Italy lied to us: Will we hit back or stay a banana republic?

The Italian government's decision to not allow its marines to return to India for trial will establish India as a banana republic if we don't act tough. And the Congress boss has to be upfront on this.

R Jagannathan March 12, 2013 11:11:13 IST
Italy lied to us: Will we hit back or stay a banana republic?

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. A Reuters report quoted an Italian foreign ministry source as saying: “Italy has informed that given the formal initiation of an international dispute between the two states, the marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone will not return to India.”

And what is the Indian external affairs ministry’s response? “We have received a communication from Italy late tonight (Monday). We will examine it carefully.”

Italy lied to us Will we hit back or stay a banana republic

Italian marines with the Italian defence minister in 2012. Reuters.

What is there to “examine carefully”?

Clearly, the Italian government has lied to the Indian courts about its intentions. The Italian embassy had given a false undertaking guaranteeing the return of the marines. When the Supreme Court, headed by none other than Chief Justice Altamas Kabir and two other judges, allowed the Italian marines to leave India, it had specifically indicated that they would travel under the control and custody of the ambassador of Italy in India.

It is now clear that the marines, who killed two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast in February 2012 by firing indiscriminately from the Italian ship Enrica Lexie, were merely testing India’s will when they earlier went home for Christmas. Having established that they could come and go easily, they were certain that they could get away with it. This is why they are not coming. They know we are pushovers.

It speaks much for the complete lack of self-respect that the government thinks it has to formulate a nuanced position on this complete breach of trust by the Italians. What is there to think about: this is an open-and-shut case of contempt of our courts, our people and our country by the Italians.

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 inspite 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 Agusta WestLand chopper payoffs, but the fact that Sonia heads the ruling party is not an irrelevant issue in this case.

It may be entirely true that Sonia Gandhi has nothing to do with the case, but has she made this clear to the government and given it a free hand? Given that the Congress has a high-command culture – a fact attested to by her own son Rahul - it is far from certain that the government really thinks it is free to act in this issue of national honour without looking over its shoulder at the party boss.

As an elected member of Parliament who holds cabinet rank as Chairperson of the National Advisory Council, Sonia Gandhi is expected to uphold the Indian constitution. She has to speak up and tell India that she stands four square behind our laws and our courts and will not rest till the Italian marines are brought to justice in India.

In fact, she should go even further: she should use her Italian connections to ensure that the marines return. If she does this, she will have proven where she stands.

However, we have not heard one word from Sonia for over a year on this issue. Or, for that matter, on the earlier one where the UPA government unfroze the accounts of Ottavio Quattrochi, a friend of the first family, in the Bofors case.

But, of course, the matter goes beyond Sonia Gandhi. Unlike her, the executive has even less reason to pretend that it cannot act. It is duty-bound to.

There is only one response India needs to give if it is to prove that it is not a banana republic: a tough one.

A tough line would call for some or all of the following:

First, the permission given by the Supreme Court, which also was conned by the Italians, to let the marines go to Italy to vote must be instantly revoked and the two declared as absconders. Interpol must be alerted to apprehend them for crimes committed against Indian citizens.

Second, India must not only send a strong diplomatic demarche to the Italians, but also make it clear that Italy will pay a stiff price for this act of deliberate perfidy. It must make it clear to the Italian government that henceforth no Italian company will ever be given a contract by the government. All existing deals will be reviewed.

Third, India must downgrade its diplomatic representation and/or use its leverage with other western powers to make Italy see reason. The Italian ambasador to India, who clearly must have known about the Italian government's plot, must be asked to leave the country for breaching its trust. (India has an ambassador-designate for Italy, Basant Kumar Gupta, and his first job must be warn Italy to return the marines or else...).

The underlying issue is this: this is a clear case of unstated racism, where a western nation is telling us that it will not allow its citizens to be judged by a nation of colour, even though its marines came close to our waters and shot two of our unarmed fisherman in the belief that they were pirates. Let's remember: the Italians don't think the marines must not be tried; its just that they can't be tried in India. That is as racist as it can get, even if the matter is couched in legalities about jurisdiction.

It could have been an honest mistake, but that is for the courts to decide. But by absconding, the presumption now must be about guilt and mala fide intentions.

India cannot shilly-shally on this issue. It has to show some spine and steel.


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