Need for an Indian Response in Somali Waters

After months of negotiations, the hijacked Ship, MV Stolt Valor, carrying 18 Indian nationals on board was released. The Japanese firm which owned the ship reportedly paid a US$2.5 million ransom to the Somalia based pirates. It was another piracy off the Horn of Africa resolved through ransom payment.

The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has noted that piracy in the region has risen by a significant 10 per cent, compared to its significant waning in other parts of the world this year, reflecting the increasing brazenness of the Somali pirates. India has also suffered due to the acts of pirates. Earlier this year, for example, the MV Victoria which embarked from Mumbai, with several Indians, among others on board, was hijacked by pirates. It was subsequently released in an ambiguous manner but it is speculated that ransom money was paid.

The Indian government’s belated response in dealing with the crises reflects a callous attitude towards a very important issue. Despite an interest in maintaining a stronger presence, the government had stalled a decision for hot pursuit of pirates, arguing for discussions among the Ministries of Defence, External Affairs, Law and Shipping (The Times of India, 20 September 2008). Contrast the Stolt story with that of the French luxury yacht Le Ponant hijacked by the Somalia based pirates. The French government ordered a military operation with special commandos to launch a daring rescue of the hostages. While the French example is not feasible in all scenarios, it makes the case to deter the criminals on the high seas.

It was only after intense pressure by the wife of the captive Captain of the Stolt, Prabhat Goyal, that the government relented and has allowed an Indian warship to enter the region and protect “Indian interests.” However, the Indian Navy has a deeper strategic objective to achieve through its cooperation with other navies in the region by curbing piracy in the region. More recently, the Indian Navy helped to combat piracy, and successfully contributed to patrolling the piracy-infested Malacca straits in Southeast Asia. Yemen, too, has been open to cooperating with regional powers in combating the menace of piracy. Since its deployment in the region, the Indian Navy has foiled three piracy attempts and destroyed a pirate ship. Patrolling the region also boosts India’s image in the neighboring Arab countries, while allowing for joint cooperation with NATO navies in the region.

The opportunity to patrol the Gulf of Aden would also bolster the ‘blue water’ capabilities of the Indian Navy. Technically, a blue water navy is taken to be one able to operate over 200 miles (320 kilometers) from shore. This is a measure which can also be used to counter growing Chinese influence in the region. Naval deployments are a readily available public demonstration of diplomacy, showing the flag, showing support, and, more dramatically, showing India’s presence in an immediate, flexible, and readily re-deployable manner. Sleek stealth destroyers like INS Talwar lend themselves to long-range deployment, highlighting India’s naval capability and showcasing India as being an advanced technological power in the world.

Projecting a strong naval capability and a firmer policy against pirates is accentuated by the fact that as much as 90 per cent by volume and 77 per cent by value of India’s foreign trade is by sea. A senior Defense Ministry official articulates, “The Gulf of Aden provides access to the Suez Canal through which sizable portion of India’s trade flows. Indian Navy’s presence in the area will help to protect our sea-borne trade”. Even though Indian ships may not necessarily be the targets of Somali pirates, the number of Indian hostages taken or killed is very high. Sunil Nair, spokesman for the National Seafarers Union of India (NSUI), explains that the English-speaking ability of Indian workers result in high intakes of workers from the subcontinent. In 2008, for example, out of 52 incidents of piracy, 24 cases involved Indian seafarers. The contribution of these sailors to the national economy is significant and warrants immediate attention to their safety (The Times of India, 12 October 2008).

Additionally, piracy action also has terrorist overtones, and needs to be dealt with firmly. There are fears that ‘opportunistic pirates, many of whom operate in Muslim-dominated nations, could make common cause with Islamic extremists’ (Terrorism Monitor, 6/16). This fear was reiterated by Yemen’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Dr Ali Hassan, when he spoke about the element of hostage taking for ransom, which could be exploited by terrorist elements in the region (Al-Motamar, 7 October 2008).

India’s legal concerns can be addressed by working under the sanction of UNSC resolution 1816 (2008), which authorizes “all necessary means” to repress acts of piracy in Somali waters with cooperating states. India has belatedly realized the extent of this threat and is now actively monitoring the troubled waters off the East African coast.