Mumbai: The arrest of eight suspected Somali pirates by the Indian Navy off the Kavaratti cost of Lakshadweep on Saturday has put the Indian government in a bit of a spot—it does not know whether to prosecute the accused or release them.

Somali pirates have emerged as a menace to international shipping in recent years, attacking and looting ships in the Gulf of Aden through which ships ferrying 8% of world trade and 12% of world seaborne oil pass, according to the International Maritime Organization. Navies of several nations, including the US and other Nato countries have stepped up their patrolling activity along this important trade route, which skirts the coastline of Somalia, a failed state.

Stringent policing of these waters has cut the profits of the pirate gangs and many have begun to drift into international waters at the risk of being captured by neighbouring countries.

Graphic: Yogesh Kumar / Mint

The problem is that India does not have a clear policy on arrested pirates.

“We disarm them (the pirates) and they are set free in a boat," said Commander P.V.S. Satish, the Indian Navy’s spokesman.

In a few instances, the navy doesn’t even bother capturing the pirates but tries to scare them away by firing a few rounds, but this has proved ineffective until now.

“It is easy to capture but difficult to prosecute," said Vijay Sakhuja, a researcher at the Indian Council of World Affairs, a New Delhi-based think tank, referring to some of the trials in the past that have stretched seemingly forever, only to see the pirates go free.

Many pirates arrested by American and European navies are sent for trial to one of the littoral countries such as Kenya or Yemen since the developed nations have an agreement with either of the two countries.

“Piracy is like cancer…like malignant tumour. You stop it at one place, and it starts elsewhere. We do not have a law under the penal code under which we can try these goons. Neither do we have any MoU (memorandum of understanding with any of the countries) where we can try," said Satish.

Still, island countries in the Indian Ocean want India to play a more active role in resolving this growing menace.

“Piracy is a big challenge for many countries, including India, and the President of Seychelles will discuss this in his meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh," said Seychelles high commissioner to India Dick Patrick Esparon.

Pirate attacks have increased significantly in the last few years in the Gulf of Aden through which 24,000 merchant ships sail every year: From 122 attempts in 2008, pirate attacks jumped 62% to 198 in 2009, according to a piracy watchdog, the Bahrain-based Multinational Maritime Force.

Increased policing by the international community has helped cap successful attempts to loot ships: Despite the increase in incidents, only 44 attempts were successful in 2009 against 42 in 2008.

Although pirates have been losing over the last few years—a 22% success rate last year compared with 34% in 2008 and 63% in 2007—the rewards of piracy are still significant. In 2009, pirates were paid $48.4 million (around Rs230 crore today) in ransom alone, estimates the Bahrain-based watchdog.

Saturday’s arrest of the eight Somali nationals—found adrift on a boat—was the fourteenth such incident since March, when pirates have either been sighted or arrested within 400 miles of Lakshadweep, according to the Indian Navy.

The navy claims that pirates have been forced to shift their operations to the “Mauritian and the Seychelles coast" after being driven away from the Gulf of Aden.

Although the Kochi police were yet to confirm whether the arrested Somalis are pirates, Vice-Admiral K.N. Sushil, flag officer commanding-in-chief of the Southern Naval Command, was quoted in The Hindu as saying: “They had no business being there (near Kavaratti)… How come they survived for more than 20 days (in a boat)?"

“It is a sticky issue," former navy chief admiral Arun Prakash told Mint, even as he expressed disappointment about the fact that New Delhi has till now been shying away from having a clear policy on captured pirates.

“The issue gets emotional overtones when relatives (of crew whose ship is hijacked by pirates) start protesting outside the Prime Minister’s Office. We then send a warship (to fend off the pirates)," said Prakash, now based in Goa.

The government presents a brave front, as Shashi Tharoor, former minister of state for external affairs, wrote in an email: “Our (Indian) navy has been patrolling those waters and escorting commercial vessels; that we are co-ordinating with other friendly navies in the region; and that our embassy in Nairobi (in the absence of one in Mogadishu) closely monitors the issue."

An email sent to India’s high commissioner in Kenya, Sibabrata Tripathi, remained unanswered till late on Wednesday.

India cannot send back the arrested Somali nationals to their country because the African country’s government is thought to be too weak to enforce the rule of law.

“You cannot continue twiddling your thumbs. These are no sporadic events and (the country needs) an (anti-piracy) law to be passed," said a retired naval officer, who asked not to be identified.

Ships held by Somali pirates


Seized on 25 December 2009. The Yemeni-owned ship was captured in the Gulf of Aden after it left the port of Alshahr in the eastern Yemeni province of Hadramaut. There were six Yemeni crew on board.


Seized on 1 January 2010. The British-flagged vehicle carrier was hijacked about 1,500km north of the Seychelles. The 25 crew consisted of eight Bulgarians including the captain, 10 Ukrainians, five Indians and two Romanians.


Seized on 2 February. The Libyan-owned ship was seized in a strategic channel south of Yemen. It said it was flying a North Korean flag, but was owned by White Sea Shipping of Tripoli. It carried a crew of at least 10, all Syrian.


Seized on 1 March. The Saudi-owned tanker had one Greek and 13 Sri Lankan crew members.


Seized on 5 March. Pirates hijacked the Marshall Islands-registered tanker off Madagascar. It was carrying fuel oil from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Tanzania and had a crew of 21. The tanker is owned by Norway’s Brovigtank.


Seized in March. The Spanish-owned fishing vessel carried 10 Kenyans, one Spaniard, one Pole, one Cape Verdean, a Namibian and two Senegalese. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme said it could be used as a “mother ship" to launch more attacks.


Seized on 23 March. The ship was Maltese-flagged and was hijacked off the Indian coast with a crew of 21—19 Turks and two Ukrainians.


Seized on 29 March. Pirates boarded the roll-on roll-off vessel 15km outside Aden port. The ship carried 24 crew.


Seized on 31 March. The small Indian trade boat was captured after it left Mogadishu port, having unloaded food and medicine there. It carried a crew of 11.

In late March Somali pirates captured seven other Indian dhows, together with around 100 crew. Three were freed in early April. Maritime advocacy group Ecoterra said the pirates were holding six more cargo dhows.


Seized on 4 April. The ‘Samho Dream’ was en route to the US from Iraq when it was hijacked 1,600km east of the Somali coast. The Marshall Islands-registered ship is South Korean-owned, had a crew of five South Koreans and 19 Filipinos and carried two million barrels of crude oil. On 21 April, Somali pirates threatened to blow up the supertanker unless a $20 million ransom was paid.


Seized on 11 April. The St Vincent and the Grenadines-flagged cargo ship was hijacked about 450km west of the Seychelles. The ship is owned by Seychelles’ Rak Afrikana Shipping Ltd.

Three Thai fishing vessels

‘Prantalay’ 11, 12 and 14 were hijacked over the weekend of 17-18 April with a total of 77 crew.


Seized on 21 April. The Panama-flagged bulk ship with its crew of 21 Filipinos was captured 300km south-east of the Omani port of Salalah.


Seized on 7 May. The Yemeni fishing boat was seized off the coast of Yemen with its crew of seven Yemeni fisherman.


Seized on 11 May. The ship, with 15 crew , was seized about 160km east of the Yemeni port of Aden.


Seized on 12 May. The Liberia-flagged, Greek-owned ship had 24 people on board, two Greeks and the rest Filipinos.


Seized on 2 June. The Panama-flagged cargo ship was seized inside an internationally recommended transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden. It carried 24 crew from Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ghana.