Here’s How PM Modi Has Changed His Tune on the Italian Marines

When Italian PM Giuseppe Conte arrived in Delhi on Tuesday, 30 October, he and Prime Minister Modi waxed lyrical about technology cooperation between India and Italy at the India-Italy Tech Summit.

But nowhere in the public interaction did we see PM Modi rake up an issue that he campaigned loudly on in 2014 – that of the two Italian marines who killed two fishermen in Kerala in 2013. Italian marines who, instead of standing trial in India, were allowed to return to Italy – one of them, on Modi's watch. The PMs of both countries have even agreed to put the past behind them now.

That's quite a generous concession on PM Modi's behalf, considering that in Opposition, he was full-throated in calling for the marines' return to face justice in India, implicating then-Congress president Sonia Gandhi in the case because of her Italian roots:

What Happened, In Brief

The two marines, Salvatore Girone and Massimiliano Latorre, stand accused of shooting dead two fisherman at sea, just off the Kerala coast, while they were aboard the MV Enrica Lexie, an Italian oil tanker, on 15 February 2012.

The Kerala authorities took the marines into custody at Kochi port days after the incident to face murder charges, and there began the protracted legal battle over jurisdiction. Rome, of course, insisted on handling the case on its own shores since it says the incident happened in international waters and on an Italian ship. India claims the killing happened in Kerala's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and therefore squarely within India's jurisdiction.

So what happened that has made PM Modi change his mind and decide to let bygones be bygones since coming to power?

The Rapid Souring

In 2012, the case had turned nasty, fast. The Italians were accused of working through the Kerala church to pay the families of the dead fishermen ‘blood money’ – the families received Rs 1 crore each from the Italian government in an extralegal settlement brokered by the church in Kerala and priests from the Vatican in exchange for withdrawing their cases in various courts against the marines and the ship-owner. They also wrote a letter to the Vatican saying that they forgave the marines. The Kerala High Court had approved the settlement, but the Supreme Court took exception, slamming the state government for not objecting to the settlement, and calling it a “direct challenge to the Indian judicial system”.

India and Italy then had an 11-day diplomatic row as the Italian government went back on its word.

After India allowed the two marines to return to Italy to vote in the general election in February 2013, Italy refused to send them back to face the music in India as promised. At this point, the Supreme Court passed an order saying the Italian ambassador would not be allowed to leave the country unless the marines returned – Italy softened, and sent them back.

But the situation had soured such that in March that year, Italian foreign minister at the time, Guilio Terzi, quit his post in protest against the marines being sent back.

"I am resigning because for 40 years I have maintained, and still maintain, that the reputation of the country, the armed forces and Italian diplomacy, should be safeguarded," he said. "I am also standing down in solidarity with our two marines and their families.

In India, too, the government faced domestic heat over the decision to relax the marines' bail conditions and allow them to return to Italy – but that heat, prior to 2014, was generated by Modi, protesting the decision to allow the marines to leave India after they “mercilessly killed” the fishermen. And after 2014?

From Election Issue, to Non-Issue

After 2014, there was silence from the new government on the case.

Not only was the second marine allowed to go back to Italy in 2016 while the case’s jurisdiction was being decided in International Arbitration Court, but he was also granted repeated extensions to stay there.

This is after an Opposition Modi in 2012 slammed the UPA-led government for allowing Latorre to return to Italy on compassionate grounds after he had a stroke.

In 2016, The Telegraph reported that defence middleman in the Augusta-Westland chopper case, Christian Michel, came out and said that PM Modi had tried to broker a back-room deal with the Italian PM, in which Italy would offer evidence linking the Gandhi family to Michel himself, in exchange for India taking a soft line on the marines case (with the caveat that it could not independently verify the allegation). The next month, when Girone was allowed out on bail to go back to Italy, Congress accused the Centre of working hand-in-glove with the Italian PM to let the marines off if they provided evidence to link the Gandhis to the chopper scam.

Now, the case is in international arbitration to decide jurisdiction, and the Italian marines are safely back in Italy as the Italian PM meets Modi and the two discuss technology and cooperation – while two Kerala fishermen are still dead.

If what happens to the marines is a reflection of patriotism, how patriotic are we now?

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