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

13 May 2019
The centre’s pacifist approach to the pleas of both marines was in sharp contrast to Modi’s earlier aggressive posturing.
AFP/Getty Images
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.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: Kerala Elections 2019 Narendra Modi fishermen