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VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN | 18 JANUARY, 2015

Pakistani ‘Terror’ Boat: Terrorism or Cover up?

Pakistani Boat Blows itself up at sea


MUMBAI: In the din of worldwide commotion over the daring terrorist attacks in France ( Jan 7-9) we forgot our own incident of January 1, which was described as an attempt by Pakistan based terror groups to penetrate our seas for terrorist action. The alleged terror boat which was confronted by our Coast guards sank mysteriously 365 km off Porbandar after catching fire. This incident aroused bitter polemics between the government and opposition political parties as well as with some sections of the media who doubted the official version that the crew had committed mass suicide.

Some sections of the BJP, while trying to defend the government version, went overboard calling such critics as agents of Pakistan. Faced with the barrage of questions from the media, the Coast Guard officials said that the full story would be revealed when their video footage was processed by the Defence Ministry. On December 5 Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, while affirming that the circumstantial evidence pointed to a terror link, promised to reveal “all analysis in 3-4 days”. He reiterated this on January 12 to a TV channel suggesting that the crew might have consumed cyanide.

I have hesitated to write about this incident so far hoping that an official version would appear to remove all public misgivings. Unfortunately till now no such final statement has come out officially. This intriguing delay is doing no good to the morale of our Coast Guards who might have faithfully carried out preventive action on receipt of an intelligence alert. Nor is it fair to the public who are still nervous that our sea border is unprotected. A PIL was filed on the same subject by some citizens. On January 13 the Bombay High Court asked the Maharashtra government to file an affidavit within three weeks spelling out the measures taken by them to protect the coast. Unfortunately our successive governments in Delhi and Mumbai have never bothered to explain to the public how their security is being managed, unless prodded by the judiciary. They are still in a colonial hangover considering themselves as “Mai-Bap” government who knows what is the best for their subjects.

The story as revealed by different media reports and official claims appears to be as follows: A Central technical intelligence agency passed on information on the suspect boat at 7-34 am on December 31, 2014. The Coast Guards asked that agency to alert the Navy, but the latter chose not to “initiate action”. Incidentally our media had made the same allegation against the Navy that they had refused to act when alerted on sighting a suspect boat proceeding towards India which finally resulted in the ghastly 26/11 attacks.

Thus the Coast Guards decided to act alone. Their Dornier aircraft sighted the boat. Indications about a second boat were received at 40-50 nautical miles from Pakistan coast. Coast Guard ship “Rajratan” approached the first boat at 11-30pm, keeping throughout a distance of 2 nautical miles. “This was to avoid being fired upon by those in the boat”. The suspect boat had switched off its lights. Rajratan crew then used their flood lights to take video pictures. The same official said: “The crew fired LMG shots as a warning and to prevent the boat from crossing over to the other side of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL”). At 4 am the suspect boat went up in flames.

The above story was unvarnished and appeared to be true. None can fault the Coast Guards for acting in a professional way after getting an intelligence input from a responsible agency. But what had caused problems was the subsequent embellishment by higher officials and political spokespersons, supported by some sections of the media, claiming that they had prevented a 26/11 type attack. Since then a number of stories had appeared questioning the embellishment, throwing grave doubts on whether it was a terrorist attempt or mere criminal activities.

On January 5 our defence minister asserted that the crew had committed suicide (Harakiri) by setting fire to the boat, finding themselves cornered. On January 12 he suggested that they might have consumed cyanide. Was he sure that the LMG firing by Coast Guards had not accidentally hit the boat setting its fuel on fire? I am asking this specific question since another Coast Guard ship C-134’s “warning shots” had hit “Rishika”, a Kerala fishing boat off Vizhinjam on January 12 injuring 2 Indian crew members. Also, our defence ministry was initially quoted by the media that the suspect ship had carried explosives.

Media also quoted a coast Guard official saying that communication intercepts between “a Pakistani agency” (later someone said Pakistan Defence Ministry or Pak Army) and the second boat indicated that “it had delivered some consignment to the first fishing boat and was returning as it had a hole”. Another report (January 6) from Mumbai in a national daily, obviously from Coast Guard sources, said that the intercepted conversation between the second suspect ship and the “handlers” in Pakistan were about the fees for this transaction. (“Give us 10 lakh”) In my long years of terrorism watching, I have never seen terrorists bargaining for their fees when the operation was midway.

The national daily which had reported the January 6 story also carried a box item “IB sore at being ignored” that the premier domestic agency was not “kept in the loop”. If true, it indicates that the standard operating practice of intelligence integration was not followed in this case. Admittedly it was an emergency situation and the technical agency was quite right in passing on intelligence directly to the Coast Guards for action. At the same time they should have discussed this in the Multi-Agency Centres (MAC) set up by a Home Ministry order of December 31, 2008 to prevent the shabby way we had dealt with intelligence prior to 26/11. If IB is ignored now, it is a sure indication that all is not well with our intelligence processing.

The NDA government should not sweep this incident under the carpet, but should come clean about the truth.

(Vappala Balachandran is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and member of the 26/11 Enquiry Committee)

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