Did the Indian Coast Guard goof up in treating a mere fishing boat that had strayed from Pakistan off the Gujarat Coast on New Year’s Eve as a rogue boat carrying terrorists or at least explosives and guns? Was the Indian Coast Guard guilty of using excessive force against some poor smugglers who were trying to earn a living by running contraband as some accounts have suggested?
Or did the Coast Guard take appropriate action which forced what it calls a ‘suspicious boat’ to self-destruct mid-sea to prevent incriminating evidence stashed on board?
The sequence of events I have managed to put together after speaking to people in the know in various agencies, suggests that the Coast Guard did what it is supposed to do: Take appropriate action against rogue elements after following all SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). Knowledgeable commentators with better access and even better understanding may differ with this account, but as a foot soldier of the national security beat, I have no other choice but to believe what my sources have told me. So here goes.
December 31: 0735hrs: The NTRO (National Technical Resource Organisation) sends out a specific input marked to all those it is required to keep in the loop, giving exact lat-long (latitude-longitude) of a boat that had sailed from Keti Bunder near Karachi and was headed towards the Gujarat Coast. The input had a rough description of the boat too. The intelligence input was based on a communication interception that the NTRO had managed.
0855 hrs: COM-CG, Gujarat, the Coast Guard’s Gandhinagar-based regional HQ received the details at 8.55 from Coast Guard HQ in Delhi.
0935hrs: A Dornier aircraft of the Coast Guard located at Porbander takes off for the first sortie. After about 90 minutes, it cites the boat, bobbing around in mid-sea roughly at the spot that the NTRO had indicated. The Dornier crew relays the information back to Porbander and Gandhinagar. After a 3.40 minute sortie, the Dornier returns to Porbander.
1235 hrs: Another Dornier aircraft is airborne even before the first one lands back. It keeps a hawk’s eye on the boat and sends back detailed description.
1330-1400hrs: NTRO listens in to another three-way conversation between the boat and presumably their handlers based in Karachi (probably personnel of the Pakistani Martime Security Agency) and someone based in Thailand. Occupants of the boat are heard telling their superiors ‘we are waiting.’ Coast Guard decides to keep the air surveillance going by sending a replacement for the second aircraft and also divert a ship, ICG Rajrattan which was on a task in a different area.
1730, 2030 and 2230 hrs: Coast Guard’s Dorniers are launched at these times to keep an eye on the boat which is neither fishing nor moving but is just hanging around.
2200hrs: INS Rajrattan makes an RV (rendezvous) with the boat after travelling more than eight hours.
The crew tries to raise the boat and its occupants but the moment Rajrattan’s presence is noticed, the lights on the boat are switched off. The boat also tries to move away towards the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).
23330hrs: The Rajrattan aware of the possibility of explosives and arms stored onboard the boat keeps circling around it which nevertheless continues its dash towards the IMBL. After about an hour of the cat and mouse game, the Coast Guard ship fires several warning shots. Perhaps finding no other alternative, the occupants onboard the boat decided to set in on fire. Several loud explosions occurr and a massive fire brakes out on the boat. At least four men were spotted on the boat before it sank, a ministry of defence statement had said.
0430hrs-0630hrs, 1stJanuary: The boat gradually sinks even as Rajrattan stays in the vicinity to look for any survivors.
Given that the attackers in the 26/11 mayhem had come into Mumbai via sea, immediate parallels were sought to be drawn to that episode but on available evidence, it is still not clear if Mumbai was the target or if the occupants on destroyed boat were assigned to carry out any terrorist attack. What is clear however is the boat was no ordinary fishing vessel.
Neither was the behaviour of the people on board normal. There have been suggestions that the boat was used by diesel and liquor smugglers. As Coast Guard officials point out, smugglers when caught don’t try to run away. Instead, they normally surrender. And they certainly don’t kill themselves. Occupants of the suspicious boat however not only behaved abnormally but chose to embrace death instead of being caught.
Why? Simply because they had something to hide even if one was to assume that they were not terrorists but were simply couriers out to deliver deadly cargo of explosives and arms.
Could the Coast Guard have done anything different? Could it have asked for reinforcements from the Navy? Is it guilty of not following SOPs? The Ministry of Defence and India’s security establishment will of course review the entire operation and plug whatever gaps exist.
The fact is: the country’s western sea coast is most vulnerable to intrusion of the 26/11 kind despite the fact that India’s maritime surveillance and prevention capabilities have improved significantly. The coordination between different agencies is now almost real time as this operation has demonstrated. Despite such a progress there’s no guarantee that future terror attacks can be prevented simply because terrorist have the luxury of choosing the time and space for the attack.
For the past three months, several intelligence inputs have indicated that Pakistan’s ISI continues its relentless attempts to send hit squads of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) into India both through the land and maritime boundaries. Increased vigil by the Indian agencies has prevented any major attack so far but there is no room for self-congratulations or complacency as New Year day’s episode on the high seas has shown.