Anything India does in the case of the fugitive Italian marines will have to be shaped by a simple truth: no Indian must be harmed.
For, that is where it will eventually play out if the standoff doesn’t ease.
Indians would mean anyone with citizenship of India, living in India or outside. In an extended sense, this would include Persons of Indian Origin [PIOs] in Italy – people who migrated from India and are now Italian citizens.
India is now reviewing the 'entire expanse' of its relationship with Italy.
It is doing so because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said there will be consequences of Italy reneging on its word in a double-murder case.
Two Indian fishermen were murdered in February 2012 near Kerala by Italian marines on board a commercial carrier. The marines said they thought the fishermen were pirates.
The Italian ship was reported to be 22.5 nautical miles off the coast of Kerala. Up to 12 miles are Indian territorial waters where Indian laws operate.
From 12 to 24 nautical miles is the contiguous zone – an area where India laws related to customs, taxation, immigration and pollution may be enforced.
This contiguous zone is also called a hot pursuit zone because a state [in this case India] can get after perpetrators if an infringement occurs.
From 24 to 200 nautical miles is the Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ] in which a coastal nation [here, India] has sole right to exploit natural resources.
Beyond 200 nautical miles are international waters.
The classification of waters is under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS], which is in force since 1994.
India says it can try the Italian marines because they killed Indian citizens in the contiguous zone – the hot pursuit zone.
Italy says Indian laws don’t apply because the killings happened beyond India’s territorial waters.
The case of the marines is now under the Supreme Court of India, which allowed the marines to return to Italy so they could vote in their election.
The Supreme Court allowed them to leave after the Italian ambassador guaranteed their return.
Now, the new Italian government – formed after the election in which the marines voted – says the marines will not return.
India says the Italian ambassador – Daniele Mancini – has to get the marines back and answer to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court of India has asked Mancini not to leave India until it allows him to.
Italy says its ambassador has diplomatic immunity from the courts of India.
All this has upset India, which is reviewing the entire gamut of its relations with Italy.
Doing so means India is prepared to go all the way. There is no Indian ambassador in Italy right now. Basant K Gupta, who was to take up the position by early April, might in all probability be asked to wait.
India could strip ties with Italy down to just formality – existing on paper at the lowest minimum level. Or it could formally end everything by shutting offices in Italy and asking Italy to do likewise in India.
In essence, it would be war minus the shooting. The priority then would be to keep Indians unharmed.
So what exactly does India have with Italy?
Rome is not a priority destination for New Delhi. Most ministerial activity happened in 2011 when five Indian ministers visited Italy. Two Italian ministers came to India last year.
Visits of Indian prime ministers and presidents to Italy are rare; the last was in 2009 for the G8/G5 summit [Manmohan Singh].
Romano Prodi was the last Italian prime minister to come to India in 2007.
The UPA I government signed a dozen bilateral treaties and agreements with Italy, the last in 2009. UPA 2 has not signed any.
The treaties are on fishery, conservation of paintings at the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, science and technology, audio-visual production, railways, renewable energy, agriculture, customs, culture, and relatively important ones on political cooperation, and international terrorism and transnational crime.
There is some interest on the agriculture front because Rome is headquarters to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation [FAO], the World Food Programme [WFP], and the International Fund for Agricultural Development [IFAD].
India is an elected member of governing bodies at all three agencies.
Economically, there is some meat to the India-Italy equation although not much. For the past 25 years, India has had the edge in trade.
In 2011, India exported stuff worth 4781.62 million Euros to Italy. It imported stuff worth €3740.09 million. This means it’s 1041.53 million Euros for India.
India mostly sells refined petro products, textiles, vehicles, footwear, leather goods, jewellery and gems, chemicals, medicines, marine products and agricultural products.
India mostly buys machinery, plastic products, chemical products, auto components, iron and steel, measuring instruments, medicines and leather products.
Italy is India’s fifth-largest trading partner in the EU; it is the 12th largest investor in India.
Not many Indians seek to migrate to Italy although the number of Indians in Italy is about 10 to 15 times the number of Italians in India.
A 2001 report of an Indian High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora said there were 36,000 PIOs and 35,500 NRIs in Italy – just about 0.063% of Italy’s then population.
The number is believed to have doubled to about 135,000, most of them from Punjab and Kerala. There are barely a thousand Italians in India.
These are the people New Delhi has to worry about.
Morally, India has the edge.
By 1945, 5,782 Indian soldiers had died in Italy during World War II – fighting to keep Italy free. Six of them were honoured with the Victoria Cross.
Indian soldiers were buried over 40 cemeteries in Italy. There is no record of Italians dying while fighting for India.
The past and present are on India’s side. Even ignoring all that, it’s a simple matter of conduct, crime, and punishment.
Even Italy doesn’t deny their marines killed Indian fishermen. That, by any definition, makes them perpetrators.
But Italian politicians, media and many others rushed to treat the marines as heroes.
They were keen to be photographed with the marines.
The marines were treated as celebs.
Imagine India doing that with Indians guilty of murder in another sovereign nation.
Thus far, India has conducted itself with grace and dignity although it was naive to allow the marines vacation time and believe the lies on Italian voting laws.
Italy has lacked character, until now.
In such situations, two things seem to enforce appropriate behaviour: the ridicule and pressure of the international community, or a far stronger and unbeatable opponent.
At the moment, Italy thinks India is not strong enough.
The rest of the world has much on its hand to worry about already.
As always, India might have to rely on itself. A bit of spine may not hurt.
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Vijay Simha is an independent journalist and sobriety campaigner based out of New Delhi. His most recent journalism assignment was as executive editor with The Financial World, New Delhi, and tehelka.com.
He was a guest on Season 1 of the popular Indian TV show Satyamev Jayate, hosted by Aamir Khan.
Vijay blogs here and may be contacted at email@example.com.