Take a tough stand

Why does our government soft-pedal every issue when our citizens’ lives are involved? Do Indians’ lives come cheap?

Recently, two Indian fishermen were killed off the coast of Kerala by the staff of the Italian ship ‘Enrica Lexie.’ It was an excessive, unprovoked and patently arrogant action on the part of the crew of that foreign ship. Any self-respecting nation would have immediately moved its coast-guard or other defence vessels into action, arrested the captain and the crew, brought the errant foreign vessel to the shore and promptly started legal action against them as per the law of the land. When it is a question of foreign powers that are responsible for the loss of our citizens’ lives, our government has been known in the past to dither and dilly and dally. It is doing the same over the past week and more. It took several days to decide to bring the errant Italian crew to Kochi port for questioning.

The whole lethargy, delay and unnecessary debate smacks of our government’s subservient attitude towards foreign powers. Had it not been for the clamour by the media, it appears as though the government might have conveniently shut its eyes to this incident. When our government has responded so tepidly, it is but natural that the Italian government is now flexing its muscles and demanding diplomatic immunity for the crew. Italian interlocutors are now insisting the ship’s staff can only be tried in Italy and not in India.

While the Italians are trying to help their delinquent crew, our government is so criminally callous after two innocent Indian lives have been lost. The whole issue is being made to look like it is a diplomatic row. It is not. It is an issue of unprovoked violence from the Italian ship; and it should have been unquestionably treated as such right from the minute the shootings occurred. Why does our government soft-pedal every issue when our citizens’ lives are involved? Do Indians’ lives come cheap? Take the cases of several terror attacks on our land; take the case of our students meeting up with murderous violence in Australia and UK. Indian government’s response has always been very meek to the point of being totally spineless.

In the present case, where the Italians are clearly in the wrong, what makes us not take a tough stand? This is a case of a chor (thief) shouting at the kotwal (police). What is such dependence – economic or political or defence-related - of India on Italy that makes our government bend over backwards to accommodate their baseless counter-allegations and arguments? Why should it bend when the other party is in the wrong? Being ‘civilised’ does not mean being timid. Good diplomacy does not mean tolerating onslaughts on our honour and integrity.

What Americans do

When one American dies in West Asia, the US attaches a lot of value to it. When a small baby Moshe is saved in Mumbai terror attack, Israel honours the saviour. However, when thousands of residents of Bhopal died and over one lakh were maimed for life in the Union Carbide disaster of 1984, our Indian government agreed for an out-of-court settlement of US$470 million five years after the disaster in the year 1989. This ‘full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liability’ was about 15 per cent of the originally claimed US$ 3 billion.

 Looking at the tens of thousands of lives lost, the grievous injuries for life, the resulting genetic disorders carried by the next generation, the continuing environmental destruction – polluted water on the surface and underground, polluted farmland, even the earlier demanded $ 3 billion appears paltry. More is demanded if sea-otters die due to crude oil spills in other lands.

Long after the ‘full and final settlement’, whenever public sentiment was aroused – mainly due to the mismanagement of and lack of proper application of settlement amount by the central and local governments – a case for revision of the 1989 settlement came up in the Supreme Court. This happened in 1991, 2007 and, recently, in 2011. At all these times, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the finality of the original 1989 settlement. It may be noted that in 2004, fifteen years after reaching the settlement in 1989, roughly $327 million – almost 70 per cent of the original amount – remained and the Supreme Court had to order the government to release it to the victims.

If the government cared for the lives of its citizens, one wonders whether it could have ever agreed to settle for a paltry amount in 1989, and allowed the CEO Warren Anderson to get away. First of all, with so many choking controls operating then for the domestic industry, how was a foreign company allowed to set up a poisonous chemical plant in the vicinity of a crowded city? How did the government allow the hutments and slum develop next to it? Why were the basic precautionary measures missing?

Do we need the foreigners so badly that we should make any allowance for their mistreatment of our citizens? Should India continue to be subservient even after it has reached a stage where its economy can dictate terms to other nations? Or, is it a case where we don’t care for our poor and downtrodden where their lives do not matter to us?

 (The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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