Navy upgrades security to keep terrorists at bay, and to ensure Viraat's safety
By S. Neeraj Krishna
The Arabian Sea frothed in monsoon fury. The waves pounded a sea wall near the fish-landing harbour in Vypin, Kochi, where Commander James Paul and his five colleagues waited for fishermen to return. They were on a new mission of the Indian Navy in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack.
To guard India's 7,500km coastline, the Navy and the Coast Guard require help. Hence, another line of defence has to be groomed. It would involve seafaring comrades-fishermen.
As part of the Centre's coastal security programme, Navy and Coast Guard teams are being sent to coastal villages to interact with fisherfolk, apprising them on coastal security. A defence ministry source said the only other place where the armed forces personally interacted with civilians was Kashmir, under the "winning the hearts and minds" initiative.
"No one knows the seas better than you," Chief Petty Officer K. Gopakumar told the fishermen. "Call us on our toll-free numbers if you spot anything unusual or suspicious at sea or in the harbour. Or alert us through the VHF radio sets on your boats. Help us prevent terror attacks."
Paul said the fishermen were asked to look out for:
Exchange of goods or people at sea
Recovering or tossing of packages from/onto the waters or shoreline
Unusual diving activity
Renting of trawlers and fishing boats
Unusual operation of boats, accompanied by videography or photography
On June 30, after inaugurating the NSG hub in Mumbai, Home Minister P. Chidambaram talked of intelligence reports about terror threat to installations on India's west coast. Indeed, two of the most gruesome terror attacks on India had come through the west coast.
In March 1993, loads of kaala sabun (RDX) and arms were smuggled into India through Shekhadi harbour in Maharashtra. The result was Black Friday. The Bombay Blasts maimed India.
In November 2008, a bunch of wanton boys, armed with assault rifles and explosives, came in through the west coast to perpetrate 26/11.
Recent intelligence reports ?warned of the D-company's plans to smuggle arms and explosives into India. In 1993, Tiger Memon, on a speedboat, personally oversaw the landing of explosives in a trawler at Shekhadi.
With more intelligence reports on attacks through the sea, the message was clear. 'Sea jihad' was in vogue. Coastal vigilance had to be boosted.
A high-level committee headed by Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrashekar has made the Navy the "designated authority" responsible for maritime security-coastal and offshore.
The Coast Guard, port authorities, fisheries departments and the like are now under the Navy's command. This is usually a war-time procedure. The committee has told these agencies to "optimally use their assets and forces to enhance coastal surveillance".
The Southern Naval Command has more reasons to worry. India's only aircraft carrier INS Viraat is being upgraded at the Cochin Shipyard Ltd in Kochi. In December 2008, US intelligence had warned of a Lashkar-e-Toiba plot to attack the Viraat. Chidambaram had, however, downplayed the threat perception. But, sources in the Navy said the threat still loomed large.
"There have been strong intelligence warnings about designs to attack the Viraat… they [terrorists] are after it," said a Naval officer. "Reports suggest the Viraat could be the no. 1 target of terrorists, surpassing our nuclear reactors."
The Viraat's security has been intensified. Four Navy patrol boats and armed personnel guard it round the clock. No boats are allowed within 500m of wharfs where Navy ships are moored.
The defence ministry has asked the Navy to use zero-tolerance protocol in case of intrusion. Earlier, tourist boats and fishermen's canoes could go close to these wharfs. "Also, apart from choppers and Dorniers, Israeli-made UAVs are now sent on surveillance sorties," the officer said.
The Navy is aware that radical elements are active in some parts of the Kerala coast. "Moreover, Dawood Ibrahim's agents are still active in the state," said a former intelligence official. Manjeswaram in north Kerala is said to be a hot spot.
Terror has struck root in Kerala. Recently, a special investigation team revealed that the LeT recruited 185 Malayali youth for training in Pakistan and to be planted back in Kerala. A terrorist suspect arrested in Karnataka revealed that the banned SIMI held training camps in Wagamon hills in Kerala.
In 2007, a consignment, from Dubai, of 86 air rifles and 30 pistols created a flutter at the Kochi port. Each packet of the weapons contained a Quran, which fuelled tensions. A year later, officials at the Karipur airport in north Kerala found a cache of 59 handguns and 2,000 bullets in a flight from, again, Dubai. Two men arrested in the case claimed that the guns were meant to ward off wild animals!
Police officers said the Intelligence Bureau's multi-agency centre had warned about Bangladesh-based Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen's plans to target vital installations in Kerala.
According to a study by the Kerala Police, "There are over 10 lakh migrant labourers in the state, many from West Bengal, Bihar and the northeast." Intelligence officials cautioned that Bangladeshi insurgents could sneak in the guise of Bengalis who come in hordes to Kerala as labourers.
Also worrying is the lax attitude of the state government. An internal cabinet note on coastal security, accessed by THE WEEK, states that the "coastal states and Union territories have been asked for the expeditious implementation of the ongoing Coastal Security Scheme", under which Kerala is to start eight coastal police stations. But, the progress report attached to the note shows that only one has started.
To keep terror at bay, the Navy has set up a nodal joint operation centre in Kochi. The Coast Guard, too, is chipping in. Petty Officer A. Sudhanand said the Coast Guard, with the help of ISRO, had introduced a cheap, GPS-based distress alert system (DATS), for fishermen.
"For the Mumbai attack, terrorists hijacked a trawler, Kuber. With DATS, such incidents can be immediately brought to our notice," Sudhanand explained to fishermen. "We have given a set of devices to the state authorities." The state government has not yet distributed them.
A sexagenarian fisherman, Peter, who had just moored his boat at Vypin, was phlegmatic in his response to the Navy campaign. He had a message: "You guys don't worry. The fisherman's oar is enough to keep away the Dawoods and the Kasabs!"