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Dealing with Somali Piracy: Still Groping in the Dark

(To be read in continuation of my article of April 19,2011, titled “Somali Pirates Say They Are At War With India” at )

We are still groping in the dark in matters relating to action against the Somali pirates, who are more and more active despite all the preventive patrolling, more and more venturesome coming closer and closer to our waters and more and more difficult to handle with neither prevention nor cure in sight in the near and medium-term future.

2.Any comprehensive strategy to deal with the menace has to have the following dimensions:

(a).Preventive through naval patrolling in the waters where the pirates operate.

(b).Protective by strengthening our coastal defence to prevent their venturing out towards our coast.

( c ).Pre-emptive by identifying their rear bases in Somalia and neutralising them.

(d).Tactical for dealing with hostage situations where they succeed in hijacking ships with Indian crew despite our preventive measures.

(e  ).Investigative for investigating and prosecuting pirates involved in the  hijacking of ships.

(f). Co-operative for co-ordinating our actions with those of other States equally affected by the menace.

3. What are the ground or sea realities more than two years after we realised that the evil confronting us in the waters to the West of us was more serious than that in the waters to the East of us? The preventive patrolling by navies of different countries has not denied the pirates the availability of pockets where they can still pounce on unsuspecting ships and hijack them. This is because of a lack of co-ordination in patrolling. As a result, the entire sea stretch is not covered effectively. I had pointed out in the past the importance of co-ordination among the navies of India, China, Japan, Singapore,Pakistan and South Korea to remove such pockets and cover gaps. Nothing has been done in this direction. Partly due to our own reluctance to give any role to the navies of China and Pakistan. We have to get over this mental reservation. Otherwise, the preventive measures will remain only partially effective

4.The protective measures seem to be producing results as seen by the success of our Coast Guard in intercepting Somali pirates moving towards our waters and detaining them. It is the effectiveness of our protective measures that has added to the anti-Indian anger of the pirates and the hardening of their stand during negotiations for the release of captured Indian sailors. If we want our Coast Guard to be tough in preventing the pirates from approaching our coastal waters, we must be prepared to face difficulties in securing the release of our sailors captured and held hostage in distant waters. Pakistan does not face this difficulty because its Navy does not arrest, detain and seek to prosecute Somali pirates. We do. It is unfair to project our Navy and Coast Guard in negative colours without understanding the constraints under which they operate.

5. Pre-emption has been a non-starter because the international community—not even the US—is in a position now to undertake this. The position has been rendered more difficult by the influence and activities of Al Qaeda in Somalia.

6.Our tactical response to hostage situations is still unsatisfactory.This is not surprising.It took the international community five years or even more to find an effective tactical response to hostage situations on the ground or on board hijacked aircraft. It could take us  even longer  to find a workable tactical response  to hostage situations on the high seas.Tiring out hostage-takers will be more difficult and will take a much longer time when the hostages are held on board a ship on the high seas than on board an aircraft parked in an airport or in a building.Successful commando action to free the hostages would be more difficult on the high seas than on the ground. The delay in the rescue of the six Indian seamen who were caught up on board a hijacked Egyptian ship MV Suez, captained by a Pakistani officer, which has led to an unfortunate war of words between India and Pakistan, could be partly attributed to the dilemma faced by India due to its action in detaining some suspected Somali pirates found in waters near our shore. Their detention has generally hardened the attitude of the Somali pirates as a whole to India and has created difficulties in our negotiations with pirates holding  Indian hostages. While the Pakistani authorities have to be generously thanked for their help in getting the Indian hostages released through the intermediary of a Pakistani humanitarian relief organisation, any criticism of the failure of the Indian Navy to get them released would be uncalled for. Without co-operation among the navies of affected countries any tactical response is bound to remain unsatisfactory.

7. The investigative dimension is being tried out by us only for the last few months after the detention of some Somali pirates. The media had recently reported that due to the hardening of the attitude of the Somali pirates towards India, the Government of India was re-examining its policy of detaining and prosecuting Somali pirates caught in the vicinity of our waters. Such a re-examination will be unwise and will convey a wrong message to the pirates that India is amenable to pressure.

8.In the light of the criticism of the delay in securing the release of the Indian seamen held hostage on board MV Suez and the unfortunate war of words between India and Pakistan, the time has come to re-visit out counter-piracy strategy from two angles. The first is our national capability for dealing with hostage situations—-whether in near or far-away waters— and our ability for commando action if negotiations fail. Not only India, but other countries too have been facing difficulties in dealing with hostage situations where the ship belongs to another country. If the ship flies the Indian flag, there is no problem. If it flies the flag of another country, we have to seek the consent of the Government of that country before we can act.

9. The Pakistan Navy faces some advantages in dealing with the Somali pirates. The influence of the TablighiJamaat (TJ) of Pakistan is very strong in Somalia. They can seek the assistance of the TJ and other organisations close to it for establishing contact with the pirates and seeking the release of the hostages. We do not have this advantage. It is very difficult for us to initiate negotiations with the pirates.How do we get over this difficulty?

10. The second angle relates to setting up a structured co-operative mechanism involving the navies of India, China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Pakistan for strengthening preventive patrolling and for evolving a mechanism for mutual assistance in dealing with hostage situations. India should take the initiative for bringing together senior officers of the navies and Coast Guards of these countries for a brain-storming on setting up a regional counter-piracy organisation. We should not allow our unsatisfactory over-all relations with Pakistan to stand in the way of such an initiative. This subject can be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan in Islamabad.(19-6-11)

( The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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