On the 14th of June 2011, a merchant ship was finally released after being held captive by Somali Pirates for 10 months. On board were 22 sailors; 4 Pakistani, 6 Indians, 11 Egyptian and 1 Sri Lankan. All had suffered months of deprivation, torture and starvation to say the least. They were released almost single handedly, through the efforts of a Pakistani human rights activist, who refused the pirates offer to take only the 4 Pakistani sailors. He raised the money to free the remaining sailors as well. Simply because he could not leave them there to die, and the families of the Indian sailors had appealed to him, after their own government failed them. Yet, Ansar Burney was hardly feted as a hero in India. There was no celebration of how humanity had triumphed borders. No candlelight vigils or placards. No hotline interviews to Pakistan by smirking TV anchors. No half page articles by journalists who claim “India is the next terror target” !
Why? Perhaps because Pakistan appeared to have scored over us. And we were misguided by a sense of not wanting to make the Indian Govt, and hence India, look bad as compared to Pakistan! This is what got me thinking about the concept of patriotism. And how easy it is to lose one’s way when dealing with such complex social emotions.
This story gets worse. By their own admission, for the entire 10 months, the Indian sailors had no one but their families to call on for help. While the other sailors were talking to their respective governments. The owners of the merchant vessel apparently did not mind if the pirates killed the seamen and sank the ship, as they could then claim insurance on both the ship as well as the crew. An Indian MP is reported to have collected money from the families of the Indian sailors, and “disappeared” on the day the ransom was to be paid in Dubai!
The saga continued even after the release of the vessel. Leaking and short of fuel, the captain of the ship repeatedly appealed for help. And then the unthinkable happenned. They came under attack from a fresh band of pirates again. The Indian Navy, among the mightiest to patrol the Indian Ocean, is said to have been unable to escort the vessel safely. Perhaps because it was not getting “clearance”. As per maritime covention, it is the duty of any navy to safely escort a hijacked vessel till it reaches territorial waters.
With the captain now sending a distress signal that he may need to abandon the sinking ship, Pakistan reacted, and sent PNS Babur to escort the vessel and rescue the sailors if the ship sank (which is what happened finally). Perhaps this was a bit of smart thinking in political terms. But the fact is, that they got there and they helped. Realizing that we were walking into an impending PR disaster, India now hastily despatched INS Godavari to escort the ship as well. In a mind boggling development, INS Godavari arrived alongside, and the two navies promptly went on to engage in bullying tactics against each other. One ship is reported to have tried to brush against, and push past the other. Resulting in a diplomatic row between the two countries. Totally losing sight of the fact that they were supposed to be there on a humanitarian mission.
To be fair, there are allegations and counter allegations. India claims the Pakistani captain of the ship actually rebuffed offers from INS Godavri for help. Pakistan claims India did nothing and tried to act like a bully when it started losing face. Whatever the case, the fact remains that having been the last party to respond in this entire drama, the least India could have done was to behave graciously. But it was not to be! The insanity of patriotism had perhaps taken over?
Once in Karanchi, the Indian sailors now feared how long it would take them to return home, and what further indignities they would have to bear. After all, five Pakistani sailors previously rescued by the Indian Navy from a hijacked ship, were still languishing in Yellow Gates police station in Mumbai for almost 3 months at that very moment. The insane bureaucracy of both countries had not managed to get them consular access or exit visa’s since they had to go through “verification”. Thankfully, the media glare created by this incident ensured that all sailors reached home speedily, therefater.
If there is one thought that remained in my mind after this, it is that all of us revere patriotism. But if you ask me what comes first, I would say humanity trumps patriotism any day!