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All at sea

Other than the fact that six of its 22 sailors were Indian nationals, the MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship, was more about Pakistan.

It was captained by a Pakistani national and was on a voyage from Karachi to the Eritrean port of Massawa in July-August 2010, when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), off the Horn of Africa. It sent distress signals to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFORCE) patrolling the region but was seized before naval helicopters could arrive. The ship, cargo and crew have been held for ransom since then.

Its release was also, on the face of it, a largely Pakistani affair. Negotiations between the ship's Egyptian owners and the pirates were deadlocked until February 2011, when Ansar Burney, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, entered the scene. A ransom was arranged through his good offices and paid sometime in late May. As is usual with such arrangements, the source of the funds, its final recipients and suchlike are unclear. Somalia's transitional federal government, which is against ransom payments, might evenhave apprehended the individuals and cash (which may be between $2 million to $4 million) in Mogadishu on May 25th. Eventually though, the pirates released the ship and its crew.

But the drama didn't end there. Pirates attacked it again after it was released, and a Pakistani naval ship, Babur, which happened to be in the vicinity as part of the international coalition task force (CTF-151) came to its assistance and chased the pirates away. The Pakistani initiatives received well-deserved applause all around, including in the Indian media. After all, Pakistani individuals and the Pakistani navy had helped secure the return of Indian sailors when the Indian government, on the face of it, didn't.

Indeed, the episode turns a little bizarre thereafter. MV Suez's crew claims they called an Indian naval ship, the Godavari, for assistance, but it didn't respond. According to the Indian Navy, Godavari diverted course from the two ships it was escorting and tried to contact the Suez, failed, and returned to its original course. The Pakistani authorities charged that INS Godavari "hampered humanitarian operations", violated international codes of conduct and brushed against PNS Babur. The Indian Navy has dismissed Pakistan's allegations. India's foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that India had summoned the Pakistani naval adviser in New Delhi to register serious concerns on PNS Babur's risky manoeuvres and that it had lodged a protest with the Pakistani government.

Now it is extremely unlikely that the Godavari's captain would deliberately engage in such behaviour. It won't be difficult to establish facts of the case, as video footage is available. The Pakistani navy is under a cloud at this time, and the officers of PNS Babur might have resented the presence—of all ships, an Indian one—at their moment of glory.

The behaviour of the Pakistani naval ship and its crew is appalling, but hardly comes as a surprise. It is unlikely that the Pakistani navy would wish to share brownie points with its Indian counterpart, not least when the entire MV Suez affair was largely a Pakistani one. But the juvenile manner in which the Pakistani navy conducted itself presents a counter-point to the conventional wisdom we come across about the Pakistani armed forces being "professional" outfits. That is, if Syed Saleem Shehzad's final revelations about the Pakistani navy, al-Qaeda and PNS Mehran have not already provided that counter-point.

What is more worrisome is the sheer ad-hocism that passes off as New Delhi's policy on maritime security. After having stayed in the background over MV Suez (justifiably, in my opinion) and abdicating crisis management at home (inexcusably), did the Indian government think that getting INS Godavari to participate in the victory lap would redeem its failings? Apparently, it thought so. In so doing, it put three other merchant ships (carrying 21 Indian sailors) at risk and created the conditions for the ugly incident involving PNS Babur.

These are the wages of the lack of a policy on overseas military deployments. The Indian government is pretending that a dogmatic insistence on "we will only send troops under UN flag" is its policy. It is not. However, because of this pretense, India's policy is reactive, knee-jerk and triggered by media outrage. You might remember that the Indian navy was allowed to conduct anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia after the Indian media played up a hostage crisis involving an Indian captain.

That move should have been followed up with careful consideration of the motivations, goals, strategies and capacities India will bring to bear in overseas military operations. Unfortunately, neither the government's security establishment nor the UPA government's political leadership thinks it necessary.

The media coverage does not emphasise the reality that the high seas are global commons. The world's navies on anti-piracy operations are securing the world's shipping, providing international public goods. This is, of course, interpreted selectively, but by and large, it is not uncommon for one country's naval ship to assist ships of other countries. In any case, international shipping is a truly international enterprise: with owners, flags, crews and cargos belonging to different countries. One's own security lies in everyone's security. So it is that as of November 2010, more than 1037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the Indian Navy's protection, compared to only 144 Indian-flagged ones. You can be sure that most of those ships, Indian or foreign, had some crew members who were Indian nationals.

The Indian government was in a bind because it could neither pay out ransoms itself nor condone the payment of ransom by others. It therefore couldn't satisfy the relatives of the hostages. This is understandable. What is not understandable, and certainly not excusable, is its inability to manage the hostage crisis competently. The Ministry of External Affairs explained the limits of its mandate, passing the buck to the Director General of Shipping. The Ministry of Shipping had little to offer. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs made promises it was unlikely to be able to keep. The lack of purposefulness is palpable even if the Indian Navy continues to discharge its duties admirably.

The Cabinet Committee on Security must create a Maritime Security Management Task Force, headed by a serving or retired officer with expertise in maritime security and intelligence. Reporting to the National Security Advisor, it must have senior officers from the ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, commerce, the cabinet secretariat, in addition to the three armed services. The buck on piracy matters should stop there. In parallel, the National Security Council ought to be deliberating on a broader policy on overseas military deployments. So what if the domestic political context isn't ready for such a proposal at this time? Domestic political contexts do, after all, change.

Nitin Pai is founder & fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. He blogs at The Acorn and is active on Twitter too.

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