There is absolutely no doubt that the new government in Rome has acted in bad faith in refusing to send back the two marines charged with murdering Indian fishermen in 2012. Over a year ago, just off the coast of Kerala, the Italian troopers had apparently mistaken some Indian fishermen for pirates and gunned down two of them. They were subsequently arrested but insisted the incident had taken place in international waters. The Indian government has disputed that and said it took place in this country’s maritime zone.
The marines, Salvatore Latorre and Massimiliano Girone, had been allowed to go home for Christmas and duly came back. Less than two months later, they were sent home again to vote in elections on 22 February but did not return as promised. Nobody in New Delhi seemed to notice and all hell broke loose only on 11 March when the Italian foreign ministry told India the marines were not returning.
Expectedly, a political storm has resulted. In Kerala, the Congress-led United Democratic Front government is embarrassed and the CPM and the Opposition have grabbed their chance. In New Delhi, the murmurs about the Congress’ Italian and the controversial AgustaWestland helicopter deal have given the BJP enough fodder. Yet, it is important to delink political positioning and the odd conspiracy theory from the facts of the case as they are known. These facts alone leave the UPA government with many questions to answer.
On 18 January, the Supreme Court ruled the Kerala government, which had originally arrested the marines, had no jurisdiction given the nature of the alleged crime. As such, it directed the Union government to set up a special court in consultation with the Chief Justice of India and push for an expeditious trial. This was only fair. Indians are used to long-drawn court battles, but given the profile of the case, the Italians and the world community could not be expected to wait forever. A special court and a fast-track trial were deemed necessary.
However, the government did not move. It did not protest, raise an objection or suggest hard counter-guarantees from the Italian Embassy when the Supreme Court heard a petition by the marines asking they be allowed to go home and vote. In the virtual absence of an argument from the prosecution — representing the UPA government, as the Kerala government had been told it had no jurisdiction — the Supreme Court allowed the marines to go home on very easy terms.
As such, those who now say the Italian government has betrayed the Supreme Court have a point. Nevertheless, by acts of omission at least, the UPA government facilitated that betrayal. This is a key point and will continue to haunt the Congress.
There is a larger issue as well. In a time of 24×7 media frenzy and increasing domestic political pressures — whether from the families of the fishermen in Kerala or presumably from the military and the families of the marines in Italy — the autonomy national governments once had with regard to international relations has inevitably been constricted. For instance, New Delhi experienced this following the violence against Indian students in Melbourne in 2009-10. It was always on the cards that the Italian marines’ episode would renew itself as a political battle, either in India or in Italy, where some populist politician would insist the two remand prisoners had been in Indian custody for too long and demand that “our boys should be brought home”.
This is exactly what has happened. It need not be fair or just or honest; but nevertheless it is a reality, and a reality that was predictable. Did the UPA government not anticipate such pressures? Did it not want to prevent their occurrence by putting down rigorous systems for a quick trial? Did it learn nothing from how media and news-channel coverage can easily overstate a foreign policy issue, as happened with Australia and China in recent years? Did it absorb anything from the Raymond Davis incident in Lahore and fear for a recurrence, not in a controlled polity like Pakistan’s, but in India’s near-anarchic democracy?
Finally, just why did it trust the Italian government so much?