Ever since the fall of the Roman empire some two millennia back, Italian military prowess — except against defenceless villagers in Ethiopia — has been a delight to their foes. During World War II, every time his Italian allies attempted a conquest, they got into such a hole that Adolf Hitler had to use up substantial German strength to rescue them. Italy is a charming country, with a population that is a treat to befriend, despite the risk of having your bag stolen or your pocket picked, as happened to this columnist while on a visit to another country whose citizens don’t believe in paying taxes if they can get away with evasion. However, the country still funds a navy, despite its consistent record of military disasters. And now, the Italian Navy has struck again, this time off the coast of Kerala, in the process reducing the population of India by two.
Even by the standards of the Italian Navy, the 15 February incident is extraordinary. The naval officers on board the Enrica Lexie saw a small boat, clearly a fishing vessel that is incapable of survival on the high seas, and mistook it for a pirate vessel. Somali pirates may be facing problems in getting an adequate return on their investment in equipment, but even the least successful of them would sneer at suggestions that they use a vessel as tiny as the “St. Antony”, on which 11 fishermen were aboard, nine of them visibly asleep. The other two were steering the vessel when the huge Italian tanker came athwart them, and sharpshooter fire resulted. Unless the Italian Navy has discovered a technology that makes guns look like fishing nets, it ought to have been clear to even the Italian crew that (1) the vessel was too small to be a pirate boat and was (2) obviously one of the numerous fishing vessels that dot the waters around where the Italian ship was proceeding. Certainly the St. Antony could not have been the first Kerala fishing vessel seen by the naval gunners on board the foreign vessel, as there were dozens of similar boats on the waters that day. Of course, it is possible that the naval officers mistook Malayalam for Somali, that is, if they heard any conversation at all. If they did, it must have been because of super-efficient hearing devices invisibly inserted into their aural cavities, for there was no way a human voice could have travelled the distance between those on the fishing vessel and the deck of the Italian tanker. A tiny vessel all the way from Somalia, and with nine crew members visibly asleep on board. To all except the Italian Navy, it ought to have been obvious that pirates do not fall asleep just minutes before they attack a ship, unless of course those pirates are from the Italian Navy. However, our intrepid naval officers turned their attention to the two fishermen steering the St. Antony. Both were busy at their task and neither they nor anybody else on the vessel was carrying any weapons. This being the case, it is difficult to comprehend why the Italian captain and his gunners thought that they were in such life-threatening danger that they had to take two human lives. Could it be that they were certain that no harm would come to them in India, a country where Italy wields great influence? What seems clear from the episode is that some Italians believe that they have the same rights in India as they once had in Ethiopia, and that those responsible for the murder of two Indian nationals will soon be sent home. Once there, it will be a matter of days before a local court determines that they acted in “self-defence”.
Will our own Saint Antony ensure that justice is done, or will he too wilt under pressure from Rome and its influential friends in this country? A.K. Antony knows well the fisherfolk who daily set out to sea from the beaches of the state. It must be clear to him that the excuse of the Italians, that they believed that they were under attack, is specious. That the fishermen were shot almost in sport. On the same day as the murder of the two fishermen, a US court sentenced a Nigerian national to spend the rest of his natural life in jail, because he tried to blow up a US airliner. The court needs to be congratulated for its vigorous response to what could have been a dastardly act of terror. In the Indian case, there have been deaths, caused for no reason other than a disregard of human life in an environment very far from home. No effort was made by the captain of the Enrica Lexie to contact the Coast Guard or to parley with those on board the fishing vessel. The strategy was to shoot first and ask questions (of the dead) later. The Italians responsible for this fully expect to be released after a token appearance in court or a police station. If this happens, it will be clear that the life of an Indian has much less value, not only to the Italians or to the US Department of State, but to the Government of India headed by Manmohan Singh, and who has A.K. Antony as the Defence Minister.
Dropcap OnThat the Italian Navy is generous with untruths has become clear from the hysterical claims of the captain to Italian media that his ship was “attacked with bullets” and sought to be boarded by “fierce-looking pirates”. The Coast Guard vessel that inspected the Italian tanker after the incident confirmed that there was not a single bullet hole on the hull of the huge ship. If there indeed was firing, it would be the first case of firing by non-existent guns. Firing that was so clumsy that not a single shot hit the huge target that was presumably being fired upon.
That actual pirates ought to be severely dealt with is a proposition that few would contest. They need to be intercepted and engaged, and if such encounters result in the demise of some pirates, that needs to be accepted as the cost of war. Navies across the world need to hunt out and destroy the pirate gangs preying on vessels, including some plying close to the Indian cost. However, this cannot excuse the murder of two innocents by a bunch of trigger-happy navy personnel who have given anti-piracy operations a bad name. Unless those responsible are put away for a long stretch of imprisonment, the perception that an Indian life is a zero value even to our own government will gain traction. The US verdict against the Nigerian “underwear bomber” is a lesson in accountability that authorities in India need to follow.