Defence Minister was misled about Terror Boat: Officers (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT New Delhi | 21st Feb 2015
Uniformed officers involved in operations and monitoring say on condition of strict anonymity that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was "misled" in January into assuming that the Pakistan-based terror boat blew itself up on 31 December 2014, rather than get destroyed by a Coast Guard vessel on patrol. While the boat was carrying four individuals clearly identified as terrorists, these sources say that the conflagration, which caused the boat to destruct, was caused by combustible substances on board getting ignited by Coast Guard fire, rather than because of any suicidal impulse on the part of the crew.
They say that an official may have mis-briefed the minister, because he was apprehensive that the sinking of the boat by the Coast Guard, although justified by the circumstances, "may lead to negative comments by foreign countries on such military activism by India". Certainly, several major powers want India to adopt an entirely different standard from themselves while dealing with external threats. Such concerns about revealing the facts about the 31 December 2014 incident (which took place 197 nautical miles from Indian shores) apparently resulted in an official "misleading" Defence Minister Parrikar about the circumstances of the sinking, thereby leading to the minister's statements that the boat blew itself up and later that cyanide was probably consumed by the crew in order to end their lives.
"Manohar Parrikar is an experienced administrator, but like many other ministers past and present, has a habit of relying on the versions of key officials in his ministry," an officer pointed out, adding that in this case at least, the minister did not seem to have made any effort to independently ascertain the veracity of the explanation that the terror boat blew itself up, rather than as a result of firing on it. Unlike in the US and in most other major countries, India does not have a tradition of placing non-official experts on contract in the reporting systems of even specialist ministries such as Home, HRD or Defence, where staffing is still done from within the pool of those who qualify for one or other of the administrative services (IAS, IFS, IPS, IRS etc) after their education.
They say that the Defence Minister should, before making any more public statements, ask for: (1) the entire video recording of the destruction of the Pakistani boat, which these sources claim is available with the Coast Guard, rather than simply that segment which shows the vessel in flames; (2) an analysis of the debris, which should, according to procedure, have been brought back from the high seas; (3) the NTRO inputs on the basis of which offensive action was initiated; (4) GPS locater data showing the location during the period of the incident of the Coast Guard vessel and the time it took at various locations; (5) the number of shell casings brought back by the Coast Guard vessel, to find out how many rounds were fired; and (6) the posting order of Coast Guard DIG B.K. Loshali on the day in question. Officials concerned about the credibility of the government say that such information is needed to spare the minister the embarrassment of making a claim, which may subsequently be shown to be incorrect. They say that apart from the "visual clips of the Pakistani boat while it was engulfed in flames, all other images from the concerned camera that these persons have in their possession must be shown to the Defence Minister".
These officials say that Defence Minister Parrikar acted in good faith when he said that the boat blew itself up, but that once the Defence Minister said publicly that the terror boat self-destructed rather than caught fire because of combustible substances getting ignited because of firing, it was difficult for the uniformed officials to present contrary facts. "Instead, the version initially given by the high official to the Defence Minister (that the crew committed suicide, by cyanide or by setting fire) was allowed to remain."
These sources say that on 30 December 2014, the NTRO communicated to the Coast Guard intercepts received by it, which identified the vessel in question as "suspicious" and which indicated that the four on board were not ordinary smugglers, but were a terror task force on the 26/11 model. Interestingly, the apparel worn by the four was similar to that worn by the terrorists who came ashore off the Mumbai coast on 26 November 2008, and were of the sort useful for commando operations, with side pouches in the western-style trousers and extra shirt pockets. Such a dress is never worn by smugglers, it was pointed out.
"It was clear from the intercepts that this was a terror boat," the officers claimed, adding that the crew were within the hour planning to rendezvous with a Sri Lankan vessel coming from the opposite direction. This leaves open the possibility that Pakistan's ISI and affiliate terror organisations have begun recruiting Tamil Tiger fighters for use in operations directed at India, which is presumably where Parrikar's reference to the use of cyanide capsules comes in, as these were part of the kit of every LTTE suicide bomber. Images of the four crew members of the Pakistani boat were inconclusive in determining whether they were from Pakistan or Sri Lanka, but officials confirm that intercepts revealed that the two boats planned to dock close to each other, and according to the evidence collated, exchange explosives, weapons and personnel for a planned operation against India, most likely in Gujarat. What happened to the Sri Lankan boat, whether it escaped or was sunk as well, was not revealed by these sources.
These sources claim that the Coast Guard was "fully justified" in firing on the Pakistani vessel and causing its doom, as the evidence was overwhelming that it was on a terror mission. They say that "DIG Loshali is being blamed for revealing classified details of the consensus within the Gandhinagar operations room of the Coast Guard that the terror boat be destroyed before it escaped with its crew." "The suspect boat refused to obey repeated commands of the Coast Guard vessel to stop and allow itself to be boarded for inspection. Instead, it speeded up and tried to escape back to Pakistan. The interception took place in the nick of time," these sources say.
The officers say that "had a different leader been the Prime Minister, the Coast Guard may have hesitated to sink the terror boat, but now that Narendra Modi is in that chair, the uniformed services felt confident in carrying out whatever steps are needed to ensure security for the country". They are unhappy that "an officer who responded in an appropriate manner has been pilloried and may be proceeded against, for simply doing his duty". They further warn that action against DIG Loshali (against whom a smear campaign has already begun by those in the Ministry of Defence anxious to protect the initial version of events) would impact morale adversely and thereby discourage strong action of the kind which could avert 26/11 and has almost surely prevented another mass terror attack. They point out that had the Coast Guard been "emboldened and empowered in 2008 the way it is now, it could have destroyed the vessel carrying the 26/11 terrorists, as the vessel carrying the terrorists was sighted by units of the Coast Guard, but was allowed to get away".
These sources say that Defence Minister Parrikar needs to ensure that the full facts of the encounter be made known to him, so that he, in turn, can brief the nation. They warn that otherwise, by once again making a uniformed officer the scapegoat for what appears to have been an error of perception and communication, morale within the services may be affected. Defence Minister Parrikar is known for his efficiency and integrity, and the uniformed services expect that he will find out the truth of the events of 31 December 2014 and make them public, "before making a scapegoat of an officer who supported the consensus for swift action, in what would otherwise have been a national security disaster".