The Enrica Lexie incident, in which two Italian marines on-board the Italian oil-tanker MT Enrica Lexie fired and killed two fishermen from Kerala in the Indian contiguous zone in 2012 is a text-book example of how not to handle a case. The case has seen far too many twists and turns for comfort: The marines going home twice, once for Christmas and once to cast their vote in the elections; Italy showing great reluctance to send them back, and; finally the Italian foreign minister talking about urging the Nato allies, the European Union and even the Commonwealth to press New Delhi into action.
Rome has recalled its ambassador to India protesting the “unacceptable, deliberate delay” by the court in coming to a decision in the case. There is little doubt that the Centre has fumbled in handling this case. India has given Italy an assurance that the marines would not face the death penalty but if the anti-piracy law is slapped on them, it is for the court to decide whether or not to award the maximum punishment. The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to make up its mind as to which law would it want to try the marines under and reply by today.
The case highlights the larger issue of guarding merchant vessels on our high seas. India has refused the idea of armed personnel aboard ships stating that ‘floating armies’ in the seas around India can pose an immense security threat. While this fear is not entirely unfounded, New Delhi cannot ignore the reality: Sea piracy — though it has come down recently — has not been wiped out and it is still probably the greatest threat ships face today. With almost 50% of the world’s container traffic and 66% of the world’s oil trade through the seas passing through the Indian Ocean, and with a majority of trade in India, especially oil imports, through sea routes, maritime disputes are expected to rise and there should be mechanisms in place to fast-track such cases.
The indecisiveness of the government has led to a diplomatic standoff with even the EU raising concerns. Nothing but an expeditious trial is what all the people involved in this case want. But for the moment, India seems to be completely at sea on this issue.