By now there is no middle ground left. Either you believe the government version of what happened when an Indian Coast Guard ship met a mysterious Pakistani fishing vessel over New Year's Eve. Or you don't.
The government version of events has finally taken shape. A meeting on
Tuesday now ensures that everyone is on the same page. Unfortunately, in
the previous five days the pages were flying in all directions.
The final version goes something like this: Around two weeks ago, the
National Technical Research Office (NTRO) picked up encrypted
communication between Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists, the Pakistani maritime
agency, their ISI handlers and some elements in Thailand. The
terrorists, following the track of the Mumbai attack boat, would target
Porbandar on January 12, when the Indian Navy was inaugurating a new
A counter-operation led by National Security
Advisor Ajit Doval himself was launched and it involved the navy, the
Coast Guard (CG), the R&AW, and the Intelligence Bureau (IB).
The boat was tracked by a CG Dornier 228 aircraft and later shadowed by
a CG ship. At midnight on December 31, when it was 365 km West-South
West of Porbandar, the CG ordered the unlit ship to stop for
investigation. The suspect boat tried to get away and warning shots were
fired across its bow. The four people on board went down to the
compartment below the deck and set fire to the boat, leading to an
explosion and its sinking. Because it was dark and stormy, nothing could
be recovered and all we have in the public domain are two pictures. In
one, the boat is burning in the dark.
The headline of the
Ministry of Defence press release on January 2 spoke of a boat "carrying
explosives in the Arabian Sea". Then the word 'explosive' vanished from
the release. The t-word — terrorist — was not uttered. All that the
release acknowledged was that the intelligence related to "some illicit
A full two days later on January 5, defence
minister Manohar Parrikar amended his ministry's statement observing
that "circumstantial evidence" suggested that the people in the boat
were terrorists — after all they had committed suicide, whereas
smugglers would have simply surrendered. He also noted that they were in
touch with Pakistani maritime and army officials.
On January 6, a
ministry of defence press release said that the Indian Navy "denies
reports... that it had not reacted to intelligence provided by the NTRO
(National Technical Research Organisation)," adding that the navy and
the Coast Guard responded as per their standard operating procedures.
This was to answer queries as to whether the navy, the nodal agency for
coastal security in India, was in the loop on the incident.
The questions are obvious and compelling. The NTRO is not supposed to
do retail snooping. Its job is to deploy hi-tech assets like satellites
and interception equipment to collect raw information and pass them on
to field agencies. There have been earlier complaints that the NTRO,
which has not been fulfilling its somewhat exacting mandate in hi-tech
intelligence-gathering and cryptography, had been taking recourse to
doing low-level telecom surveillance and sending intercepts directly to
consumers like state police forces.
Intercepts and bits of
information need to be analysed before they are acted upon. That is why
the Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) has been set up. Yet, the MAC seems to
have played no role in this operation.
The navy was in the loop,
as it claims, as well as a target. Yet, it allowed a subordinate agency
to take the lead in protecting it. This is the equivalent of the army
using the Border Security Force (BSF) to protect itself. Equally
strange, the Maharashtra and Gujarat police were not kept in the loop.
So confident were the counter-terrorism team that it did not for a
minute think that this could be a ruse and that the target could be
It is also strange that the operation took
place on the edge of India's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), 365 km from
Porbandar. Surely, it would have made more sense to have allowed the
suspect boat to come into our territorial waters — 12 nautical miles or
22 kms or less from the shore, where we could have legally boarded it
forcibly? Even if it was sunk, you could have then recovered the
evidence in the shallower waters, or, if you were lucky, captured one of
The government says it has more
evidence, presumably the intercepts of the conversations. If so, they
can be released, just as the Pervez Musharraf-Mohammad Aziz
conversations were released during the Kargil War. One can also wonder
just why more than a week has elapsed and India has still not issued a
demarche or a protest to Pakistan on this attempted terrorist operation
in which New Delhi forcefully says it has evidence of official
There are periodic claims of the government of
destroying this terrorist module or that. But none of these is
justiciable in that no one is tried and convicted. This is in contrast
to, say, the counter-terrorist operations that, say, Britain has carried
out in recent years where the bad guys have been trapped, tried and
convicted. This has its own credibility.
Accepting the government version here will, therefore, have to be an act of faith, not facts leading to certainty.
Economic Times January 10, 2015