but in actuality was dishing out, as one observer has put it, stenography in place of investigative journalism.
Firstly,who said anything about a terror plot or the “destroying” of a “terror boat”? It was consistently stated that the boat was set alight by its crew and that it was out to carry out “illicit transaction”. This was vindicated when India Today and Aaj Tak accessed the transcripts and reported that the Pakistani handlers, including the Army, constantly monitored and instructed the ill-fated boat and two others, which were later ordered to abort mission and return. All actions by the crew were known to and approved by the Pakistani handlers, who even spoke about suitably compensating the families of the 4 dead.
Then, If these were smugglers on the Gwadar –Karachi route why were they 400 miles south of an obviously easterly course and into an unfrequented stretch of Indian waters? Any experienced hand will tell you that smugglers tend to stick to busy sea lanes to merge into the trawler traffic and not venture as lone wolves waiting to become headlines! And if it was boot leg cargo only why did the occupants of the boat set it afire when they could have simply dumped the cargo in the sea???
Swami claims a “staged chase” as the ICGS would have easily outran the fishing boat and also that the weather conditions were clear and the sea calm. But the Indian Meteorological Department (IMT) talks of disturbances and poor visibility for the period in question. Yes, an ICGS can easily outrun a small boat anytime but on a choppy sea the scenario is entirely different especially with the prey carrying out evasive actions too. It seems Swami’s “open source” web site was referring to some intergalactic as yet undiscovered sea on planet Z67TREW2 and probably the IMT too involved in a grand conspiracy hatched by the Indian Government to establish its robust security credentials? Seems Mr Swami watched “Knight and Day” and “Tomorrow Never Dies” just before penning his article.
He also paints the ICG as wanton marauders keen on using “disproportionate” and “lethal” force. But are the ICG so daft as to destroy the boat knowing that absence of debris and the culprits will leave them with egg on their faces? And is their 12.7mm gun so potent as to set alight plastic explosives and diesel, both of which are not known to burn easily. Rajnikant would accomplish this with his eyes but it’s beyond the ICG for sure.
Swami is partially right regarding the NTRO’s actions as the latter crucially left out the Intelligence Bureau and the maritime and coastal Police in Gujarat and Maharashtra from the info sharing loop.
However,the alacrity of the ICG cannot be faulted .In 1993 it was the same Porbander coast where the explosives for the Bombay blasts were landed. The 26/11 Mumbai attacks too were set into motion by the hijacking of a small fishing boat, Kuber. So what’s the harm if the ICG wanted to be doubly sure especially since the incident was happening in the backdrop of the Vibrant India Summit being held in Gujarat?
The Pappu led, Indian National Congress (INC) seemed all at sea in its attempt to politicize the issue.It bemoaned “civilian” deaths at sea (now how were they so sure of it?) and then asked the government to “come clean” with the facts,as if it was the PM himself who was at the helm of the sunken boat! Manish Tewari coined a lovely term and accused the government of being “chaperones of terror” (which means?)Some even wanted to know which “terror outfit” was behind the incident and if the government failed to provide the name then they blame it for obfuscating facts.
In a world where terror can be wrought upon the public from air, sea and land and the internet,what harm will it do to initiate the preventive measures whenever there’s even an iota of doubt? And this boat and its crew were suspicious by any count,especially when seen in conjunction with the intercepts.Every lead is to be investigated and struck down otherwise the prospects are ghastly to say the least. It’s important for the media to behave responsibly and to neither prematurely celebrate nor denigrate matters pertaining to national security. All this eventually contributes towards developing uncertainty in the minds of the security forces, which can one day prove counter-productive for national security. Even politicians should shun petty bickering in favour of national security otherwise they are only compromising on national interests.
It was a bizarre sequence of events with stenographers serenading as journalists and clowns masquerading as politicians. I don’t advocate that no scrutiny be carried out.But base it on considered thoughts. Journalists and politicians need to be restrained and not embark on personal glory hunting at the cost of the nation’s image and security. I don’t remember any one asking George Bush to “come clean” when conspiracy theories emerged regarding the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks.
At least something should be sacrosanct.
I wonder if Swami and the political lot would dare to try similar antics with the IS,if they were citizens in the newly established Caliphate ?
18 February 15; the ICG finds itself in more controversy when it’s DIG,BK Loshali was quoted from what he reportedly told a gathering of guests during th launch of ICGS C-421in Surat that he ordered the blowing off of the Pakistani boat as he didn’t want to “serve them biryani” after arresting the crew.
This directly contradicts the government’ stance regarding the crew setting the boat alight . Loshali has clarified that he was quoted out of context and his comments have been blown out of proportion.He also says that he wasn’t in charge of the operation hence could not have ordered the blowing up of the boat
This once again rakes up the controversy and Manish Tewari of the INC, not learning any lessons, has tweeted that he is worried about the civilian deaths if these were not terrorists.
I think expecting full time politicians to place national issues over their petty 2 bit hassles is a bit too much actually. And Mr Loshali too should be served some biryani so he would keep away from speaking out of turn.Lets all just wait for the final report an if there’s a discrepancy then the government should not dither in disclosing it so that vital lessons are learnt.
Till then let’s just hold our horses or shall I say -our plates of biryani!