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Kerala fishermen's killings: A crisis beyond diplomacy

February 23, 2012 20:45 IST

If only the Italians had accepted that it was a wrong judgement on the part of the crew of the ship, apologised and offered adequate compensation, the matter could have been resolved. But their whole approach has been defiant, says T P S Sreenivasan.

Bewilderment was writ large on the faces of the hundreds of famished, half-naked and sun-drenched fishermen, who awaited the arrival of the bodies of two of their kind, Ajesh Binki and Gelastine, on the Neendakara beach near Kollam in Kerala on February 15.

Death and destruction are not uncommon in their daily struggle with the sea, and loss of lives in the outer sea is a way of life for them. But death from the bullet shots from a foreign ship was a new experience, which they could not comprehend.

It was a rude shock for them, whose safety net consisted only of superstitions and blind faith in the 'mother sea', who protected and punished.

An Italian oil tanker, the MV Enrica Lexie, with a crew of 34, including 19 Indian sailors, was travelling from Singapore to Egypt close to the Indian coast around 1630 hours, when it noticed an Indian fishing boat, the St Antony, approaching it.

According to the ship's captain, Umberto Vitelli, the boat appeared menacing and, fearing that it was a pirate vessel, the Italian security men opened fire after giving the customary warnings to the boat.

Freddie Louis, the owner and captain of the fishing vessel, on the other hand, claimed that in the broad daylight, there was no reason for suspicion and that the 'trigger-happy' Italians shot at his boat without any warning.

The two versions of the incident vary in details, such as the location of the two vessels at the time of the incident and whether the international norms relating to piracy situations were observed. The Italian ship was seen to be speeding away from the scene rather than going to the help of the fishing boat it had attacked. But no one disputes the fact that two innocent Indian fishermen fell victim to indiscriminate firing by Italian gunmen.

There should be no two opinions about the need to investigate the incident, punish the guilty and pay compensation for the loss of lives.

The incident has, however, spun out of control for a number of reasons. The public outrage in Kerala over the action of a foreign ship against the fishermen was instant and intense.

Without giving much credit to the Indian Navy and the Coast Guard, which managed to bring the ship to the Kochi port, the call was for immediate retribution. The normally lethargic Kerala police swung into action to question the captain and the crew and to arrest the gunmen.

The government in the state and at the Centre did not want to be seen to be indecisive in defending national interests in the middle of a crucial bye-election campaign in the state. The Opposition propaganda was that India would not be able to stand up to the Italians, quoting the Quattrochi case as a pointer.

Italy's unrepentant efforts to rescue their ship and crew have added fuel to the fire. Italy maintains that the incident took place in international waters and, therefore, India has no jurisdiction.

The Indian position, which has overwhelming support in the country, is that the criminal act of cold-blooded murder of the fishermen should be dealt with according to Indian laws, without any diplomatic interference.

The police and legal authorities in Kerala are proceeding on that basis. The gunmen are in police custody and orders have been issued to search the ship and confiscate the guns. Italy prefers a diplomatic solution.

Moreover, Italy has been harping on the excellent relations between the two countries, which should not be harmed by this incident. The array of senior Italian diplomatic officials moving in and out of South Block is a clear indication of the intense diplomatic pressure being mounted on the central government.

India has not shown any sign of relenting on the due process of law being applied in this case.

A particular irony in this case is the recognition and reputation that India has gained in its fight against piracy, primarily from Somalia, in the Indian Ocean. The alertness of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard has won international approbation.

In fact, shipping circles say that foreign ships stay close to Indian territorial waters because of this confidence. To imagine that a slow fishing boat with an Indian flag may have been a pirate ship is seen as the height of irrationality.

The redeeming factor in the Italian case is only that there could not have been any ulterior motive in the killing of the Indian fishermen. If only the Italians had accepted that it was a wrong judgement on the part of the ship's crew, apologised and offered adequate compensation, the matter could have been resolved.

But their whole approach has been defiant, and this has left the Government of India with no option but to let the law take its course with no political or diplomatic intervention.

With the arrival of the Italian vice-foreign minister on the scene, there is hope that matters will be resolved to mutual satisfaction. But the situation may have already been complicated by the cases registered by both sides and a compensation case filed by the wife of one of the deceased.

The ship remains detained in Indian waters and the gunmen are in police custody. The issue will not be resolved on the basis of bilateral relations or diplomatic negotiations.

A hint given in Rome by a recently installed Indian cardinal, Mar George Alancherry, that nothing should be done to hurt relations with Italy created a stir even among the believers, prompting the cardinal to deny any such advice. Only a settlement with the involvement of affected families and local authorities can help in the highly explosive situation.

The sooner this is done, the better it will be for India's relations with Italy and the rest of Europe.

The position of the government so far has won some kudos, but the moment it tries to resolve the issue diplomatically, the ghosts of Bhopal and Bofors will be resurrected to destroy the government's credibility. The people of India will be convinced once again that India is incapable of safeguarding its own interests.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; member, National Security Advisory Board; member, India-UK Roundtable; and director general, Kerala International Centre.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here

T P Sreenivasan