Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone are accused of shooting and killing two Indian fishermen off the coast of the southwestern state of Kerala in February 2012, apparently mistaking them for pirates. After spending much of the past year in the custody of the government of Kerala, the men were allowed to return to Italy last month to vote in the Italian elections. Earlier this week, however, Italy announced that the marines would not be returning to India.
The matter was further complicated Thursday when India’s Apex Court ordered Italian Ambassador Daniele Mancini not to leave the country, prompting some to accuse Delhi of breaching the Vienna Convention, which forbids the detention of diplomats. The Telegraph reported that although Mancini has diplomatic immunity, he is liable for prosecution in India due to signing a sworn affidavit on February 9 stating that he would personally ensure the return of the marines by March 22.
Opinion in India is so polarized on the issue that it has become difficult to hold rational and informed debate. Further, domestic political imperatives are making it even more difficult for the government to engage Italy in a meaningful way. The opposition and many media outlets are demanding stern action against Rome for insulting the country without properly considering the Italian argument.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
From the beginning, Italy has insisted that the matter is subject to international law and should be resolved according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Rome argues that the killings took place in international waters, which are not under India’s jurisdiction. Local politics in Kerala kept New Delhi’s hands tied, however, leaving the sensitive issue to drift for almost a year. In January, a special court was set up to try the marines.
According to an article in The Indian Express, India can be faulted for allowing the incident to escalate in the first place. By allowing the Kerala government to talk it up, New Delhi limited its own room to maneuver. The article suggests that a quick investigation by the Indian navy and coast guard could have dispensed with the issue.
Another editorial published in The Asian Age argues that when Rome disputed that the incident occurred in Indian waters, the correct course of action would have been to set up an impartial international mechanism to establish jurisdiction. It is perhaps this pressure that prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to warn Italy of potential consequences for not cooperating.
But this is not the first time that domestic political bickering has gotten in the way of India’s foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives. Last year, India and Bangladesh failed to sign the Teesta water-sharing agreement in the face of fierce opposition from West Bengali’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. By not signing, India failed to honor a commitment to a sovereign government. Likewise, India’s relations with Sri Lanka and Pakistan have been strained by nationalistic politics and New Delhi’s interference in normal diplomatic relations.
In the case of the two Italian marines, the Congress and Left parties, Kerala’s two main political groups, have sought to get political mileage out of the international dispute, which reflects poorly on India as a nation.
To be sure, the Italian government is also at fault for breaking its commitment to India. On March 18, the marines’ one-month stay in Italy comes to an end. If they don’t return after that, which seems likely, the relationship between the two countries will enter new territory. Both sides would be advised to proceed carefully.