Three days after the defence ministry said a suspicious Pakistani boat was intercepted off the Gujarat coast before it blew itself up, unanswered questions are straining the credulity of the official version of events.
ICG Rajratan, the coastguard ship that was involved in the operation, is now back in Porbandar, Gujarat, and the defence ministry is reportedly planning a full review of the intelligence intercepts and the sequence of events that followed. That would be a useful exercise because it is not healthy to allow the fog of mystery to shroud over efforts to combat terror. The video footage from the ship and part of the debris it has carried back will hopefully throw more light into the episode.
But at this point, there are two theories about what really happened. One if the official version, which says it was a suspicious boat that blew itself up. The other is the sceptics' version, advanced most notably by Praveen Swami writing in The Indian Express, which says it was more likely a smuggling boat carrying liquor or fuel and in a case of mistaken identities and intentions, Indian Coast Guard used lethal force against the small boat and sank it.
These questions about the entire episode need clarification.
1) Did the boat have explosives?
The defence ministry statement on day 1 said in the title the boat was carrying explosives. But the text of the statement was silent on the matter. It has since then been pointed out that if the boat was carrying explosives, the boat itself would have been blasted into smithereens in the fire that engulfed the vessel. The raging fire itself could have been caused by fuel that was being transported or the fuel from the boat's fuel tank.
2) What do we know about the boat's terror links? Was it in touch with 'handlers' in Pakistan or elsewhere?
The Times of India has reported today, citing unnamed intelligence sources, that communication intercepts showed the boat was in touch with Pakistan army through a contact who was also speaking frequently with someone in Thailand.
3) Was there a second boat?
The Times of India reported that Indian agencies had been tracking a second vessel had followed a similar route from Karachi. Following the interception of the first boat, the second one apparently beat a hasty retreat.
4) Did the boat blow itself up?
This is the part that most people are finding in hard to believe. The boat was either a sinister vessel with terrorists and explosives or it was a case of mistaken identity and the passengers were innocent fishermen or small-time smugglers. In all these scenarios, it doesn't make sense for the crew to sink the vessel themselves. If they were terrorists and had ammunition on board, the crew could have offered resistance. If they were fishermen or smugglers, it made far more sense for them to surrender. Security experts have pointed out that if they were indeed terrorists, they might have been under instruction to blow up the sensitive cargo upon detection, to avoid a traceback to the origins of the cargo. This is of course plausible.
The Coast Guard has reiterated that the crew of the vessel set it on fire and sank with it.
5) Did the episode happen under bad weather?
The defence ministry statement on 2 January said the boat and persons could not be "saved or recovered" due to "darkness, bad weather and strong winds". But no weather warnings had been issued to Indian fishermen in the region and metereological data for the period has shown ideal conditions during this period
Weather data is of course much broader and doesn't necessarily rule out isolated winds strong enough to have made for difficult conditions.
6) When intercepted, how many people were seen on the boat and did they return fire?
The defence ministry statement on 2 January said four persons were seen on the boat and when chased by the Coast Guard ship, they hid themselves below the deck compartment. Coast Guard Inspector General (North West) Kuldeep Singh Sheoran has now said only one person was visible on the deck and he was seen instructing the others.
The official also told PTI that the person spotted on the deck did not look like a fisherman and the boat itself did not have nets or other fishing paraphernalia.
At least one report has said citing unnamed officials that the crew on the boat had returned fire when intercepted.
7) Fishermen didn't see anything?
1,055 boats and fishing trawlers at sea at the time of the incident and no one has reported seeing or hearing anything. Fishermen talk to each other on radio and normally if a Pakistani boat is seen on the Indian seas, the information spreads through the community. Nothing of the sort happened, according to this report. This of course, doesn't prove anything conclusively.
8) Was the intelligence not shared?
Were the officials in Gujarat and Maharashtra kept in the dark about the intelligence even as the Coast Guard conducted the operation? There are claims and counterclaims about this. An unnamed Gujarat police official was quoted by The Indian Express as saying they were kept in the dark. "You don’t need to be a genius to figure out we should have been told, because, if the fishing boat was actually carrying explosives and managed to evade patrols on the seas, we should have been in position waiting for it," the official said.
Coast Guard officials are now saying the intelligence was indeed shared and cops knew about it. Gujarat cops are not commenting on record.
9) How was the small fishing vessel able to dodge a powerful coast guard ship for an hour and a half?
Was the vessel fitted with engines more powerful than typically seen on fishing boats? Or is the case that in the dark of the night, a small boat running for its life can keep a strong coast guard vessel at bay for more than an hour? There is no conclusive answer to this at this point.