Kandahar again

April 21, 2011

India is facing a Kandahar like situation again .However, this time it is not set in the bleak wind blown barrenness of Kandahar , but in the warm tropical waters of Indian ocean off the coast of Somalia.

Over the weekend, a group of pirates holding the Asphalt Venture, a Panamanian-flagged merchant vessel, were supposed to let the ship’s Indian crew go after receiving a $3.5 million ransom. But in a first for Somali pirates, the brigands decided they wanted to punish India for its aggro anti-pirate stance.

The pirates kept the money and released only eight hostages, holding onto seven. They then demanded India swap their 120 comrades captured by the Indian navy over the past weeks, vowing to hold onto any Indian nationals taken until then.

 

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And true to its style , the Indian government doesn’t appear to know what to do yet. On Monday, it announced that the INS Talwar, which conducts anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, will set sail for the eastern coast of Somalia towards the Asphalt Venture. Officially, the Talwar won’t launch any swashbuckling boarding operations, as it’s just there to “keep a close eye on the situation.” Officials have ruled out using their special forces to free the hostages.

Whether the Talwar launches a raid to free the remaining hostages or not, it’s clear that some kind of threshold has been crossed here. The pirates holding the Asphalt Venture aren’t just looking to pressure a company for ransom now, but to scare off India from launching rescue missions later.

This could be just another example of pirate solidarity which was much threatened but never actually carried out. Or perhaps this is another manifestation of the commonly held perception of  India as a soft state which can be easily cowed into submission. Or perhaps it could be part of a wider terrorist-pirate complex with wider aims and probably backing from some powerful third party actors.

But whatever it is , it is no less an ominous portent then Kandahar was . As Kandahar singled out India as a soft state to the terrorists and convinced them to redouble their efforts in trying to destabilize India, this incident too is going to decide whether India , the logical custodian of Indian Ocean , can establish its will on the waters of its ocean.

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Piracy is a growing danger.  India is already facing more pirate attacks closer to its shores and a further proliferation of piracy would be disastrous for India’s trade much of which passes through these waters. Moreover, India has over 35,000 nationals employed globally as seamen on commercial ships sailing under various flags. If pirates now won’t release Indian hostages, this may have an effect on insurance premiums for ships employing Indian crew.

However, appeasement definitely wont work . Any bad precedent set by the Indian government, as was set in Kandahar, would only further embolden pirates. This could turn out to be even more worrisome if there is a sort of pirate-terrorist alliance which would have more than monetary reasons to target Indian shipping.

India needs to aggressively  take the lead in stamping out piracy . This might not be a painless process in the short term but would help protect not only our vast seaborne trade but also consolidate India’s profile as the pre eminent naval power in Indian Ocean.

But perhaps I dream too much. In this country , fixated with Amar Singh and his political shenanigans, this incident is not even front page news.