The curse of the absent policy

The curse of the absent policy

The Indian government must be watching Pirates of the Caribbean too often. After all, if no law seems to stop Jack Sparrow and his tribe, then why bother formulating a coherent policy?

Most of the world is busy this week blaming Israel for its act of apparent piracy: naval commandos from the West Asian democracy boarded a flotilla of Turkish ships suspected of carrying arms to the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, there are real pirates who are causing havoc in the open seas. On Saturday, the Indian Navy arrested eight suspected pirates off Lakshadweep.

A Mint Thursday story highlights the pitfalls of India’s policy here: that there is no real policy. True, ever since Somali piracy became a concern in the past decade, the Indian Navy has been part of international efforts to police the Gulf of Aden. But this action is, at best, a short-term tactic. What does the navy do after sending its ships?

In the rare instances where pirates are caught in the act, ships may not be able to open fire without risking diplomatic complications. And in most cases, when ships do capture pirates, but not in the midst of their crime, it’s difficult to bring them back on land and try them for that crime. In 1999, the Indian Navy did arrest pirates: A court set them free because there wasn’t enough evidence.

In the old days, this would have hardly been a problem. The ancient Romans or the 18th century British—the source of the bulk of our legal tradition— had one simple policy: hang the pirates. Jack Sparrow may appear swashbuckling, but his tribe has historically provoked great revulsion. Thus, pirates were hostis humani generis, “enemies of mankind".

We shouldn’t be hanging pirates in our modern world, but India’s policy and resolve should nevertheless be clear. Besides domestic laws, India should also encourage international cooperation to create permanent maritime task forces or ensure (through treaties) that pirates are prosecuted overseas.

Even if India isn’t motivated by the same revulsion, there are, first, commercial interests to protect: 8% of world trade and 12% of seaborne oil pass through the Gulf of Aden.

Second, there are geopolitical interests. Whatever we think of Rome or Britain’s hegemony, they did guarantee that the seas were safe. If India wants to become any sort of global power, piracy is one global scourge it will have to help get rid of.

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