The killing of two fishermen by security personnel on board the Italian merchant vessel off the coast of Kerala has given rise to a needless high-stakes diplomatic wrangling between India and Italy.
With an Italian delegation arriving from Rome and holding talks with officials in the Ministry of External Affairs, the focus, which should have been on investigation in Kerala, shifted all of Sunday to the back-channel diplomacy in New Delhi.
With the detention later on Sunday of the two Italian Navy personnel who stand accused of having opened fire on a fishing boat off the coast of Kerala, the investigation to establish the facts of the case – which constitutes the due process of law – now gets a fair chance.
The matter was compounded because security guards on Italian merchant vessels are members of the Italian Navy, not private security providers.
For all of Italy’s robust intervention in defence of its citizens, and for all the emotional response within India to what is perceived as “interference”, the matter has to be addressed by unemotional forensic investigation, not high-decibel histrionics.
Such an investigation has its task cut out to establish the following points.
Firstly, where did the alleged incident, in which the Italian security personnel opened fire on the fishing vessel (killing two fishermen), occur? Did it happen within Indian territorial waters, in which case Indian law prevails, or did it happen in international water, in which case Italian law prevails?
Only a clinical examination of the GPS coordinates of the ship and of its log books can establish this. These would have to be cross-verified with other available information on the ship’s precise location. Clearly, that is the most important consideration in the case.
Secondly, even if it occurred in Indian territorial waters, was it a case of unprovoked firing – or was it a response to a feared attack by pirates?
Other fishermen who were on the attacked fishing boat claim that the firing was unprovoked. The Italian side has not exactly embellished its case with its initial claim that their ship was fired upon. Ballistics tests can establish the veracity of that claim, but from initial accounts, it appears that whereas the fishing boat had as many as 16 bullet holes, the merchant vessel does not bear any signs of having been fired upon.
If it is established as unprovoked firing within Indian waters, a case for murder is established.
The Italian side’s claims that the security guards opened fire in self-defence, fearing a pirate attack, can only be established if it is borne out that due international protocol in such events was observed. The ship’s log would, in that event, establish that the captain sent out an emergency signal and gave orders.
Again, these require cold, clinical forensic analyses, which have been delayed for four days while the diplomatic parleys were going on.
The Italian side also claims that the autopsy reports on the two fishermen who were killed were not made public. Even an iron-clad case on behalf of the fishermen can be compromised by such slippages, and the Kerala police authorities should ensure that their investigations are procedurally sound.
Lastly, the episode raises several other issues, which go to the shared anxiety among the entire maritime community – the very real threat of piracy to maritime commerce, and the inadequacy of Indian legislation to protect its fishermen while also ensuring that its waters are free of pirates.
The drama also gives reason for the international maritime community to review the protocol that governs putting armed men on merchant vessel, and the circumstances in which they can put their weapons to use.
Lastly, what should have been a routine police investigation has given way to suggestions that India was soft-pedalling the issue under Italian pressure, which in turn has sought to be politicised given Sonia Gandhi’s Italian ancestry.
Some thunderous media editorials that have been too quick to brand the Italian security guards as “trigger-happy” “mafiosi” clearly overstate the case. Up until now, from all available evidence, Indian officials have played with a straight bat, prevailing upon the Italian side to cooperate with the due process of law.
In the end, it’s not about politics or about diplomacy. Only a police investigation that is insulated from such external pressures can do full justice to the case.