Italian Marines' Return to India Defuses Spat

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Italy's government moved belatedly last week to defuse a diplomatic standoff with India by agreeing to send back two Italian marines who had shot dead two fishermen off the coast of India in February 2012.

The marines were standing trial in an Indian court and had been given permission to return home to vote in the recent Italian elections. The Italian government, which had originally contested the terms of the case, then decided it wouldn't be sending them back after all. The dispute played out between India and Italy all week, with both sides trading charges and India taking the punitive step of restraining the Italian ambassador to India, Daniele Mancini, from leaving the country. Just when it seemed that the stand-off was beyond resolution -- an eventuality that would have grievously impacted ties in both politics and business -- the Italian government relented and said it would be sending the marines back by March 22.

The trial of the marines was complex and involved some very subtle points of international and maritime law. The marines, who were manning an oil tanker, shot dead the two fishermen off the coast of Kerala in south India, apparently mistaking them for pirates. They were taken into custody by the Indian government and charged with homicide. Meanwhile, the Italian government argued that by the regulations of international law they should be tried in their home country and not in India -- an argument rejected by India. Separately, the Italian government had paid the families of the two deceased fishermen acompensation of 10 million rupees each (about $190,000).

The marines were granted bail by an Indian court to return home last Christmas so that they could spend time with their families. Having returned to Indian custody, they were allowed to return home once again in February so that they could vote in the Italian national elections. This time around, though, the Italian government sent India a note saying the accused would not be returning -- a stand in direct contravention to an undertaking made by Mancini, the Italian ambassador in India, taking "full responsibility" for the return of the two men within the time frame stipulated by the court.

Mancini later defended his government's decision to allow the marines to stay in Italy, saying that his own affidavit couldn't be seen as separate "from the suggestions, proposals and ideas that we have been passing to the Indian interlocutors." This was, to put it baldly, highly disingenuous.

As tempers flared, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh somewhat vaguely threatened "consequences for our relations with Italy." Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, which heads the current coalition government, declared that "No country can, should, or will be allowed to take India for granted." Gandhi herself is of Italian origin. The European Union, meanwhile, threw its weight behind Italy, saying that any restriction on Mancini's freedom of movement would violate the rules of diplomatic immunity established by the Geneva Convention of 1961.

All week, experts on constitutional and international law were in heavy demand from Indian newspapers and television channels for their view on the nuances of the standoff, which is perceived here as a double violation of Indian sovereignty.

To most Indians, though, the about-face seemed merely like "a case of 'sophisticated' racism" on the part of the Italian government -- or, worse, was intended to cover for a backroom deal struck between the governments.

This is what was alleged in the Times of India by the veteran journalist MJ Akbar:

"Since Italy is famous for the harlequin, a stock comic character in its commedia dell'Arte, it is perfectly logical that this staged drama included a large dollop of farce. There has been no bigger joke in recent times than the Italian argument before the Supreme Court that the marines were desperately needed at home to vote in Italy's national elections. Clearly, we have all been taught a lie in school: democracy did not begin in Greece, but in Italy. Rome's passionate zeal for the ballot box is such that it will go to any extent, including prevarication before a Supreme Court, to protect a marine's right to vote.

"The surprise is that the Supreme Court proved so gullible. Let us assume, for a moment, that the future of Italy did indeed rest on whether the marines voted for either a somber jester called Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, or Silvio Berlusconi, who practices at night what the Kama Sutra merely preaches by day. The marines could have sent in their decision by postal ballot. How did Mancini and his fellow Italians in the Delhi mission vote?"

And a piece by Philip Willan on Italian reactions to the incident took into account questions of politics, diplomacy, economics, patriotism and honor:

"Bruno Tinti, a former prosecutor, published a comment in the Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper frequently critical of the government. Under the headline: `Marines, Everything Saved Except Honour,' Tinti said Italy was `cutting a miserable international figure' in the affair.

"...The tussle over the fate of the marines has roused nationalistic emotions on both sides. Numerous public buildings in Italy have exhibited giant posters calling for the return of `our boys' and Ferrari sported the symbol of the Italian navy on its racing car at the Formula One Grand Prix in New Delhi.

"A poll conducted by Italy's Sky News found 72 per cent of respondents supported the government's decision not to send back the naval officers, while just 28 per cent opposed it.

"...Italian business leaders are worried that the diplomatic spat could cause serious harm to promising trade relations between the two countries, and just at a time of grinding economic stagnation in the Mediterranean country....Italy is India's fourth-largest trading partner in the EU, with a shared objective of reaching a commercial exchange worth 15 billion euros by 2015."

Meanwhile, the Italian government found its firefighting act extended to a second case -- that of whether or not Mancini enjoyed diplomatic immunity from prosecution by the Indian court where he had so solemnly given his word. Italy argued that such a move by India would be in contravention of the rules of the Geneva Convention, but the Indian press widely broadcast the opposing point of view, most lucidly expressed by Soli Sorabjee, the former attorney general of India, in The Telegraph:

"`If you read the Vienna Convention, there is immunity from criminal, civil and administrative actions. But the diplomat is facing contempt of court proceedings; it is not criminal proceedings. There is no immunity from contempt proceedings. Even if there is immunity, the Italian ambassador, by approaching the court, has waived the immunity,' Sorabjee said."

"Echoing similar views, Rajeev Dhawan, an expert on international law, said: `There is some diplomatic immunity for the State and not the diplomat. Where the diplomat has rendered himself to the jurisdiction of the court with the consent of his State, we must assume that he has submitted himself to its jurisdiction.'"

Few expected, though, that the marines would be ever be seen in India again. But whether it was dialogue behind the scenes between the two governments that opened a way out of the impasse, or the news that "Ports and airports have been put on alert to prevent Italian ambassador Daniele Mancini from leaving the country," Italy finally relented on Thursday night and said it would be sending the marines back.

One hates to say "all's well that ends well" when the truth is that the "end" here is nothing but the resumption of a trial on a homicide charge. But perhaps things could have been much worse, with the natives of Rome, Milan and Naples deciding to boycott Indian restaurants and pashminas (and perhaps even Indian novels) and aggrieved Indians in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore turning their backs on fettuccine, olive oil, Serie A football and Vespa scooters.

And what cruel jokes the two sides would have made up about one another. We can only imagine the predicament of poor Daniele Mancini, detained indefinitely within Indian borders, having nightmares about not having a decent cappuccino ever again in his life.

Actually, he needn't have worried. Starbucks opened its first store in India's capital last month.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Chandrahas Choudhury at

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