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Mainstream, VOL L, No 17, April 14, 2012

The Fishermen’s ‘Dilemma’ between India and Italy

Saturday 14 April 2012



The alleged ‘counter-piracy’ incident that happened in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Kollam in Kerala several weeks ago does not show any sign of ending. This ‘incident’ resulted in the death of two innocent Malayalee fishermen who had set out in a boat along with nine other fishermen from the Neendakara fishing harbour near Kollam. The incident blew into a major diplomatic row between India and Italy as the culprits responsible for the death of the two fisher-men were identified as Italian marines who had been posted as securitymen aboard the Italian registered cargo vessel Enrica Lexie to ostensibly protect the ship from the Somalian pirates that operate in the western Indian Ocean. They apparently mistook the two men who were piloting the boat for pirates and shot them dead.

The incident has raised many questions as Somali pirates do not usually operate so far south and east of their traditional bases along the East African and Yemeni coasts of the Arabian Sea. There have been cases recently of Somali men and boats being seized by the Indian Coastguard and Police off the coast of Kerala and the Lakshadweep islands. These were generally seen as isolated cases of either fishermen or supposed pirates been swept far off their accustomed routes through no intention of their own. Questions were also raised as to how the Italians could have mistaken the Malayalees for Somali pirates so far to the south and east of their traditional piracy zones. The incident took place on February 15. The two marines were taken into custody by the Kerala Police on February 20. The Foreign Ministries of both countries got involved in this issue but could not come to a satisfactory solution till date for all the parties involved in the incident.

The Italians at first took a very light view of the incident and even sought to bully India into letting their men get back to Italy without facing charges or being tried here in India. In fact the Italian Foreign Minister Guilio Terzi sought to explain away the incident as having been triggered by the international alert against piracy in both the western and eastern halves of the Indian Ocean. He also called for greater coope-ration with India in dealing with the scourge of piracy in the area.1

THE Italians have expressed regret for the incident and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Italy has sought to meet the families of the two men killed in the incident. The Italian Deputy Foreign Minister has been making regular trips between India and Italy to try and get to a solution for the issue. In fact on his latest trip, he tried to meet the kin of one of the killed fishermen in Kollam, Valentine Jalastine.2 It is significant that Valentine was a Catholic from Kollam’s very influential Latin Catholic community that is predominantly composed of people from the fisherman ‘Mukuva’ SC (LC) Community in Kerala. The Italians are actively pursuing the Church angle, given historic Italian and Vatican linkages with the Latin and Roman Catholic Churches in Kerala. Kerala is practically the only State in India that has a plethora of autonomous Catholic rites predomi-nantly composed of members of one particular community or caste. While the Syrian Christians are represented by two autonomous churches under the suzerainty of Rome, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankar, the ‘new’ converted Christians in the Catholic fold are represented by the Latin Catholic Church that functions under the direct authority of the See of Rome. It is to this Church that both the dead fishermen belong to and this Church was mentored, developed and governed till around over half-a-decade ago by the Italian Bishops only.

However, the Catholic Church in Kerala has been forced to keep out of the controversy given the serious nature of the issue as well as the competing jurisdictions of three different Catholic rites in Kerala, each with a different heritage while all owing ultimate allegiance to the See of Rome. Caste politics has also played a role in this issue, with the dominant Catholic rite in Kerala being predominantly composed of the upper-caste Syrian Christians, while the ‘Latin’ Catholic Church in Kerala was predominantly composed of people from the ‘oppressed’ classes of Kerala that had converted to Christianity to escape the rigid Kerala caste system over the last couple of centuries. In fact when the recently crowned ‘Cardinal’ of the Syrian Catholic Church, Mar George Alenchery, who happened to be in Rome attending his Cardinal investiture ceremony, when the incident took place in Kerala, offered his good offices as a mediator between the Italians-Vatican and the fisherman community in Kerala, there was an immediate backlash with the Latin Catholic Church asking the Syrian Bishop to keep his hands off the issue which concerned their own flock and not his.3 Given the sensitivities of the people and particularly that of the ‘Mukuva’ community to which both the fishermen belonged too, there is a limit beyond which the Church cannot and will not go, at the risk of being branded anti-national and agents of a foreign power.

THE issue is presently in the hands of the courts in Kerala and it remains to be seen what views the court will come up on this issue. The two marines, instead of being lodged, as the case would usually be, in a jail, had been kept in the relative comfort of a CRPF guesthouse in Kochi. The judicial custody of the two marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, ended on March 5 and a two week additional extension in custody was granted by the relevant Chief Judicial Magistrate with the order that the two men be transferred to the main Central Jail at Poojapura in Thiruvanan-thapuram, pending a decision into their fate by the relevant Kerala High Court that is considering their case.4 The Italian official view has been that the ‘incident’ took place in international waters off the coast of India and so should be viewed and resolved according to international law. India has contended that the ‘incident’ took place well within the Indian exclusive economic zone according to the Laws of the Seas and also involved an attack on an Indian vessel, albeit civilian, and so should be tried under sovereign Indian jurisdiction in Indian courts under the Indian Penal Code.

The Indian authorities have also had to contend with the strong public anger against the incident in Kerala whose highly politicised and pro-gressive public opinion could not tolerate such an aggressive act against members of the fisher-men community that play such an important role in the food-market economics of the State. The Indian Foreign Ministry as well as the State authorities led by Chief Minister Oomen Chandy stood strong on the point that the two erring marines would have to face trial in a Kerala court over the shooting incident off the coast of Kerala. They were also charged under Section 302 of the IPC which amounted to culpable homicide.5 The Chief Minister, himself an upper-caste Syrian Christian, has gone on record as stating that the two erring Italian servicemen need expect no leniency from the courts.6

The whole issue, other than the immense tragedy that the loss of two young working men’s lives has meant to their respective families as well as to the state, both the Centre as well as Kerala, that saw a foreign power commit coldblooded, albeit possibly not premeditated, murder at our own doorstep, has highlighted the extent to which the Western powers and in particular the Western ‘Christian’ powers are prepared to use old colonial ‘religious’ linkages for their present convenience and benefit, as and when the opportunity arises for them to do so. The law, as applicable according to the Indian Penal Code, should be allowed to take its course. India cannot afford to allow its fishermen to be killed so callously on the pretext of piracy and watch the perpetrators get away without paying the price for their thoughtless actions, whatever and whoever they might be. Indians do not generally indulge in piracy and our forces have been involved in fighting piracy on two fronts, in the Western Arabian Sea as well as along the Malacca straits in the eastern Indian Ocean. If this wanton act of aggression against our nationals on our own coastline and well within our exclusive economic zone is not punished as befitting our present power and status, other nations will also be tempted to repeat the same along our coasts in the name of combating piracy or even worse. The law must be allowed take its course as regards the two Italian servicemen who killed our citizens along the coast of Kerala on the night of February 15, 2012.

1. ‘Italy, India fail to resolve high seas shooting case’, Deccan Herald, New Delhi, February 28, 2012.
2. ‘Sad at not being able to meet Valentine’s kin: Italian Minister,’ The Hindu, March 5, 2012.
3. ‘Is Cardinal Alencherry more loyal to Italy than Kerala?’ M.G. Radhakrishnan and Sandeep Unnithan, India Today, February 24, 2012. Available at
4. ‘India’s move to jail sailors unacceptable: Italy’, Reuters, March 6, 2012.
5. ‘Italian marines to be tried under Indian law: Antony’, Ashok Tuteja/Tribune News Service, Chandigarh, February 27, 2012.
6. ‘Fishermen killing: No leniency to accused, says Oommen Chandy,’ Press Trust of India (PTI), Thiruvananthapuram, March 5, 2012.

Dr Samuel J. Kuruvilla is a Visiting Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

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