Wednesday, February 04, 2015

India’s response to the Pakistani ‘terrorist’ vessel has been mysterious and deserves some answers

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 installation there.
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 transaction".
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 elsewhere.
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 terrorists.
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 complicity.
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

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