An interception in the Arabian Sea

Dissecting the national security issues

The Indian Coast Guard’s interception of a suspect vessel just inside country’s exclusive economic zone in the Arabian Sea, off the Gujarat coast quickly moved from being a national security issue to a partisan political issue. While politicisation of national security is not necessarily bad in itself, the polarised circumstances in which it is taking place leave no space for a reasoned discourse. As of this writing, online outrage was picked up by some of New Delhi’s rageboys for physical protests outside a newspaper’s office.

While partisan politics takes its course, there are two questions of public interest that need to be examined. First, who were the occupants of the suspicious boat, what were they up to, and importantly, how did Indian authorities assess the threat and authorise action? Second, was the Coast Guard right in doing what it did?

Given what we know, and given what the Coast Guard knew at the time, it is impossible to be certain who was in the boat and what they were up to. From the facts that are not in dispute, it is highly unlikely that they were innocent fishermen. They could have been part of a terrorist operation to ship arms, explosives, people, money, fuel or other dangerous material. They could have been part of a smuggling racket dealing with contraband of a similar nature. They could have been both. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said he thinks they were suspected terrorists. Praveen Swami, quoting unnamed sources–and he has among the best ones in New Delhi–suggests that they were probably smugglers. The Defence Ministry is conducting an investigation and we might know in good time, or–given that there’s no physical evidence left of the boat–we might not.

This brings us to the second question: in the circumstances, was the Coast Guard right to act in the way it did? This is a matter of judgement. After the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat. There has also been an escalation of tensions along the India-Pakistan border, an escalation of conflict within Pakistan, open mobilisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba leadership and cadre. The impending Republic Day parade and President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the ceremonial chief guest on January 26th are also factors that raise risks for a threat of any given likelihood. The Coast Guard in this context, in The Acorn’s judgement, did well to neutralise a suspicious boat whose intentions are highly unlikely to be bona fide. There might be questions of international law and precedent, but they are subsidiary to national security.

What, then, should we make of this episode? First, The National Security Council must use the opportunity to review and streamline the process that begins with an intelligence input to action on the ground, on in the water as in this case. Credible media reports suggest that there were gaps and jumps. Second, the Coast Guard and the Indian Navy must review procedures pertaining to rules of engagement, and enhance training to handle such threats. In a book published two years ago, this blogger had argued that India’s maritime security forces are sailing deeper into an era of ‘violent peace’, and will see a rise in threats from unconventional mariners. Finally, as pointed out in the same book, the Indian government (and this includes the armed forces) need more sophisticated information strategies in order to acquire narrative superiority. In simple terms, this means acting in ways that avoid controversy.

3 thoughts on “An interception in the Arabian Sea”

  1. Nitin, well written and quite balanced too. The rageboys act deserves to be condemned. There can’t be two ways about it.But the stand -with none too subtle hints – that some leading panelists and newscasters ( I wonder whether we can call them by that label any longer. They participate more and seem more opinionated than most panelists) of NDTV & Headlines Today have been adopting during the last two or three days which borders on accusing Coast Guard of being armies of encounter specialists does make one’s blood boil. One would not be wrong if one were to call them anti-national is their arguments , if not in approach and thought process. In the absence of valid, well substantiated evidence pointing out Coast Guard’s overreaction, Praveen Swami’s initial utterances and continued support of his ‘weak theories’ do not give the picture of an objective columnist. People like him fail to understand, wantonly, I must say, that there was perhaps a 50% chance that the occupants of that boat may have ended up killing directly or indirectly a few dozens of Indians !

  2. Tis strange that we allow the veneer of human right s to obfuscate our judgement and decision making to the peril of our nation. One doesn’t require a crystal ball to gaze into the quagmire unfolding around us and if we continue to be tentative then there is no one else but us to be held responsible for another 26/11, Kargil or an attack on Parliament. Its Time we shed this façade and face the world squarely. Look at what Americans have done in Iraq, Libya, Syria ,Kosovo, Somalia et al. A disaster that commenced in 1991 with that upset stomach/hunch of senior Bush has resulted in obliterating the face of Iraq from this planet and the brutalities have no end ,just because they suspect some one harm their country/interests. On the other hand for political expediency we talk ,talk, talk n talk ceaselessly and if some one acts in national interest we want to eliminate him under the heap of our verbal diarrhea.Is that the way forward for a country wanting to be a superpower? I wonder !!!!!!!!!!!1.

  3. At the time of counter terrorism action, quick decisions are required and some error of judgement may occur. This might or might not be happen in present case. I agree with your point, the Coast Guard cannot be faulted for being aggressive in neutralising a perceived threat.
    Government must deal such issue with extreme caution. Ministry may wait to gather all information before commenting. Unfortunately, everyone is fighting for ‘more nationalist” tag. We must not let fear of terror rule in mind of our forces otherwise they may look “encounter nationalism” a better tool than “Counter terrorism”.

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