'The fact that Sonia Gandhi heads the ruling (Congress) party is not an irrelevant issue in this case.'
Some months ago, the marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were charged with the murder of two Catholic fishermen off the Kerala coast. The marines were part of a protection force on board an Italian oil tanker, and they said that they had mistaken the fishermen for pirates.
Many questions were raised then. What was the tanker doing so close to the Indian shore, a point which was way off its course? How could the marines assume that the fishermen were pirates when Indian coastal waters were completely free of them? This was no pirate territory, no way.
Italy objected to the marines’ arrest contending that the incident had taken place in international waters over which India had no jurisdiction. Hence, the country had no right to try the marines.
Strangely, both the Indian government and the Kerala administration did not, it seemed, know how to handle the murders. A strong public protest in Kerala for the slain fishermen, who were really poor, drove the administration to arrest the marines.
But soon after that, the Indian Supreme Court allowed the marines to go home for Christmas on the explicit understanding that they would return to Kerala to face trial, and that they would travel under the control and custody of the Italian ambassador to India.
The marines returned to Kerala all right.
But I wondered then why the court had let them go home for Christmas celebrations, when the dead fishermen themselves were Catholics, when their families would mourn a dark Christmas.
The court could have, instead, asked the marines to spend the Christian festival with the families of the dead, praying for their souls.
In February, the marines again petitioned India’s Supreme Court seeking to visit Italy to cast their votes. Which they could have done even through postal ballot.
But they went back home.
Nobody knows why the court allowed them to go back to Italy. Was the court ignorant of the existence of the postal ballot? Or, was pressure brought upon it by New Delhi?
The marines have now refused to come back to Kerala and face trial.
The Italian ambassador who had, this time too, taken the responsibility for the return of the marines appears to have given a false undertaking to the Supreme Court. Rome has lied. So has the ambassador.
In a hard-hitting comment, the Firstpost says: “The temerity with which the Italian government has cocked a snook at India and its laws is matched only by the utter pusillanimity with which the government of India has so far been handling the issue of the Italian marines… After leaving our shores last month with the explicit permission of the courts on the plea that they were going home to vote, the Italian government has now brazenly informed us that they won’t be returning to India. The Italian foreign ministry has basically told us to go jump.”
Probably taken aback by the huge public protest over Rome’s impertinence, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Parliament on Wednesday that Italy would have to face the consequences if the marines did not come back.
But what can New Delhi do if the marines do not return? Precious little, I would think. It could break off diplomatic ties or snap/downgrade trade with Italy.
A more sensible approach will be to petition European Union of which Italy is a part. But will EU really intervene at all here?
Ironically, New Delhi has been messing up every time Italians have been involved.
In the 1980s, New Delhi let the principal accused in the Bofors gun bribery scandal, Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrochi, escape India. During the recent AugustaWestland helicopter corruption scandal, Rome refused to share details with New Delhi. And, now the Italian marines’ issue.
Referring to the latest goof-up, the leader of the opposition in India’s Parliament, Arun Jaitley, recalling Ian Fleming’s words in a James Bond film, quipped on Wednesday: “If it happens once, it could be chance; if it happens twice it could be coincidence; but if it happens for the third time it is an enemy act.”
In the same comment, Firstpost makes another damning point: “We can speculate till kingdom come about whether this deliberate mishandling of the Italian marines issue and their trial in Indian courts is due to, or in spite of, the fact that an Italian-born woman is the country’s most powerful politician. We can even spin conspiracy theories, since we are involved in another tangle with the Italians over the AugustaWestland chopper payoffs, but the fact that Sonia Gandhi heads the ruling (Congress) party is not an irrelevant issue in this case.”
And this is precisely the sub-text. And in this case, the sub-text seems more important than the text itself.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]