The Indian Coast Guard (ICG) has sacked a senior officer and is about to initiate court martial proceedings against another later this month in what is being termed as an unprecedented action against its own for a hit and run case at sea in which six fishermen were killed off Goa in April 2013.
The sacked officer, holding the rank of a Deputy Inspector General (DIG), was the Commanding Officer of then to-be commissioned Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) Vaibhav and the other is a Commandant rank holding officer who was the then the ship’s Navigating Officer (NO). The DIG was slapped with a total of eleven charges, all under the provisions of the Indian Coast Guard Act 1978 of which seven were proven and four weren’t. Those proved pertained to negligence and failure in performing duty whereas the ones not proved pertained to falsification of government documents.
This action takes place at the culmination of a 21-month long legal process which saw the ICG wresting the case away from a Mumbai-based Metropolitan court and initiating its own proceedings in Goa.
A senior officer aware of the entire proceedings said, “A very strong message has been sent to the rank and file. In my so many years of service I have never come across such a strong punishment.”
At 5:15am on April 25, 2013, Goa Shipyard Limited-built offshore patrol vessel Vaibhav (which was about to be commissioned) was on its way to enter the harbour for its commissioning ceremony.
While cruising at a speed of over 20 nautical miles per hour (1 nautical mile equals 1.85km), the ship brushed a fishing boat ‘Sea Messiah’, 13 nautical miles off the Betul coast in Goa. Instead of stopping and rescuing, the ship sped away. Of the total 29 fishermen onboard, six were killed and the rest were rescued by another fishing boat ‘Anna Mariya’.
Subsequently, the ship failed to even report the incident.
However, at 1130am on the same day, Coast Guard District Head Quarters-11, based out of Goa, received a distress call for search and rescue operation. The initial suspicion was on a naval vessel. While the ICG sent a helicopter and a ship to the site of the incident, it began examining all the records at its disposal to track the suspect vessel. At the end of the exercise, the only ship in that region at the time of impact was found to be Vaibhav. On searching the ship’s log, examining the crew and the ship’s hull, its involvement was more than clear. The DHQ 11 immediately recommended an inquiry to its Western region HQ.
· Accident took place – April 25, 2013
· Board of Inquiry commenced proceedings – May 2013
· Coast Guard took over the case from Metropolitan Court in Mumbai – September 2013
· Trial by a Coast Guard court was approved – October 2014
· Court Martial convenes at Goa – November 2014
· Punishment of dismissal and 6 months simple imprisonment awarded to the Commanding Officer (CO), a DIG rank officer – 16 January 2015
‘Got away leniently’ says former Coast Guard Law Officer RTPS Tulsi
Q. Your views on the incident and the punishment meted out.
A. The nature and gravity of incident indicates that the conduct of the high ranking CO of the Coast Guard Ship was totally unbecoming. His conviction for 7 out of 11 charges is proof that an exemplary punishment was called for.
Q. Is there anomaly at work here, in your opinion?
A. The anomalies in Court Martial or equivalent tribunals such as a Coast Guard Court are inherent. The procedure of trial by Court Martial under the Navy Act,1957 incorporates better constitutional protections than under the Coast Guard Act, 1978 which is admixture of BSF Act and Navy Act. Central Government/Director General Coast Guard has power to order retrial but do not have power to enhance punishment which is provided under the Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007 but applicable only to Army, Navy and Air Force.
Q. Are there legal loopholes that you believe need to be filled up?
A. The constitutional protections provided under the Navy Act/Regs are more in tune with civil laws. For example section 114 of Navy Act gives powers to the Trial Judge Advocate which is similar to that of a Judge under section 298 of Criminal Procedure Code but not incorporated in the subsequent enactments. Coast Guard Court proceedings do not require confirmation and provide for their judicial review as under the Navy Act but not so provided under the Army, Air Force, BSF, ITBP, NSG, Assam Rifles, SSB laws. The legislative discrimination in the laws in given facts amounts to denial of their fundamental rights in violation of constitutional limitations. The Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007 needs to be extended to all these Armed Forces.
Q. What is your personal view on the punishment meted out?
A. The punishment awarded is very lenient. Higher the need for discipline besides higher the rank stricter the punishment principle should have been adopted in terms of object of article 33 of the Constitution.
RESPONSE RECEIVED FROM COAST GUARD HQ, NEW DELHI
“FOLLOWING THE INCIDENT OF COLLISSION, DIST HQ 11 ASCERTAINED THAT THERE WAS NO NAVAL SHIP IN THE AREA, HOWEVER, ICGS VAIBHAV (YARD 1205) WAS SAILING IN THE SAME AREA. ON ENQUIRING BY DHQ 11, THE COMMANDING OFFICER, ICGS VAIBHAV INTIMATED THAT SHIP HAD BRUSHED ALONG A FISHING BOAT DURING EARLY HOURS OF 25 APRIL 2013. DHQ 11 DIRECTED ICGS VAIBHAV TO FORWARD A DETAILED REPORT. THE REPORT, LOG BOOK, AND PLOT CONFIRMED THAT THE SHIP WAS INVOLVED IN COLLISSION AT THE SAID POSITION. DHQ 11 INFORMED THE INCIDENT TO RHQ(WEST) WITH RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONVENING A BOARD OF INQUIRY. SUBSEQUENTLY, BOI WAS CONVENED.”