Kerala murders: Why should we kowtow to one of the PIIGs?

As in any good thriller, there is little dispute about the facts: two Indian fishermen in a small boat were shot and killed by Italian navy personnel attached to an Italian merchant ship. The incident happened some 20 nautical miles off Ambalapuzha, and the boat had put to sea from the fishing harbour at Neendakara, near Kollam.

The Italian merchant ship Enrica Lexie is anchored off the larger port at Kochi, some 100 miles north of Kollam, and the two Italian sailors have been brought to Kollam. They are remanded, and not arrested: apparently there is some important distinction between the two.

There is, however, considerable confusion about the interpretation of the event. A diplomatic row has now erupted over whether the duo should be tried for murder under Indian law, or whether this must be decided in Italian courts.

From the Western perspective, the Italians were justified in their actions, because they thought the fishermen were pirates. And since they are concerned that their countrymen will not get due justice in India (we have all seen the movies about innocent white people incarcerated in hellhole prisons in developing countries), they would rather have the trial held in ‘civilised’ Italy. Hence the Italians are demanding diplomatic immunity.

To add to the pressure and the outrage, Italian netizens are calling for a boycott of Indian products. Frankly, I wonder who will be hurt more if there is a counter-boycott – surely India buys far more Italian stuff than vice-versa.

From an Indian point of view, however, it seems mighty unusual that the Italians opened fire without warning: normal maritime practice suggests that even pirates or other undesirables be given notice before the application of deadly force.

Besides, there have been no incidents of piracy this close to the Indian coast, and it is presumptuous to assume a priori that the intent of the small boat – which nobody claims had machine guns or other armaments on board – was mala fide.

To a neutral observer, this might appear to be an open-and-shut case of maritime law: while the shooting happened outside India’s territorial waters, an Indian-registered ship is deemed to be sovereign Indian territory. Therefore an assault on it by a foreign power could well be seen as ipso facto a hostile act. The observer might even grant that this is in effect a minor act of war!

 Kerala murders: Why should we kowtow to one of the PIIGs?

The Italian merchant ship Enrica Lexie is anchored off the larger port at Kochi. AP

Thus, it would be fair for India to act as the aggrieved party, and demand restitution and compensation under international law. But then, India has been known – pathetically – to not worry about the rights of its citizens (or of those of Indian origin). It is easily cowed by foreigners. Off the top of my head I can remember several occasions when India looked on haplessly while its citizens or diaspora were massacred or brutalised:

• Pakistanis invaded Mumbai on 26 November 2008
• Bangladesh returned the bodies of several Indian soldiers trussed like pigs on bamboo poles
• Air India’s Kanishka aircraft was blown up in the sky by terrorists; Canada allowed the subversion of the investigation
• Navroze Mody, Khem Singh and Charanjit Singh Aujla, in separate incidents, were killed in the US, the last two by law enforcement officers
• Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda
• British immigration authorities imposed humiliating ‘virginity inspections’ on Indian women marrying men in the UK and immigrating there

And conversely, foreigners who wreak havoc and mayhem in India get off scot-free:

• Italian arms merchant Ottavio Quattrocchi was allowed to escape with his ill-gotten gains, with what looked like the active cooperation of Indian police
• British perpetrators of an illegal arms drop in Purulia, West Bengal, were let off
• The lone captured gunman from 11/26, Kasab, a Pakistani, is being treated with kid gloves, with amicus curiae demanding that he not be hanged

These incidents could be considered indicative of a poor Indian self-image: somehow the Indian government is incapable of (and uncaring about) the human rights of its own citizens; it is far more worried about being given certificates of good conduct by the ‘international community’.

This is a hangover from the bad old days of Nehruvian internationalism, which made the nation a laughing-stock (sort of like the laughable and bumbling Indian character HV Bakshi in Peter Seller’s rude The Party).

In the 1970s, India was a banana republic, so Sellers might have been justified. But things are a little different now; Italy is one of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) – little countries that are on the verge of financial meltdown and oblivion. As compared to India, which, if you believe Goldman Sachs, is poised to overtake the US as an economy in a few decades. India would be justified in throwing its weight around a little.

But beyond that, there is a tremendous amount of politics going on here, and the participants have not covered themselves with glory. First, the Manmohan Singh government has been limp-wristed; it should assert India’s sovereignty and demand an apology and reparations.

In case they want precedent, see how Pakistan bullied the Americans over the deaths of 24 of their soldiers recently; or how the Chinese have bullied and shamed the Japanese for 80 years over the ‘Rape of Nanking’. But then, India has never even managed to get an expression of regret over Jallianwallah Bagh.

Second, there is the Vatican, known to get outraged whenever there are allegations of human rights violations concerning Christians in India. For instance, the establishment went ballistic over the alleged rape of a nun in Jhabua (which turned out to be a lie).

How come the same outrage does not manifest itself when Catholic fishermen are shot by Italians? Is there some ‘understanding’ between the Vatican and Italy about murdering third worlders? And it would be worthwhile knowing what the newly-elected Cardinal from Kochi thinks about all this? Will he stand for Indian interests?

Third, there is the strange case of the Kerala government led by the Congress’ Oommen Chandy. To be fair, they have not done anything deplorable, but they must surely be thinking of themselves as suffering from collateral damage. For, this government has a razor-thin majority of one seat, and there is a by-election coming up (caused by the death of a Congress minister).

If the CPI (M) manages to win this by-election, that might make Oommen Chandy’s tenure unviable, and the Kerala government may well be on a razor’s-edge, vulnerable to whimsical and opportunistic independents in case of a vote of no-confidence.

It is fair to wonder whether the small evidence of backbone being shown by the Central Government is because of this fact. They know that the Communists will make enormous amounts of noise about colonialism and Italian imperialism: this incident must be like manna from heaven for them. The Kerala government is, anyway, under pressure in the Mullaperiyar issue, where it is, with justification, seen as having caved in abjectly.

That might well explain why this affair was not swept under the carpet and forgotten – the Communists can be trusted to rake it up. Surely, they cannot be blamed, although the casual observer might feel cognitive dissonance when the Communists wrap themselves in the Tricolor, abandoning their usual Red and China-worship.

There is a further irony. Kerala usually alternates between a Communist and a Congress government, with the current bunch being kicked out in a serious trouncing every five years. So it was the turn of the CPI(M) to be decimated last year. But oddly enough, they managed a decent showing, even though the electorate was sick and tired of their constant bickering (between then-CM Achuthanandan and party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan).

The Communists benefited as the selection of Congress candidates was so poor that even safe seats and sure shots were put in jeopardy. If I am not mistaken, ‘youth’ candidates were put up and ended up being made mincemeat of.

Thus, the dilemma that the Congress faces in Kerala – do nothing and the government may fall; do something and relations with Italy and, by extension, the West will suffer – is due to their own incompetence. Surely, there is poetic justice in this somewhere. Not that that will make amends for the families of poor Gelestin and Pinku, the dead men.

Updated Date: Feb 22, 2012 12:02:36 IST