Pakistan appears to be upping the ante on the terrorist front, which typically involves ceasefire violations along the LoC and the international border. The use of the maritime route has added a new dimension with the Coast Guard foiling what looks suspiciously like Pakistan-based plans for a second 26/11-style attack.
Defence minister claims on boat
The Defence Minister has said the circumstantial evidence indicates that the boat which was blown up after it was chased by the Coast Guard off the Porbandar port in Gujarat was possibly for terrorist activity. Amid the raging controversy over the Pak fishing boat episode, Manohar Parrikar asserted that the occupants of the boat had terrorist links that had been in touch with Pakistan maritime officials, the Army and “international contacts”.
The dramatic Coast Guard operation to neutralize the suspected terror boat some 365 km south-west of Porbandar has run into a political storm after the Congress asked Government to come clean on the gaping holes in the version of event presented by the Defence Ministry.
Speaking to reporters on January 6, Defence Minister Parrikar dismissed the theory that they were smugglers claiming that the secluded location where the boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard is not a normal fishing route. He further said, smugglers prefer busy fishing lanes as it helps them dissolve into the traffic to avoid detection. To support his point, the Minister said even if they were smugglers, the occupants of the boat could simply have dumped the drugs into the sea and surrendered rather than committing suicide. “Which smuggler would commit hara-kiri” [suicide], the Minister asked. He did not acknowledge the boat had explosives. He said the intercepted satellite communication showed that they were in touch with Pakistani maritime officials and the army. They were interacting about passing of cargo and talking about families of some of the boat members. “Smugglers do not interact with the Pakistani maritime agency or their army or international contacts”, the Minister said.
The Defence Ministry earlier claimed that the crew of the boat had set themselves on fire when intercepted by the Coast Guard patrol vessel Rajratan which confronted them after receiving a specific intelligence. It said in a statement on Jan. 2, the fishing boat was coming from Karachi and planning “some illicit transaction in Arabian Sea”.
Intelligence and security agencies confirmed that the boat was planning to target a newly-built naval installation in Porbandar.
According to senior intelligence officials, who were part of a high-level review meeting held on Jan. 6 about the developments surrounding the sinking of the “terror boat”, the National Technical Research Organisation [NTRO] tapped the conversation the “LeT operatives” had with Pakistan’s maritime agency, their handlers in ISI and certain elements in Thailand. The LeT’s mission came under the radar of Indian agencies around two weeks ago after interception between the terrorists and their masterminds in Pakistan. The Navy, Coast Guard, RAW and IB coordinated with each other to rack the movement and the mission of the boat. The operation was monitored by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doyal, officials said.
There are suggestions that there were indeed two boats, one of which quietly slipped back into Pakistani waters once it became evident that its companion craft had been detected. If the suspicion about the second craft is sustained by evidence, then it would appear that this time round, the terrorists dispatched from Pakistan were hurting in pairs with enhanced manpower and very dubious cargo. Much is also being made of the timing of the terrorists’ plans which might have factored in the upcoming visit of President Barrack Obama to India later this month. A successful dramatic strike on the eve of such an important visit would have caught international attention.
The Ministry of Defence is preparing a report based on intercepted satellite phone communications that led up to the operation. It is intended to address the growing controversy over whether the destroyed fishing boat was carrying explosives and had terrorist links or was just smuggling drugs.
A report emanating from Karachi said that the boat, reportedly named “Qalandar: was linked to a drug mafia belonged to a Baluchistan-based drug cartel of Mir Yaqub Binzenjo, a leading player in the trans-border trade of narcotics.
Islamabad has asserted it was not a Pakistani fishing boat and demanded that India hold a transparent probe into the incident. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokeswoman, Tasim Aslam, in a statement on Jan. 6, termed as ”baseless and preposterous” India’s assertion that the boat belonged to it. Ms Aslam said Pakistan had launched a probe into the matter to ascertain if any Pakistani fishing boat was missing at sea, but there appears to be no sound evidence to substantiate the Indian allegation. Demanding a transparent investigation to ascertain the facts of the incident and the circumstances in which the boat caught fire and some people got killed, she said, there is also a debate in India itself and questions have been raised about the claims that the boat had terror links.
Congress seeks clarifications
Both the Congress party and some media reports have questioned the Government version that the boat had links with terrorists and not smugglers. Seizing on such reports, the Congress asked the Modi Government to make public all the details regarding the episode “rather than indulge only in patting its back.” The party spokesman, Ajoy Kumar said, “The Government should come lean on it…How can you say that a terrorist attack was prevented. How did they [government] come to the conclusion that it was a terrorist boat? It is very strange. Nothing has been explained. Which terrorist organization was behind it?”, the spokesman asked. Another Congress spokesman, Randip Singh Surejawala urged the BJP to stop making PR events out of issues of national security.
The BJP President Amit Shah mocked at the stand taken by Congress and asked, was Congress fighting polls from Pakistan. He said, “I feel Congress does not know whether it should fight elections in Pakistan or India”. Speaking at a public meeting in Odisha, he said, as the main opposition party, it is its duty to boost the morale of security personnel rather than raising doubts on the Government’s efforts to curb terrorism.
Those who back the Congress about a terrorist link, say, given the Coast Guard’s suspicion that the boat was carrying terrorists from Karachi, why was the Navy not involved in the incident at least in a supporting role? If there were intercepts of communication between the boat and the handlers, as claimed by the Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, then surely the Coast Guard needed to mobilize more help. Of course, with India-Pakistan relations are not yet out of the shadow of the 26/11 attack and an allegation that a boat loaded with explosives that set off from near Karachi tried to get close to the Indian coast is a serious matter. But, those who make the allegation must be able to provide better grounds for their suspicion than the single input that a boat was set to make an “illicit transaction”. In the last six years, New Delhi has built up much international support in the diplomatic battle against India-directed terrorism emanating from Pakistan. A wrong call can erode that support just as the right one can strengthen its hands. This is why, observers say, it is very important to provide adequate information to support the account of the incident.
Analysts say a thorough examination of the evidence needs to be made before drawing any firm conclusions. There are already questions raised that would need answering. The tracing of the same maritime route from Karachi that was adopted by the 26/11 terrorists is telling. There are suggestions that there were indeed two boats, one of which quietly slipped back into Pakistani waters. If the suspicion about the second craft is sustained by evidence, then it would appear that this time round the terrorists despatched from Pakistan were hunting in pairs, with enhanced manpower and very dubious cargo.
But first and foremost, according to the Asian Age, weather the boat(s) was carrying explosives would need to be confirmed. However, the menace from the sea remains very real.
The investments India has made in strengthening maritime security have, however, started paying dividends. The interception was possible because intelligence collection and its collation and analysis have become prompter. During the last seven years, Indian coastal preparedness has acquired greater teeth. All the same, the threat India faces from state and non-state actors in Pakistan cannot be underestimated. As Indian naval chief R K Dhowan cautioned the nation recently, the dynamics of maritime security have changed due to the rising terrorist threat in the region. Given the possibility that whoever had sent the explosive-laden boat to the Indian coast can still make similar attempts, eternal vigilance and swift retaliatory action alone will stand the nation in good stead.
Cross border firing
Meanwhile, the cross-border firing along the Samba and Kathua districts of Jammu and Kashmir where civilians and soldiers have lost lives on both sides is taking on worrying dimensions. Around 10,000 people have fled their homes following heavy shelling while politicians continue to trade charges.
All this does not portend well for the months ahead. Returning fire and matching rhetoric are useful to rally domestic support and establish the terms of engagement with a neighbour but they must be elements of a wider strategy. In an editorial, the Hindustan Times says “Both India and Pakistan must take a step back and reflect on the consequences of these hostilities — for there is a lot at stake in the region. Frayed relations with India are unlikely to nudge Pakistan towards constructive positions on Afghanistan, delaying progress in the country while reinforcing suspicions in New Delhi. Tensions with India invigorate militant actors in Pakistan and undercut Islamabad’s declared counterterrorism plans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also cannot be distracted by frequent bilateral tensions as he pursues his expansive development agenda. Cross-border violence can escalate; it destroys communities, hardens public attitudes, and generates wider geopolitical effects that do not advance peace in the region. Both countries must act to stop it immediately”.
Implications of the Peshawar attack to India
That is indeed the need of the hour because any major provocation can provide the spark for a full scale war. The massacre of schoolchildren and teachers by Taliban in Peshawar for example can have repercussions beyond the border of Pakistan. In the view of Shankar Roychowdhury, Former Chief of Army Staff, “for India, the biggest threat that may emanate in the aftermath of the Peshawar massacre is the very real possibility of an attempted replication by indigenous jihadi elements targeting teaching establishments…. Prior detection of such an attack is almost impossible. It will require good intelligence, exceptionally analysed and processed, with a great deal of good luck….However, even luck requires a little help from time to time. Alas! India still awaits the additional boost it requires from a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and a National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) both are stuck in the clogged sewerage of personal egos of some ignorant, ill-informed politicians whom fate has pushed into the office of chief ministers of states. There is nothing more difficult to overcome than the ignorance of insular political minds. Both the NCTC as well as NATGRID are critically important to national security and interests and should have been functional long ago”.
The former Chief of Army Staff makes another interesting point: “The school massacre by the TTP has recharged the debate on the good and the bad Taliban. Surrealistic shades of grey about the Taliban may exist within the Pakistani establishment in terms of their attitudes towards Pakistan, but in terms of their employability against India, all Taliban is good Taliban.
The good and the bad Taliban
“India’s generic classification of “Taliban” stretches to cover all shades and varieties of “angry Islam” and its votaries, whose present manifestations in this country range from the newly refurbished Al Qaeda makeover in the Indian sub-continent, now competing for market space in domestic terror with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Hizbul Mujahideen and other outgrowths like Indian Mujahideen, the Students’ Islamic Movement of India, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Within uncomfortable proximity in the immediate neighbourhood, in Bangladesh, are Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.
“For India, there is no doubt or debate at all on the issue what is good for Pakistan in the present strategic context is generally bad for India. All varieties of Taliban are uniformly bad Taliban, guilty until proved innocent”.
Jagdish N. Singh, senior journalist based in New Delhi says Pakistan should seize the opportunity from the global support it has received in its post-Peshawar fight against terrorism. There is also a realisation across the regional political spectrum that peace and prosperity of the entire Subcontinent is vital to the interest of all the nations and hence they should all join hands in counter-terrorism.
“Given their long shared history and culture, Islamabad and New Delhi together can take on the militant Islamists very effectively. There is a lot of substance in New Delhi’s thesis that the fanatic ideology of hatred and violence against humanity is shared in common by radical Islamists of all hues — Wahhabism — Deoband seminary, Tablighi Jamaat, Ahle Hadith and the Jamaat-e-Islami and hence action needs to be taken against each of them.
“Islamabad could appreciate it and not confine its action against a select group of militant Islamists — the Haqqani Network and safe havens of Al Qaeda and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan — alone.
“Unfortunately, rulers in Islamabad have so far glossed over the activities of anti-India elements like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief and 26/11 Mumbai attacks mastermind Hafiz Saeed, his deputy Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, 26/11 planner Zakiur Lakhvi (enjoying VIP treatment in prison). This would not do if a victory over terrorism were to be achieved”.
Chances of ‘cold’ peace
Looking at India Pakistan relations in a perspective, analysts like Munir Akram in Pakistan are of the opinion that “given their historical animosities, a close relationship is probably unachievable in the foreseeable future. But a ‘cold’ peace, which does not eliminate their fundamental differences but enables coexistence and cooperation, is possible. Unfortunately, even such a ‘cold’ peace is unlikely to be realised so long as India and Pakistan continue to wage their wars in the shadows.
The stakes are high for both countries. For Pakistan they are obvious. For India, peace is imperative if Modi is to take forward his development agenda. India should also realize that at the global level, it may not get too much sympathy if this low-level but intensive sparring gets out of hand — the US regards Pakistan as vital for resolving Afghanistan; for Russia and Central Asian countries, the fear of the Islamic State is too strong to consider isolating the Pakistan Army, one of the strongest in the region.