The incident on the intervening night of New Year's Eve and New Year's Day off the coast of Gujarat, when the Indian Coast Guard challenged a suspect Pakistani fishing boat on the basis of intelligence inputs and aerial surveillance, has been met with wide applause among Indians on social media. But the narrative has left some curious points to ponder. Here’s something to think about:
1. The statement is headlined "Coast Guard intercepts suspect boat carrying explosives in Arabian Sea", but the text of the statement itself makes no mention of the fact that explosives were on board. All the statement says is: "...the crew hid themselves in the below deck compartment and set the boat on fire, which resulted in explosion and major fire on the boat." It doesn’t necessarily imply that explosives were onboard.
2. The defence ministry statement says the Pakistani boat was suspected to be "planning some illicit transaction in the Arabian Sea". Transaction could well be taken to infer a smuggling operation of contraband like arms, ammunition, explosives, narcotics etc.
But for any transaction, there has to be a second party, or in this case, a second vessel. Where is it now?
It could also mean, as some tweets have suggested, a fuel smuggling operation (wherein stolen fuel is taken out to the high seas and sold to whoever wants it cheap, evading excise and taxes etc). In which case, where was the clientele? Why would the boat's crew blow themselves up if they were indeed fuel smugglers and not terrorists or fidayeen?
3. The destruction and sinking of the boat precludes the recovery and perusal of any physical evidence, unless the Indian Coast Guard is extremely lucky. What then could we take away from this incident? Assuming for a moment that it was a terrorist operation, it could have been in support of or a vector for a 26/11 style attack, an operation to smuggle arms, ammunition and/or explosives into India for other terrorist activities, or perhaps (if it was laden with explosives, as some reports have claimed) something like a suicide attack on Indian Navy vessels or other coastal entities on the lines of the attack on the USS Cole. Perhaps it's just as well that, as admiral Robin Dhowan said last month, Indian Navy vessels no longer wish any unknown vessel, "Good Morning" but subject them to inspection, instead.
4. Indian Coast Guard vessels and Dornier aircraft did a remarkable job of spotting the vessel and intercepting it unlit at night, considering there would have been thousands of boats out at sea, all looking more or less alike, and unlikely to have been equipped with Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders onboard.
5. The boat sank around 365km or 197 nautical miles from Porbandar. India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends to 200 nautical miles from the appropriate baseline. If the boat had managed to flee beyond that distance, the Indian Coast Guard would have been acting in "hot pursuit" in international waters.
In spite of these imponderables, given the veracity of the facts stated by the defence ministry, the incident appears to have been the culmination of timely recovery and sharing of actionable intelligence and the displayable efficiency and persistence of the Coast Guard. Hopefully, we have come a long way from 26/11.