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Return of the marines

Vandana Kohli

Updated: April 5, 2013, 10:57 AM IST
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We are a people known for our hospitality. We pour the essence of our spirit, not in our systems but in the warmth we display to our guests and visitors.

The essence of Europe however is reflected in the systems of most of its developed countries. Things are orderly and functional. There is an emphasis on abiding by the law, and tough punitive measures await those who break it.

Our systems, on the other hand and for the most part, are chaotic, arbitrary and dysfunctional. They are difficult to work within and create much of the head banging frustration we feel as a nation.

An example:

A friend, also a lawyer practising at the Supreme Court of India, pointed out just one of many instances of how provisions of law work against each other.

He cited the example of a building site in Delhi. One law states that there should be no 'malba' or construction material outside a building site after 4 PM. However, trucks to collect and clear the malba are in fact allowed into the city only after 10 PM.

The result therefore, is a large band for pay-offs. It is not uncommon for the local police constable to quote the first law to the contractor, who to keep his work going, would most logically part with some money (to the local authorities) until the building is complete.

One provision therefore negates the other, quite like two tributaries of a river spilling at each other in the face - instead of the water combining in might and movement, it merely cancels out all flow onwards.

This works against even the simplest logic required to resolve an issue in the interest of the working parties.

Lack of confluence:

It is not uncommon to see such lack of confluence inherently imbedded in system after system, reflecting across an array of issues, from structures for the provision of basic civic amenities to those of law enforcement for serious offences - in Department Vs Department, State Vs State and State Vs Centre.

This delays procedure, frustrates those involved, mocks the law and often damns justice.

A cause for grievance:

Such delays were what gave the Italians a cause for grievance when two of their marines were arrested for allegedly killing two Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala.

For over 11 months, things went into cycles of confusion. It was unclear whether the Kerala government had jurisdiction over the matter, until the Supreme Court's intervention which may now lead to a fresh investigation by the National Investigative Agency and the setting up of a special court to try the case.

Much water has flowed:

Through most of the past year (before the last row early this year), typically much activity happened without any movement towards resolution.

The Italian government, on its part, disagreed on jurisdiction with their Indian counterparts, sent their Deputy Foreign Minister to Kerala after the incident, arrived at an out-of-court settlement (INR One Crore or about USD 2,00,000) with each of the nearest kin of the deceased fishermen, which fell through, and exerted pressure to have the marines tried in Italy instead, over and over again.

The Indian authorities, on the other hand, besides all the corresponding activity with their Italian counterparts, have also argued internally about jurisdiction of State Vs Centre, as well as the out-of-court settlement with the legal heirs of the Indian fishermen killed, and through a lot of activity, displayed little clarity of when and how to try the marines in court until the recent row erupted in February and March this year.

The two marines, in the meanwhile, have spent 105 days in custody (they were granted bail in June 2012), changed into their winter uniform, gone home for a two-week Christmas break, returned, then went back to Italy again in February 2013 to vote, been at the centre of an international diplomatic storm when it was announced they would not return, and finally did return, not before significant concessions had been extracted from the Indian government.

The marines will be tried swiftly in a special court, they will not be handed the death sentence and they might serve their jail term at home in Italy.

A calculated move?

It is interesting that through all the high-powered back and forth that went on between both governments, the marines ultimately returned on March 22, the very date submitted officially in court by the Italian Ambassador as their date of return.

So, even as the Italians extracted concrete terms for the case to be tried, they caused no further breach.

Could this have been a well thought out strategy, this seemingly spontaneous and reactionary storm that at many points threatened to take Indo-Italian relations to an unprecedented low in recent times? Even as the Indian authorities hail it as a diplomatic victory, is there more than what meets the eye?
Our chance at confluence:

If indeed there is, then for the Indians there is just one point in favour - that the deadline submitted for the return of the marines to the Supreme Court was not violated in actuality.

This is important to note. The Supreme Court of India, of late, has grown in international stature. Corporate, health and social sectors around the world keep a watch on the court's rulings since many have either direct or indirect interests in the Indian market. The court seems to have become the last and sometimes only resort for the deliverance of justice in the country.

Be that as it may, this is our chance at finding resolution before lapses in time complicate the issue further. The time for delays has gone well past.

Even though the National Investigative Agency has been sounded off, there is still no formal intimation to them to begin a fresh investigation. The government needs to expedite things swiftly, with legal vigour and with resolution as a clear objective.

While it stops to hog headlines on a daily basis, the issue remains a central one. The recent resignation of Italy's Foreign Minister proves its centrality in Italy; other nations look to us to see how the court deciphers and interprets the issue and its judgment in accordance with both Indian and International law.

Whether the court finds a point of confluence, where justice, though harsh, may seem indisputable, remains to be seen. Many interested parties are watching the result of this case.

Indian warmth:

In the meantime, the marines don their summer apparel again. To beat the heat of the issue, prudently they will lie low. By and by, they may venture out of the precincts of the embassy or wherever else their stay is assigned for a change of cuisine or scene.

Delhi's citizenry, especially the glitterati which includes restaurateurs, designers and industrialists, in their enthusiasm sometimes prove indiscriminately hospitable.

Here, however, they would do well to keep a distance and see the proceedings unfold with cool watchfulness.

As for our inherent warmth to visitors, the Indian summer would amply provide for that and more.

First Published: April 5, 2013, 10:57 AM IST

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