By Kallol Bhattacherjee
Dropping anti-piracy charge against Italian marines triggers a political flare-up
After many months of diplomatic tug-of-war, a problem solver for India-Italy ties seems to have realised at the Supreme Court. On February 24, Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati favoured dropping the charges under the stringent anti-piracy law against Italian marines Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, who shot two Indian fishermen off the Kerala coast. The possible application of this law had caused a major diplomatic tension between Rome and New Delhi, with Italy stressing that it would amount to equating Italy with a terrorist state.
India’s ties with Italy had hit a new low when on February 18 Italy called back its ambassador Daniele Mancini, protesting the delay in the hearing of the case in the Supreme Court. Italy had appointed foreign under-secretary Staffan de Mistura as a special envoy on the case. He, too, left India with Mancini.
Italy’s position in the case hardened after the recent change of government there. The new prime minister, Matteo Renzi, had hinted that his government was exploring ‚Äúnew initiatives‚Äù in the case. The marines, who were guarding the privately owned Italian-flagged oil tanker Enrica Lexie when the shooting happened, are kept in the Italian embassy in Chanakyapuri.
The government’s new stand has triggered a flare-up between External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and former home secretary R.K. Singh, who is now a BJP member. While Khurshid took a dig at Singh saying the decision to apply the Suppression of Unlawful Activities Act was taken by ‚Äúthe person who was in the hot seat‚Äù, Singh said ‚Äúsuch a case is not dealt in isolation by one high official of the government.‚Äù
Singh, however, believes that the new development could weaken the Indian position in the case. ‚ÄúTwo investigating agencies in the case, the Kerala Police and the National Investigation Agency, have upheld the use of the SUA Act,‚Äù he said.
The case had started damaging India’s ties with the European Union. ‚ÄúMost of EU trade is maritime trade, where anti-piracy security operation plays a big role. So the case has a potential of going out of control,‚Äù said a European diplomat in Delhi who did not wish to be named. He observed that the EU was concerned about the case being handled by the NIA, which handles terrorism cases.
The war of words between Khurshid and Singh seems to be a political spillover and is likely to continue with the legal course of the case. Ironically, it reconfirms the Italian position that the case has taken this long because it got stuck in the electoral politics in India.