April 28, 2011

Piracy: No more baniya response.

Baniya: (Hindi)- grocer, trader, merchant, small businessman. 

The sobriquet ‘Soft State’ sits dismayingly well on India’s shoulders. For years, its diffident stance on Pakistani terrorism and Chinese expansion have been two main points of reference as to why it has earned the moniker. I now add Somali piracy and terror to the list: I do so with the knowledge that the Indian navy has been especially aggressive against pirates since December- ever since the government realised that insurers were charging higher premiums for ship transit through large swathes of the Indian Ocean and Arabian seas.

I say soft State knowing full well that the basis of this naval belligerence was economics, not security or the safety of seafarers. I say this with the knowledge that the Indian Navy has driven the pirate mother ships away from the Indian coastline, at least for now. It has not been quick enough, obviously, because Lloyds has recently declared the entire West Coast of India a war zone, and vessels in the region will see insurance costs skyrocket. The Economic Times says that the additional premium for a large ship could be in the range of a 1.5-7.5 crore of Rupees per week (I crore= Rs 10 million).

Those are staggering numbers; I hope their numbers are correct.

Given all this, the aggressive Indian naval response is unsurprising, but the fact is that piracy will not be fought with what is akin to a village baniya’s response to a gang of armed dacoits. That response- alternate capitulation and sporadic resistance– does not work and exposes you as a soft target to future brigands and terrorists. It makes the country a laughingstock in the eyes of the rest of the world. It exposes your lack of resolve and your easy tendency to surrender.

Moreover, the Indian State cannot mirror the Indian public’s sea blindness; it cannot ignore or be unaware, as most Indians are, of the fact that half of the country’s coast- the more important half- today lies on the thin edge of an official war zone. The rest of India may finally awaken if the cost of petrol touches a hundred rupees a litre on the back of terror or piracy or increased war risk premiums, but the Indian State cannot do that. It should know better.

India must be aggressive, yes, but it needs planned and sustained aggression, and for the right reasons. Those have to do with existential threats to its security- have we forgotten the Mumbai terror attacks already? - and threats to its citizen seafarers first. Protection of its trade routes comes next. The cost of petrol must come even later.

India needs bold solutions to kill piracy. It needs to realise, first of all, that coalition navies have hidden agendas: they are protecting their trade routes and expanding their presence in the region for reasons that have to do with geopolitics, not piracy. Some have a conflict of interest; many countries, not only in the West, are making billions from piracy annually. India needs to realise this today. Trust, share intelligence and resources with coalition partners, sure. However, be wary of intentions and be well aware that their agendas do not often coincide with ours.

Furthermore, India needs to engineer a stepped response to terror linked piracy. I would like to see some of the following happen:

First, a government declared ban on official (more on what I mean by ‘official’ later) Indian seafarers transitting the entire war zone without a sufficient number of armed guards aboard their ships. Statistics tell us that this is the only tactical response to the immediate threat of hijack that has worked.

Second, a government declaration that unofficial Indian seafarers are on their own, and that India will do nothing for them. Everybody knows that many Indian nationals sail on dhows and such to Somalia, often on illegal or shady missions. Many dhows are Indian controlled, and still ply there despite an early Indian prohibition from doing so. India needs to make clear to the owners and sailors of these dhows that it will not jeopardise the effectiveness of its response to terror or piracy by catering to their safety.

Simultaneously, a comprehensive and absolute operation to have all current Indian sailors ransomed out of Somalia. Arm twist owners, flag states or whoever, and realise that pirates will try to retain at least some Indians at any point of time. Examine military options when this happens. But our sailors must return because this is a prelude to taking the war to the pirates. This step is essential if we are to take the initiative instead of just reacting to the enemy, which is what we have been doing so far.

Ensure that the families of any Indian seafarers killed in the prelude to the war on piracy are very handsomely compensated. We have the military capability to ensure that these numbers are minimal; we often do not have the will.

Simultaneously beef up intelligence from Somalia. Some will come from satellites and high tech gadgetry- either coalition or our own. Some may come from informers. Some will have to come from spies on the ground.

At some stage of this exercise, and hopefully with most- if not all- legitimate Indian sailors back home, declare an unofficial war on the pirates in Somalia. Bomb their lairs and kill their leaders. Destroy their skiffs. Give captured pirates speedy trials in India and mandate stiff sentences in the new law that is already being processed in Delhi. Go after their financiers and banks legally. Do this aggressively.

And all this time, for God’s sake monitor the effectiveness of that armed-team initiative that is preventing more Indians from being taken hostage.

Note that my suggestions are not a way to kill piracy or even protect our coastline; they are a way to protect Indians from being taken, held hostage for months, tortured or killed. This is a way to – first and foremost- minimise today’s casualties and stop future ones.

After that, future actions can include protecting trade or the coastline or look at the cost of petrol. Or even the cost of soothing ruffled feathers of the ‘international community’- or their wretched IMO stamped orchestrated response to piracy.

This is a first step. It is not long winded or difficult. It is doable. It is a way for India to stop the outrage of torture and executions being perpetuated on its citizens- at the will of the pirates, so far.

It is a way of India making clear to those criminals that enough is (expletive deleted) enough.


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