Modi’s forgotten promise of justice for the Kerala fishermen in the Italian marines case

The centre’s pacifist approach to the pleas of both marines was in sharp contrast to Modi’s earlier aggressive posturing. AFP/Getty Images

On 19 February 2012, the Kerala Police arrested two Italian marines—Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone—on murder charges. They were accused of shooting two Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala on 15 February that year. A few months later, in May, they were granted bail on the condition that they would not leave Kochi, a city in Kerala, without the Kerala high court’s permission. In February 2013, the Supreme Court relaxed their bail conditions and allowed the marines to return to their country, to vote in Italy’s general elections. The Italian government subsequently refused to send the marines back to India, leading to a tense diplomatic standoff.

In retaliation, India restrained the then Italian ambassador, Daniele Mincini, from leaving the country. While the marines eventually returned to India in March that year, Narendra Modi, who was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for the general elections due in 2014, politicised their brief exit from the country to target the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that was in power. At the time, then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, whose Italian origin has been a recurring theme in the BJP’s nationalist narrative, chaired the UPA.

On 31 March 2014, while campaigning for the upcoming elections, Modi addressed a rally in Arunachal Pradesh’s Itanagar. “Who were those people who provided safe passage for Italy’s killers to return to Italy?” he said. “On whose directions did they return to Italy? Who were the powers that stopped them from coming back from Italy?”

In another speech during an election rally in Kasaragod district in April, Modi referred to the victims, Jalastine and Ajeesh Binki, and promised, “I speak for the rights of the fishermen. I am going to fight the battle of Kerala’s fishermen.” However, in the five years since the Modi government was voted to power, there has been little progress in the case. The prime minister has not made any mention of the incident in a public forum, while the central government has taken lenient positions on allowing the marines to leave India again.

The FIR in the case was first registered in 2012, at the Neendakara coastal police station in Kerala’s Kollam district. A team led by Ajith Kumar, the Kochi police commissioner at the time, carried out the initial investigation. In April 2013, the National Investigation Agency took over the case. But the case has since been embroiled in a dispute between Italy and India over the question of jurisdiction. While India claimed that the shooting happened in Indian waters and said the marines ought to be tried according to Indian law, Italy said the incident happened in international waters and therefore international law should apply to the marines.

In September 2014, after the Modi government came to power, Latorre filed an application in the Supreme Court to be allowed to return to Italy for medical treatment; he had suffered a stroke. When the apex court asked for the Centre’s opinion, the minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj said the government was not opposed to Latorre’s request to leave “on humanitarian grounds.” The Supreme Court subsequently granted him permission to leave.

In July 2015, Italy took the case to International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body established by the United Nations. The ITLOS referred the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an intergovernmental organisation based in The Hague in Netherlands. Italy then approached the arbitration court seeking the relaxation of bail conditions for Girone, the second marine, so that he could leave India until the jurisdiction in the case is decided. The court ordered that, “Italy and India shall cooperate, including in proceedings before the Supreme Court of India, to achieve a relaxation of the bail conditions of Sergeant Girone … so that Sergeant Girone, while remaining under the authority of the Supreme Court of India, may return to Italy during the present arbitration.” Both countries interpreted the court’s ruling differently. Italy said it “paved the way” for the marine’s return back to Italy until the arbitration process was over. India said the court “recommended” the relaxation of bail conditions, but left it to be considered and decided by India’s Supreme Court.

Following this, in May 2016, Girone filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, requesting that his bail conditions be relaxed and he be allowed to leave. The centre endorsed his plea to leave “on humanitarian grounds,” following which the court allowed his departure. Both marines remain in Italy. In September that year, the then Additional Solicitor General PS Narasimha told the Supreme Court that the government had no objection to both marines staying in Italy till the dispute over the jurisdiction of the case was resolved. The centre’s pacifist approach to the pleas of both marines was in sharp contrast to Modi’s earlier aggressive posturing. In 2018, when the Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte visited India, Modi did not bring up the case. The matter is still under consideration of the arbitration court, with a public hearing scheduled in July 2019.

On 1 May this year, I visited Moothakkara, the coastal village in Kollam that was home to one of the fishermen killed. Doramma, Jalastine’s wife, was not hard to find; neighbours easily identified the house as the one that belonged to a victim of the Italian marines’ shootout. “They did not do what they promised,” Doramma said, referring to the Italian authorities. “They had said that they will give my son a job and also support his education. They checked on us on a couple of Christmas occasions but even that stopped.”

The Italian government had given the families of Jalastine and Ajeesh Binki, who hailed from Kanyakumari, a compensation of one crore rupees each in exchange for withdrawing their petitions in the case. Further, the Kerala government appointed Doramma as a peon in the state collectorate, where she still works to support her two sons. When I asked Derick, Jalastine’s elder son, about Modi’s promise in his 2014 election speech, he said, “Modi is just all talk. There is no action.” The family has no demands of bringing the marines back to India for trial. “We have forgiven them,” Doramma said, with a tone of resignation. “We lost what we lost.”

Sreedharan Pillai, the president of the BJP’s Kerala unit and Kummanam Rajasekharan, the former state president of the party, refused to comment on the Modi government’s mellowed stance in the case.

“It is typical that having exploited the issue politically, Modi lost all interest in pursuing justice and let both marines detained by the UPA government off the hook,” Shashi Tharoor, the Congress member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, said. “We have not heard a word from the PM or the government of India on the matter. It sends a dismaying signal that Indian lives don’t matter to the Indian prime minister and that justice can be sacrificed at the altar of diplomatic expediency.”