Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Latest E-book | Subscribe to Newsletter

Why Italy agreed to send back marines to India

The Italian government's decision to return the two Italian marines to India to face trial for the murder last year of two fisherman off the Kerala coast represents a stunning reversal of its indefensible stand of last week. It also represents a loss of face for the Italian government to be seen publicly to be yielding ground to India on a matter on which it had taken a grandstanding position.

After all, the marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, had been given something of a heroes' welcome back in Italy, and particularly after the Italian government announced it would not return them to India, they had been feted by, among others, the Italian President and government leaders.  With its taken the stand that the marines would not be submitting themselves to the jurisdiction of Indian courts, and that Italy would take the matter for arbitration in international fora, Rome had painted itself into a corner - which is why its latest move will likely be read as capitulation to India.

There is something to that assessment. But it's just as true that Italy was forced to yield ground on the basis of three considerations. The  first, the most proximate reason, relates to the "ample" - and written - "assurances" offered by New Delhi over the past week that the marines' human rights would be adequately protected and that they would be treated well. India had also assured the Italian government that the marines would not face the death penalty - which assurance actually counts for less than what it seems because there wasn't the faintest chance that the marines would have been sentenced to death.

The onus is on India to now subject the marines to a speedy - and fair - trial. AP

The onus is on India to now subject the marines to a speedy - and fair - trial. AP

More extraordinarily, under the political arrangement that has been worked out between India and Italy, the marines will reside in the Italian embassy in New Delhi during the pendency of the trial, according to officials quoted by news agencies. That is an extraordinary concession for undertrials, even though the marines had even earlier been put up in relative comfort in guest houses, not in the hellholes of our jails.

In any case, under the terms of an agreement signed between the two countries last year (which India ratified in November 2012, propitiously timed for the marines to benefit), both countries had agreed to let nationals convicted in the other country to serve their prison terms in their home countries. As this report notes, under the agreement, "a person sentenced in the territory of one contracting state may be transferred to the territory of the other... in order to serve the sentence imposed on him."

The second reason for Italy's capitulation may be the virtual shellacking that its Ambassador to India received last week from the Supreme Court for violation of the written assurance he had given to the court that he took responsibility for the return of the two marines from Italy, where they had travelled to vote in the general election there.

The Supreme Court's strident observation - and its somewhat contestable decision to bar the Ambassador from leaving the country - came following  by Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy's intervention in the Supreme Court. Although Swamy did not have sanction from the Attorney-General to file a contempt petition, he asked the Chief Justice of India to take suo motu cognisance of the matter and prevent the Ambassador from leaving.

If the Italian Ambassador had opted to leave India in defiance of the court restraint, it would have left the Manmohan Singh government between a rock and a hard place - of having to decide between implementing the Supreme Court's order and abiding by a larger commitment to the Vienna Convention, which provides untrammelled diplomatic immunity to the Ambassador. But it appears that the Italian government, sensibly, decided against another act of brinkmanship that would have compounded its initial folly.

The third consideration that probably weighed with the Italian government was the ratcheting up of political pressure within India, which gave the Manmohan Singh government very little elbow room. Any transaction connected to Italy puts the Manmohan Singh government on the defensive, given that it is the country of origin of Sonia Gandhi. (And given the record of how Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, a close family associate of Sonia Gandhi, was allowed to leave India even though he was wanted in the Bofors kickback case, that cynicism isn't entirely unwarranted.)

Under those circumstances, of course, the political  pressure on the Manmohan Singh government proved decisive. As this report observes, "it was clear that the Congress-led UPA coalition realised the damage potential here: the Italian marines issue could easily snowball into a major controversy, straining not just the diplomatic ties between the two countries but also the Congress's chances in the general election less than a year away."

The Indian government was under pressure to escalate the dispute with Italy by, if necessary, blacklisting Italian companies from participating in any bids in India.

It is fairly certain that the Congress will go to town today to project this as a success of its tough stand with Italy. But even today, it is hard to escape the conclusion - despite what seems, on the surface, to be total capitulation by the Italian government - that the resolution is the product of a backroom deal. For the price of its about-turn, Italy has received written assurances about the mariners' well-being - and extraordinary concessions about their residential arrangements of the undertrials.

The giveaway in the matter was Sonia Gandhi's uncharacteristic intervention. No country could get away with trifling with India, she thundered. For a woman who typically maintains a Sphinx-like silence on public policy matters, even when she has much to answer for, this was a remarkable outburst. It now appears, with the power of hindsight, to have been propitiously timed for her to gain credit for what was evidently being negotiated behind diplomatic doors.

In any case, having secured the Italian marines back, the onus is on the Indian government to ensure a speedy - and just - trial. It has thus far been dragging its feet in the matter, failing to act on the Supreme Court's directive in January to set up a special court to try the marines. It has a lot of ground to make up, and this time the unblinking attention of the Supreme Court and the political establishment will be trained on it.