BY RSN SINGH
In February 2012, Italian marines aboard an oil tanker MT Enrica Lexie, traveling from Singapore to Egypt, fired on a Indian fishing trawler St Antony, approximately 21 nm off the coast of Kerala, mistaking it as a vessel engaged in piracy. Two Indian fishermen Ajesh Binki and Valentine aka Gelastine were killed. The Italian defence ministry portrayed it as a successful anti-piracy operation. The Italian vessel had a crew of 34, which included 19 Indians. The two marines of the Italian Navy, Massi Milano Latoree and Salvatore Girone responsible for killing the fisherman were taken into custody. What followed was unprecedented bitterness and acrimony between India and Italy. No responsible authority in India explained to the people the Italian highhandedness in proper geopolitical and maritime perspective. Again on October 12, 2013 an American vessel MV Seaman Guard Ohio, belonging to the US firm AdvanFort, was apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard off Tamil Nadu Coast for unauthorized presence in India’s territorial waters. The crew and guard of the American vessel, which included Indians, were taken into custody. Thus in a matter of 20 months, two major incidents off the Western Coast of India have taken place, both triggering enormous diplomatic bad blood.
Some quarters attribute that the incident involving the American vessel in October 2013 has symbiotic linkage with the issue of maltreatment of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. There are suggestions that the Devyani issue was contrived to pressurize India into releasing the crew and guards of MV Seaman Guard Ohio. The vicissitudes of the Devyani story have indeed fluctuated with India’s position on the release of the personnel onboard the American vessel. Finally on 26 December 2013 the said personnel comprising 22 foreigners and 12 Indians were granted bail (stayed by higher court). Concurrently the American rhetoric on the Devyani issue could be seen to undergo a sea-change. Suddenly Devyani the diplomat, from a ‘perpetrator of human right abuses’, became a ‘victim of misunderstanding’.
The change in posturing on part of the US was too stark to go unnoticed. Nevertheless, a section of our media, who were seen to be totally in sync with the US, did not report the news of the grant of bail to the personnel belonging to the American vessel.
These two incidents which caused massive diplomatic upheavals were actually triggered by an illogical and provocative maritime framework decided by the international community to prevent piracy. Besides these two incidents, many have gone unrecorded and unreported, in fact it has become an endemic feature. It is therefore imperative to comprehend the larger dynamics behind these incidents.
The case of the American vessel acquired gravity as it was not only being replenished with 1600 liters of high speed diesel by an Indian fishing trawler inside India’s territorial waters, but also because its 35 members (10 crew and 25 security guards), in contravention of law, carried 35 assault rifles and 5680 rounds of ammunition. The crew and the guards were of various nationalities, i.e. Estonians, British, Ukrainian and Indian. All the 35 members were arrested for illegally carrying arms in India’s water and lodged at Palayamkottai Central Jail in Tamil Nadu. Even though there was no US citizen on the vessel, three officials from the US Consulate General at Chennai visited them the very next day. The US authorities maintained that the vessel was engaged in anti-piracy operations for protection of American merchant vessels, and were well beyond the Indian maritime territorial limit of 12 nm.
The crew members and the guards of the vessel, the US authorities emphasized, were specialists in anti-piracy operations and had honourable antecedents, having served in the armed forces and security establishments of their respective countries. The Indian authorities have been steadfast on their stand that they would be tried as per the ‘law of the land’. The bitterness between the US and India over the issue only ratcheted in the subsequent days and reached the ‘snapping point’ in the first week of December 2013. Addressing a press conference on the Navy Day 3rd December the Indian Naval Chief Admiral DK Joshi warned: “Unregulated floating armouries carrying combatants of certain countries are a matter of concern and can have serious security implications for the including infiltration of terrorists that can lead to 26/11 type attacks.”
The Admiral also made an impassioned plea for “reversal” of high risk areas for merchant ships plying in the piracy prone zones. Two years back the longitude marking off high risk areas for piracy was moved from 65 degrees to 78 degrees in the Arabian Sea by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) constituted in 2009 following a UN resolution. The new longitude, although away from India’s territorial waters limit of 12 nautical miles, is dangerously close to the Indian coast. Ships in order to be safe from piracy tend to hug the Indian coast from Mangalore to Kanyakumari. The Enrica Lexie incident too was primarily because of the eastward advancement of the high risk longitude.
The change in the longitude has made fishing activities by Indian fishermen extremely contentious and dangerous because of intense international shipping activity close to the Indian coast. Indian maritime authorities like the Coast Guard have been lamenting that the shift in the longitude was unwarranted and based on exaggerated threat. From the perspective of overall maritime security of India, with the shift in ‘high risk area’ by the west dominated IMO, the threat is pernicious, causing endemic hostile incidents, including two major ones as mentioned. The protestation of the Indian Naval Chief is therefore more than apposite. No country with self-respect will tolerate such an international arrangement which impinges on its everyday legitimate maritime activity and is pregnant with terrorist misuse and hostilities.
It is under these circumstances that the US vessel MV Sea Guard Ohio was apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard. Notwithstanding the US pressure, Indian authorities would be amiss if they did not treat and investigate the vessel and its crew and guards as floating armouries.
It is our this very application of the ‘law of the land’ that disconcerted the Italians and now the Americans. It could also be the reason for incarceration of Captain Sunil James in Togo, an erstwhile French colony.
When the American vessel MV Seaman Guard Ohio with arms and ammunition was apprehended, there were any numbers of possibilities being bandied in India with regards to its illegal presence in Indian waters, ranging from — attack on Kudankulam Nuclear Plant — to armed assistance to Maoists — to intervention in Maldives. Such speculations were rife because the maritime authorities in India did not share with the people the simple reasons and details that had engendered these incidents. If the Indian establishment persists with its caginess there could be far more sinister and developments at sea causing animosity with other countries. The root to the solution lies in the rescission of the new high risk longitude in the Arabian Sea.
(RSN Singh is a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing. The author of two books: Asian Strategic and Military Perspective and Military Factor in Pakistan, he is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap)