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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 16, April 6, 2013

Italian Marines’ Case: Is India a Soft Nation?

Friday 12 April 2013


by Hamid Hussain

The title of this article emanates from an NDTV India debate on March 16 on an identical title in which I participated. This being a serious foreign policy issue, it needed a greater degree of introspection and dissection in the print media. Misdirected economic measures of the UPA Government have led to the slowing down of economic growth, placing its GDP growth rate at merely five per cent—the lowest in the decade. A faulty agricultural policy has resulted in absolute stagnation in agriculture across the country bringing down the agricultural growth rate to one per cent as against 2.2 per cent population growth rate. Similarly, dubious Defence preparedness vis-a-vis threat perceptions with acute shortage of spare parts and ammu-nitions, controversies at the highest level—involving either the retired Army Chief or Air Force Chief—and kickbacks in various Defence deals have brought down the morale of the armed forces to an all-time low. Internal security is plagued by the terrorist and Naxal menace and consistent intelligence failure.

Still India sustains, as institutions and mechanisms operating the security apparatus form a large part of the bureaucracy providing an inbuilt system of internal and external security. However, without national commitment and far-sightedness of the political leadership at the helm, the forces—paramilitary, military and police—would be directionless and less effective, and economic agencies would fail to deliver. That is the case with the Indian Government today. Lack of such commitment and political will is writ large on it. On top of it, what is most worrying, however, is this: India, which was considered a strong nation enjoying immense moral prestige on international issues, now seems to be pursuing a weak foreign policy, incapable of handling global matters concerning itself and protecting its own citizens.

Letting out the Italian Marines on parole—and they would have continued to be at large had there not been immense political, public and media pressure on the government to act—and earlier letting off the culprits of the Purulia arms’ dropping case, Italian national Quattrochi, involved in the infamous Bofors’ deal, and Anderson of Bhopal gas tragedy show an identical pattern of slackness and leniency, knowingly or unknowingly. A nation’s bounden duty is to safeguard the life of its citizens and integrity of the nation. The pattern reflects that our nation as well as our government seem to be dithering, if not failing.

If we look at the Italian Marines’ issue as a test case, we find the Central Government faltering at many stages of its development. When two fishermen were killed by the Italian Marines off the Kerala coast, the Central Government failed to appreciate the import of the issue and formulate adequate response to it. It could not view the matter in the correct perspective and accordingly move the Apex Court which has apparent jurisdiction over it. The case was initially tried in the Kerala High Court infruc-tuously, though the mishap had taken place beyond twelve nautical miles from the coast. This logically required the Union Home Ministry to take up the case suo moto in consultation with the Ministry of External Affairs with the Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction over it on three important grounds—(a) the act having been committed against Indian citizens, (b) the act having been committed within the exclusive economic zone of India which stretches up to 200 miles beyond the defined territorial boundary, and (c) India being the nearest country from the place of commission.

In addition, these facts needed to be brought to the notice of the Italian Government which is disputing on the ground of jurisdiction and pleading for a diplomatic solution to the problem. It was the Indian Government’s moral responsi-bility to guide the Italian Government accordingly and bring home the point that criminal cases have no diplomatic solutions. These must be tried in accordance with the law and in a court of law. That the matter is a mistake of facts, as claimed by some judicial luminaries, is difficult to believe, as there was no evidence of non-lethal warning and lethal warning prior to pumping numerous bullets on the victims and the boat carrying them, evidently amounting to cold-blooded murder. The Indian judicial system is known the world over for fair and impartial trial based on the ‘theory of natural justice’ under Article 311 of the Constitution, the ‘procedure established by law’ and the ‘due process of law’. On the contrary, criminal cases in Italy are piling up—each case taking at least five years for disposal—rendering judicial protection meaningless in the light of proverb ‘justice delayed is justice denied’. The govern-ment’s failures on this count smack of a lackadaisical attitude. The element of Italian connection through the UPA chairperson adds another dimension to the issue. The Quattrochi case and the recent helicopter deal make the connection murkier. To add salt to the injury, the Additional Solicitor General, while pleading the case on behalf of the Central Government, most irresponsibly opined that it might not fall within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, only to be snubbed by the Court asking him if at all he was pleading on behalf of the Italian Government. This renders the government’s intention vulnerable and questionable.

It is conveniently, but certainly irresponsibly, pleaded by the Central Government that this time the Italian Marines were allowed to go on parole by the Supreme Court and the government had nothing to do with letting them go on the plea of enabling them to vote in their country’s general election. It is surprising that the Central Government did not counter the plea of the Italian envoy. It would have done better by directing its Solicitor General or Attorney General to apprise the Apex Court that as the Marines are in the pay-roll of the Italian Navy, they were entitled to vote through postal ballot which did not require their presence in Italy. Otherwise also, there are lakhs of prisoners in this country—already convicted or under trial—who would like to exercise their voting rights through the ballot box. Should they all be allowed to go out for the purpose? Earlier, when the Marines were allowed to go on Christmas vacation, ‘diplomatic contractual agreements’ were signed by the respective consulates with a security bond of six crore rupees. In the latest case, no such contractual agreement was entered into to ensure greater degree of security and the possibility of their return. Instead it was based on a mere solemn pledge to the Court by the Italian ambassador, Mancini, who otherwise enjoys diplomatic immunity from proceedings under the Vienna Convention. Thanks to unprecedented pressure on the government compelling it to shed its casual approach, the Marines will now be facing trial before a special court in New Delhi. But the moot question is: why should not the government act correctly and decisively suo moto and ipso facto instead of waiting for the pressure to build up and if there is no pressure act casually or differently?

This is not an isolated case. In July 2012 Indian fisherman were killed and wounded, off the coast of Al-Jebel port of Dubai, by American Marines, and yet the Indian Government showed a “let-it-go attitude”. Many fisherman, more often than not, are harassed, arrested and imprisoned by Korean and Sri Lankan naval and commercial ships, merely to discourage them from fishing to earn their livelihood. This generally happens in Indian waters where we have exclusive economic interests. Precious little is being done by our government to counter these—leaving our fisherman at the mercy of foreign mercenaries. All these render our foreign policy pursuits weak—incapable of protecting the life, liberty and genuine economic interests of its citizens. Withdrawal of the DMK from the UPA Government is a direct fall-out of the Indian Government’s failure in protecting its citizens and standing by an ethnic minority in the neighbourhood in a situation when nefarious attempts are underway to wipe out the latter. A weak foreign policy often erodes the public and political support base of the government. No wonder the UPA Government has been reduced into a minority government with dwindling support in the Lower House.

The list of inadequate and poor responses of this government in its foreign policy pursuits is a long one—ranging from inadequate response to the frisking of our former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, and Indian cinema idol, Shahrukh Khan, at American airports and vandalism against Indian students in Australia to Pakistan’s tacit support for terrorists working against India and allowing its territory to be used for such heinous purposes.

Post-independence Indian foreign policy was bold and pragmatic—admired and emulated by a large number Afro-Asian countries. India thus emerged as the natural leader of the non-aligned countries with its non-aligned policy—fighting against colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, arms-race, superpower domination, discrimi-natory world economic order and hegemonism. The international fora witnessed meaningful contributions from Indian delegates on every important international issue. This lasted for almost half-a-century. Emphatic declaration of its non-aligned policy in the bipolar world order dominated by superpower rivalry, its Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union and successful assistance to Bangladesh thereby ensuring its freedom from Pakistan, the refusal to sign the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), and the subsequent Pokhran blast while clarifying our position of peaceful use of nuclear energy, launching a crusade for disarmament etc. had elevated India’s stature to extraordinary heights in the international political and diplomatic arena.

But, the 21st century witnessed cracks in India’s effective and dynamic foreign policy. The basic postulates of our foreign policy were drawn from our experiences, positive attitude, spirit and actions, the basic structure and philo-sophy of our Constitution and the legacy of our freedom struggle. These postulates seem to have been given a go-by, as a result of which the country appears to be compromising on vital issues of national interest and pursuing a different foreign policy. There is an inherent need to reorient our foreign policy actions to make them coherent, uniform, sustainable and effective, regardless of some aberrations in the course of their execution. That will be in our inherent national interest, as that would enhance the reliability, acceptability and uprightness of our nation—so essential for a country aspiring to be an economic superpower by the middle of this century.

Dr Hamid Hussain is an Executive Member, Biju Janata Dal of Odisha, and a former Director, Ministry of Defence.

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