The agent in Belapur, Mumbai, had told R. Thandapani he was going to serve on a small-size, bulk cargo ship — the type that transports coal, grain and metallic ore all over the world. Nearly five years after doing his qualifying-level shipping course and paying several lakhs of rupees to agents, as well as serving as a trainee seaman for nine months for apprentice wages, Mr. Thandapani thought he was finally going to board a merchant ship as a certified Able Seaman.
The $800 Mr. Thandapani, from Dindigul, was going to earn every month for the next year was a dream come true. His father had died when he was 18 years old, and his mother had worked at a spinning mill to raise him and his two sisters. And with the salary he was going to start earning, Mr. Thandapani was planning to pull himself out of poverty.
Serving on the Seaman Guard Ohio as a seaman, however, got him and 11 other Indians entangled in a criminal case that became an international controversy. Four years, time in prison, loss of income, devastated families and mental trauma — the seamen faced it all. They were finally acquitted by the Madras High Court on November 27.
When Mr. Thandapani reached Singapore in the February of 2012, he realised he had been duped. The ship was more of a boat. The new owners were refitting it, and he discovered what it was going to be a vessel that would ferry security guards to big ships.
He served on Seaman Guard Ohio for a year, doing six-hours-on, six-hours-off duty every day — chipping, painting and helping out.
The ship would typically drift in the Persian Gulf, receive security guards on anti-piracy duty who were disembarking from big ships coming from Africa and take them to Africa-bound ships, to which they would provide protection against Somalian pirates.
Security guards on merchant ships came in the public eye in India when two Italian marines on board a merchant ship allegedly shot dead two fishermen off the coast of Kochi around the same time that Mr. Thandapani joined Seaman Guard Ohio. While that incident sparked a major diplomatic and legal controversy, the impact of anti-piracy operations in shipping was then being felt in India, in a negative way.
Though the salary was good, Mr. Thandapani realised when he signed off after a year that the sea time he had put in at Seaman Guard Ohio did not quite count as experience on ocean-going ships, and jobs were hard to come by on other merchant ships.
So when the call came from the owners of Seaman Guard Ohio to work again on the ship, he accepted it, albeit with some reluctance. He rejoined the ship in August 2013 in Kochi. The owner, AdvanFort, had ordered the ship to drift on the sea between India and Sri Lanka for operations — taking on board anti-piracy guards disembarking from east-bound ships and boarding them on west-bound ships headed towards the Red Sea. “I resumed my duties again on the ship — chipping, painting and helping out as per instructions,” Mr. Thandapani says.
Radhesh Dar Dwivedi had heard about Somalian piracy and security guards on ships. In March 2013, the resume of Mr. Dwivedi, a seafarer since 1998, was picked up by an agent who told him he was going to join a utility ship in Oman, which Seaman Guard Ohio wasn’t. But seeing security guards on the ship getting on and off of big merchant ships belonging to well-known companies, Mr. Dwivedi decided that there was nothing wrong in serving on such a ship as second officer. “The ship would often see at least one ‘operation’ a day,” he said.
Things fall apart
In October 2013, on the sea between India and Sri Lanka, Mr. Dwivedi said he was sending frequent emails to the owners of Seaman Guard Ohio about how the ship was running out of fuel. First, the owners told him the vessel should sail to Maldives but later asked them to go to Thoothukudi outer port limit, where they would receive bunker (fuel).
However, the events that unfolded were far from routine. The Indian Coast Guard seized Seaman Guard Ohio, brought it to Thoothukudi port, and Mr. Thandapani, Mr. Dwivedi and 10 other Indians, besides 23 foreigners, were charged with illegally procuring fuel while in Indian territorial waters, conspiracy and illegal possession of weapons.
Over the next four years that included nearly two years of jail, all the 35 on board the ship, including 12 Indians — eight seafarers and four ex-servicemen who were providing anti-piracy protection — were dubbed criminals until the Madras High Court acquitted them at end of November this year. A key finding of the court supporting the acquittal was that anti-piracy operations were legitimate and the ship, even if it was in Indian coastal waters, was in “innocent passage” and no threat to the peace and security of India.
For the ship’s crew and guards, between 2013 and 2017, families to be cared for, money to be spent on travel and stay during hearings, and being put through a roller-coaster ride of hope and despair were only some of the troubles.
What was particularly galling for K.V. Prakasan of Kannur, a security guard on board Seaman Guard Ohio, were media reports that described the men as terrorists planning an attack on the Kudankulam nuclear plant. “I have served for 16 years in the Indian Army, including in the NSG. How can my patriotism be questioned?” wondered Mr. Prakasan, whose father died soon after the trial court convicted him and others in January 2016. “I decided not to ask for permission to go to my father’s funeral. I didn’t want to see the humiliation my family suffered,” he said.
“Six British security guards on the ship became heroes in their homeland and a campaign was launched to bring them back home. In India, our people were either forgotten or condemned,” said K. Sreekumar, inspector of International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), a global union federation that represents some 16.5 million transport workers all over the world.
Mr. Sreekumar said ITF doesn’t get involved in criminal cases concerning seafarers. In the case of Seaman Guard Ohio, however, he persuaded the union to pitch in because he was convinced of their innocence and they had been left adrift as the owners stopped supporting the crew and guards after the trial started. ITF provided financial help, including arranging lawyers.
Keeping up the morale of the prisoners and the families was key, says Manoj Joy of the Seafarers’ Society, an international organisation that supports seafarers in distress. “The families would often say they wanted to commit suicide, and I would ask them who would be there to support their husband or father after his release,” he said.
Mr. Dwivedi’s apartment in Kalyan had to be sold to support his family, consisting of his wife and two school-going children. His wife had to sell her jewellery and loans had to be taken, he said.
Nearly every seafarer on Seaman Guard Ohio faces the same predicament. Picking up the pieces of their lives is a daunting task, they say. Mr. Thandapani, now 31, says the last four years have been traumatic, although he is determined to go back to shipping after revalidating his certificates so he can pay off his loans.
“It’s as if somebody tied our eyes and left us to wander in the forest,” he said, recalling a Tamil proverb.