Much will be made of the Indian Express story that quotes Coast Guard Deputy Inspector General BK Loshali as saying that he ordered his men to blow off the Pakistani boat that had wandered too close to the Indian coast under suspicious circumstances on the night of 31 December.
The DIG made a bombastic claim in Surat on Monday (16 February) and said the Pakistani boat was blown off under his orders. He claimed he told his men who were following the boat, “Blow the boat off…We don’t want to serve them biryani”.
Since a video of his speech has subsequently been released, it leaves him no wiggle room to claim he was misquoted (which he did anyway).
The DIG has done enormous damage to the credibility of both his own organisation and the defence ministry, which went on record to say that the boat caught fire and was (probably) blown up by the inmates themselves. It went down in flames some 365 km off the Gujarat coast, after the Coast Guard gave it chase based on intelligence intercepts received by them. The boat was also said to be in touch with the Pakistani army.
The claim that the boat may have carried 26/11 type of terrorists was debunked almost immediately by sections of the media, with the Express publishing a report claiming that the boat may not have carried terrorists, but smugglers. A red-faced defence ministry rebutted the claim, and said it would launch a full investigation. While the smuggling theory also appears thin, the real issue is how the ministry handled the fallout.
Now that Loshali has let the cat out of the bag – the Express has put out a video showing him make precisely the statement that that he later tried to deny – it is worth assessing the damage done by the Coast Guard DIG.
For one, the defence ministry’s initial claims about why the boat sank will now sound hollow. It has suffered an embarrassing blow to its credibility and will allow Pakistan to pretend we are the trigger-happy guys.
Second, the fact that a senior official has talked publicly about an event that has national security implications shows that the ministry has not briefed him properly on what to say or not say in public. This simply needs to be fixed. Or else we will have all kinds of talk being bandied about. Senior officials should not have bragging rights in future without ministry consent.
Third, the ministry, which promised a full report on the incident, has not yet done so. While it is possible that it does not want to disclose sensitive information to the public – the only way it can establish its claim is by releasing excerpts of conversations between the boat and its handlers in Pakistan - the point is the ministry should not have offered to give out a detailed report either. It should have merely said it can’t disclose details beyond what had already been said due to security concerns.
This suggests a weakness that the new Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, also has some learning to do on what to promise the media and what not to.
Beyond the likely fact that we may blown up the boat, there is actually nothing for us to regret. One wonders why the Coast Guard needed to invent a story about the boat’s self-immolation when it was well within its rights to blow up a boat that could do India harm.
The moral of the story for the defence ministry is simple: you don’t have to give excuses for doing what is right for national security. Sometimes, when faced with uncertainty, preemptive action is better than no action at all.
And yes, serving officers should be coached and briefed on what to say on controversial subjects which have implications for the morale and credibility of our defence forces.
The chances are still that the Coast Guard did the right thing by blowing off a boat that may have been a source of danger to India. Simple proof of this could be the case of the dog that did not bark: despite so many adverse reports in the Indian media over the incident, the Pakistanis have not made political hay over it. This implies that they know that we know what their boat was upto, and it is in their interest to shut up too.