After almost a span of four decades, it can be said that significant advancements have been made in the way the high seas of Andaman & Nicobar Islands are being patrolled
While a recent incident has once again brought the porosity of coastal patrolling in Andaman & Nicobar Islands into focus, it will be worth recalling an incident that took place more than four decades ago, and which, perhaps, laid the foundation for an independent Coast Guard unit. Here is a personal account.
There used to be a policy of posting officers from Union Territories-Cadre (now Arunachal, Goa, Mizoram, and Union Territories) of the All India Services, to certain difficult and far-flung areas at the beginning of their careers. Accordingly, on my first promotion as SP, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, I reached Port Blair in July 1973. The incident of December 1974, that I am about to narrate, assumed importance as it had some international ramifications, besides the creation of coast guard as a separate entity being placed on a firm footing.
Out of more than 500 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, only a few are inhabited and some only have a police post to fly the national flag. Despite the fact that Kondul did not have any requirement of policing, a police post had been functioning there due to threats from foreign ships often visiting this area for poaching and their crews having a barter exchange with the tribals. Towards the end of December 1974, a panic message was received by my office at Port Blair, from Kondul, necessitating a visit and my personal intervention. Kondul is a very small island in the Bay of Bengal. With an area of less than two square miles, it is, perhaps, too insignificant for any geographical atlas to have recognized its existence. Located in between the Little Nicobar and the Great Nicobar, its population consisted entirely of the Shompen tribals and was estimated to be only 75 in 1971.
The message from Kondul disclosed that a few poachers had landed on an isolated portion of the island and when they were challenged by the police, they had fired with automatic weapons. A decision was taken to strengthen the post and provide them with light machine guns. Accordingly, we made use of the Chief Commissioner’s inspection boat MV Tarmugli and I left for Kondul. Enroute, on the high seas, in our territorial waters, there was an encounter between the poachers (who were from Thailand) and our vessel. Firing from our side resulted in the death of one and injuries to two others. Later, their vessel was boarded and poachers arrested for further proceedings. This party then left for Port Blair, while I continued towards Kondul.
The sea around the Nicobars is known to be the most placid from the end of December, through January and February. But contrary to expectations, that day, the St George’s Channel between the islands of Little Nicobar and the Great Nicobar, where Kondul is located, was extremely rough. In any case, in the absence of a jetty, MV Tarmugli had to anchor about three kilometers away from the coastline. It was already twilight hour and as the fishing boat, which was to take me ashore, came alongside, it could be observed that the boat appeared to be taking in some water through a gap in the flooring and I just could not imagine how I would jump into the fishing boat which was at a much lower level. But I managed somehow. My cook Moidu along with the additional men followed. Unloading heavy baggage in a rough sea with a difference in the levels of boats can be very tricky but the entire stuff, including ordinance was unloaded safely. Initially, the distance did not appear much but once the fishing boat started to move, we realised we had quite a distance to travel. Despite the sea being extremely rough, all of us travelled without life jackets as none was available. It had already become dark and we were still not ashore but the crew and the old out board engine were giving their best. The last about 200 yards had to be waded through and ruined my uniform. It also became amply clear as to why all our men, who had come to receive their SP, were only in shorts and barefoot. Some were even in tucked-up lungis. But we did manage to unload the entire baggage, including gifts for tribals and ordinance in a dry condition.
The first evening I shared my dinner with the men as we had not unpacked. Also, I had to borrow the bed, along with the mosquito net, from one of the jawans. Our men were stationed in thatched bamboo ‘bashas’ with large sized mosquitoes for company. One of the ‘bashas’ had been cleared for my exclusive use. In the absence of any electricity, one had to use the petromax and curtail the bedside reading at night. Coconut water substituted for bottled drinking water that is often used these days.
As the sun in these areas rises early, even by 5 am, it used to be very bright and warm. The training programme for the jawans stationed there and the new contingent commenced in right earnest, the sea beach being the only open space available. Our training session could not last for more than two hours, the sun being very hot with penetrating UV rays. Later, quite some time was also spent on investigating the site of landing and searching for spent ammunition cases. Used cigarette packets, besides empty cans of foodstuff and drinks with foreign markings, were found in abundance. It was learnt that the poachers usually took coconuts, fresh water and eggs from tribals in exchange for cigarettes and some cheap clothing.
The ‘bashas’ became extremely hot in the afternoon, and as such, I had my bed organised in the open with a net, under a coconut grove. In the afternoon, when there was some breeze, I became busy with my books and cricket commentary. We spent another two hours in the evening for training and this went on for three-four days.
The only means of communication with the outside world was through a radio and daily reports were being sent to the headquarter. Later, after the completion of the task in hand, I asked for a boat to be sent to pick me up for the return journey. On the morning of day four, a Naval petrol boat INS Pulicat was deputed for the purpose; it did reach Kondul but was at least 4 km away from the shore. Due to very rough conditions at sea, it was unable to get any closer. From this side, I was advised against taking the rickety fishing boat that far. I could see the naval vessel at anchor but could do nothing as all communications were through Port Blair. My messages used to go to headquarter at Port Blair, from where they were communicated on phone, to the office of NOIC, from where they communicated with the boat. The boat must have waited for about three to four hours and then left. It was a great disappointment but then there was no other option. So I went back to the cricket commentary and books. This went on for a couple of days. Next morning again, almost coinciding with sunrise, INS Panvel came to pick me up, but we were unable to leave the shore due to very rough conditions. The rickety boat, the only one at Kondul, could not be put out to the sea and the naval vessel could not come closer. In the meantime, Vishwanath was going great guns against Andy Roberts and I think he scored one of the finest centuries of his career at Eden Gardens.
Even as this dilemma continued and my anxiety was turning into disappointment, good news came. The administration had chartered a private boat which picked me up from Kondul and dropped me at Car Nicobar on the evening of New Year’s day of 1975. From Car Nicobar to Port Blair, it was virtually a home run and a hassle-free comfortable 20-hour journey. The seas had again become calm and placid and it was as if one was lazing in a blue lake, with all the anxieties and apprehensions fading away into the past. Another good news was that India had won at the Eden Gardens.
Back in Port Blair, in the New Year, a lot of reports had to be prepared which were sent by the administration to the Ministry of Home Affairs. It was specifically mentioned that the coastal patrolling, which hitherto used to be the responsibility of the local police, should be taken away as there were hardly any resources or expertise. It was also suggested that a specialised agency be assigned this task. I feel that our inputs from Port Blair of early 1975 would have definitely played some role in the establishment of the Coast Guard in 1977.
And today as I write after 44 years, I am told, Kondul, the tiny speck in the Bay of Bengal, that virtually ceased to exist for some time after the 2004 tsunami, has resurfaced, almost having a rebirth. Read more posts…
(The writer is a retired Delhi Police Commissioner and former Uttarakhand Governor)
Saturday, 08 December 2018 | KK Paul | in Analysis—
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