Why would they blow themselves up? Why wouldn’t they just surrender? That was the question asked by those insisting that the government story, about Coast Guard officials intercepting a boat that allegedly had Pakistani terrorists on board on 31st December last year, was true. The government claimed that authorities had warned those on board to stop, having got a tip-off, but the boat tried to evade pursuit and then the crew went below deck and set the boat on fire.

The incident brought up lots of questions, from what exactly the tip-off was to why a small fishing trawler was able to evade a modern Coast Guard interceptor, there were lots of reasons to doubt the government’s story – and people did. One response stuck though: If they were not terrorists, why did they blow themselves up?

“I think they were suspected terrorists as they committed suicide,” said defence minister Manohar Parrikar soon after the incident. “A normal boat even carrying drugs can surrender… why would the commit suicide?"

Small-time smugglers

Take away this one portion of the story and an entirely different theory can take its place. Consider the one reported on by the Indian Express’ Praveen Swami: that those on board were just small-time liquor and diesel smugglers.

Swami’s report coincided with most of the details giving in the Coast Guard’s official statement regarding the incident. The Coast Guard noted getting intelligence inputs about an “illicit transaction” in the Arabian Sea, with no mention of terror. The boat was then pursued by the Coast Guard, and naturally attempted to evade them.

The only part that didn’t fit with this story was the suicide move. And now there’s reason to doubt that too. Video released by the Indian Express shows a Coast Guard Deputy Inspector General saying that authorities intentionally blew up the boat.

“Let me tell you,” said DIG BK Loshali. “I hope you remember 31st December night… we blew off that Pakistan… We have blown them off… I was there at Gandhinagar and I told at night, blow the boat off. We don’t want to serve them biryani."

National Interest

Reaction to any suggestion that the Coast Guard might have erred with what came to be known as the "terror boat" incident was swift and fierce. Commentators on the Right and in  government considered it to be equivalent to working against national interest. Workers of the Bharatiya Janata Party even burnt pictures of Swami outside the Indian Express offices in Delhi.

Now, however, there are signs that Swami might have been on to something. Loshali's comments suggest that the authorities chose to blow up the boat rather than bring those on board in. And he was making this at an official Coast Guard ceremony. A few commentators did indeed suggest that that's what might have happened, especially since the Coast Guard, which is actually not responsible for protecting the borders -- that's the Navy's ambit on the Arabian Sea -- might not have been prepared to endanger their own safety by attempting to apprehend those on board.

The ministry has rejected all of Loshali's claims, saying it will carry out an inquiry against him if necessary. Parrikar called it a "case of indiscipline" and insisted that the government stands by the statement it released earlier. Loshali in a written that his remarks were misconstrued.

"I had made the statement that anti-national elements do not need to be served biryani and to be handled as per the law. As a matter of fact, the operation was not being handled by me and was spearheaded by Commander, Coast Guard Region (NW) and ops team being classified in nature, I was not privy to it completely. I reiterate the boat set herself on fire and was not sunk by the Coast Guard."

But the seed of doubt has been planted here, and since the Coast Guard also claimed that there was no evidence left behind of the boat itself, it's impossible to ascertain what caused it to sink. The already murky episode just got murkier.