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Cecil Victor-January. 22. 2-15-Threats From The Sea


Cecil Victor. Editorial. XXII. I. XV



Cecil Victor-fnbworld  By Cecil Victor



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India needs to take the threats from the sea more seriously than it has done in these decades since the attainment of independence. For far too long the lives and livelihood of Indian fisherfolk have been jeopardized by frequent arrests and incarceration by both of India’s maritime neighbours, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and used as pawns in a farcical game of “goodneighbourliness” in which exchange of prisoners is made to look like an exercise in humanism. To this is to be added the emerging possibility that “non state actors” under the command and control of state actors will pose a threat akin to suicide bombings on land by blowing up vessels in close proximity to Indian offshore oil rigs, naval assets and Coast Guard interceptors.



The New Year interception of a Pakistani boat by the Indian Coast Guard and the crew of the  former blowing themselves up rather than allow the boat to be boarded by the Coast Guard personnel and searched was clearly intended to destroy evidence of malfeasance. But it has a lesson for the Indian security apparatus – keep the pseudo-freelancers at arm’s length.

The Indian Coast Guard has been entrusted with defending the 200 nautical mile (approx. 370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone as per the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) which allows free and unrestricted passage to all vessels but with the proviso that they must submit to the laws of the nation that has jurisdiction within that portion of the sea. This includes the right to stop, board, search and arrest if contraband and other illegal activity is established. In execution of this responsibility the Indian Coast Guard on very specific intelligence gathered by the National Technical Research Organisation that a Pakistani vessel involved in some illegal activity had left Pakistani shores  and was headed towards India. With the horrendous attack on Mumbai on 26/11/2008  still fresh in memory the Coast Guard made doubly sure of the identity of a vessel with four occupants before asking  them  to cut its engines and stop trying to escape. In maritime tradition a shot was fired across its bow to ensure compliance; with the implicit warning that the next would be a direct shot. These are standard operating procedures and India has applied them scrupulously even in the case of the Italian marines who shot and killed Indian fishermen on the assumption that they were pirates. Convoluted attempts by the Italian government and the European Parliament to help them go scotfree have kept the Indian Government facing sanctimonious diplomatic posturing at every step of the judicial process. 

The danger to the crew of the intercepting vessel was highlighted when the crew detonated the vessel which was laden with explosives. They would have done the same if the Indian Coast Guard personnel had used the standard operating procedure of boarding the vessel to search it for contraband at the dead of night. Waiting for daylight did save the Coast Guard men and surface assets but any possibility of collecting evidence of illicit operations was removed. Corroborative evidence of Pakistani official complicity was destroyed in the blast.

This could well become the pattern of future naval offensive operations by Pakistan. It may be recalled that a US naval vessel was hit by terrorists riding a raft laden with explosives which they crashed against the US warship causing a large hole in the hull and killing more than a dozen US sailors. The same tactic can be used against offshore oil installations as in Bombay High.

India will have to adapt its standard operating procedures at sea and along the marine hinterland to deal with the emerging threat. All boats -- fishing vessels as well as other commercial boats and tourist vessels and container ships – must carry “identification friend or foe” transponders for automatic identification  without  human intervention of the approaching vessel. If the approaching vessel does not have a transponder it should be considered to be hostile and appropriate action initiated.

Central to maritime security is the safety and well-being of Indian fisherfolk. For too long India has allowed them to be picked up by Sri Lankan and  Pakistan Navies to be dumped in jails till the moment it is perceived that exchanging jailed fishermen could be used as pawns in charade of goodwill.

Every year several hundred Indian fishermen are taken into custody by Sri Lanka mainly in and around the seas surrounding the Kachchativu island where India and Sri Lanka had agreed in 1974 to allow fisherfolk from India to fish in these waters and dry their nets on the deserted island on which a Catholic church stands. Pilgrims from both countries are allowed to attend occasional ceremonies at the church.

 However, on the issue of safety of fishermen and preventing them from being taken into custody by the Sri Lankan Navy and the Pakistan Navy in Sir Creek in Gujarat, the Government of India needs to do more to ensure that every year several hundred of them are not arrested, beaten up and dumped in jails by the governments of these countries. In 2014 more than 700 were arrested by Sri Lanka alone and their boats and catch seized. They then become pawns in a game of exchange. The death penalty for five of them caused relations between the two countries to hit a new low till Rajapakshe exercised the Presidential Pardon and returned them to India. These gestures of exchange exude a false sense of camaraderie between the two countries and can be avoided.

 In recent times the Coast Guard has been receiving inshore fast attack craft to facilitate patrolling in Indian waters. Indian Coast Guard should post its newly acquired boats around the island  as well as its claimline in Sir Creek adjacent to Pakistan to ensure that there is no intrusion into Sri Lankan or Pakistani territorial waters even as Indian fisherfolk continue to exercise fishing rights in these waters without interference from the navies of these countries.  This it can easily do by posting a couple of the new fast attack boats to patrol the waters off Kachchativu to prevent the Indian fisherfolk from entering Sri Lankan waters. The failure of the Indian Parliament to ratify the accord allowed Ms Jayalalithaa to move the Supreme Court to pronounce on the validity of the accords/arrangements between the two countries. She has asked that the island be retained under Indian sovereignty. The Sri Lankan stand is that the Indian Supreme Court cannot nullify the Kachchativu accord.

The defence of the offshore island territories of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the east and the Lakshadweep islands on the west is important.  The need to restrict developments closer to home as in relations with Sri Lanka in Kachchativu and with Pakistan in Sir Creek, Indian naval presence has acquired greater geopolitical significance given the use of non-state actors against Indiia.


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