Indian authorities are outraged by a decision from the Italian foreign ministry that two Italian marines charged with murdering two Indian fishermen last year will not return to India to face trial, according to reports in both Italian and Indian media.
The Italian foreign ministry said Monday that the two men in question, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, who were allowed by the Indian Supreme Court to return to Italy to vote in February’s general elections, will remain in their native country. Latorre and Girone, who were out on an anti-piracy mission last year aboard an oil tanker called the Enrica Lexie off the coast of southwestern India, shot and killed two fishermen, Jelestine Valentine and Ajesh Binki, mistaking them for pirates.
The case sparked outrage in India, leading to the arrest and detention of the two Italians.
The Italian government had been seeking to move the men to an Italian court to face charges since the alleged crime took place on an Italian ship in international waters. Rome now said it may be willing to allow an international arbitrator to handle the case, citing that India violated the men’s rights by detaining them.
But earlier an Indian court said India is within its rights to prosecute the Italian marines because the shooting incident occurred with the so-called “Contiguous Zone” – that is, within 28 miles of its coastline.
Now, opposition MPs in the New Delhi parliament as well as left-wing MPs from Kerala are demanding the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh take action against Italy in the matter.
"This is betrayal and bluff by the Italian government. It is a breach of trust between two sovereign nations and the act is completely unacceptable," thundered Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a spokesman for the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, according to the Press Trust of India.
"The Indian government should take every step to retrieve the fugitives immediately and conduct trial under Indian laws and in Indian courts.”
M.B. Rajesh, a leftist MP from Kerala who met with Singh, also blasted Italy’s decision as "unacceptable".
One of the wives of the murdered fishermen has also demanded that the Italians return to India to face trial.
"This is nothing but a conspiracy at the highest level and the Indian government should see that they bring back the two marines to stand trial in the case in our country," Dora, wife of Selestian Valentine, said, according to FirstPost newspaper.
"This should not happen to any other family, I have not received justice.”
Clearly, Italy’s decision to hold onto the two marines has ruffled feathers in New Delhi and intensified the ongoing diplomatic flap between the two nations.
But what if the crisis escalated into something far worse? Like a war?
Obviously, such an outcome is extremely unlikely – but one could certainly speculate on the fantasy of a war between India and Italy in the early 21st century.
According to GlobalFirePower, India is now the world’s biggest importer of military weapons and enjoys an overwhelming advantage in manpower.
With a total population in excess of 1.2 billion (at least 20 times that of Italy); India has an incredible 490 million people “fit for service” according to GFP.
The Indian military (that is, those who would realistically do the actual fighting in case of war) is far smaller – about 1.33 million active frontline personnel and 1.75 million in reserve.
These figures dwarf Italy’s available manpower – about 290,000 active personnel and only 42,000 reserves.
Having engaged in a frenzy of buying, India also boasts impressive military hardware – including almost 3600 tanks, 2290 armored fighting vehicles, 330 self-propelled guns, 6600 towed artillery pieces, 5000 portable mortar systems, and 70,000 logistical vehicles.
Italy, meanwhile, possesses only 720 tanks, although interestingly it has more than twice as many armored fighting vehicles as India, with almost 4,800.
In the skies, India has almost 2000 aircraft and 550 helicopters. Italy’s air power, while impressive, lags far behind India, with 770 total aircraft,
In the sea, Indian navy has 170 vessels, including one aircraft carrier, 14 frigates, 8 destroyers, 15 submarines and sixteen amphibious assault vehicles.
It is in its navy where Italy has a distinct advantage over India; Rome boasts 179 military vessels, including two aircraft carriers, and 54 amphibious assault units.
Separately, New Delhi’s defense budget last year totaled some $44 billion (versus $32 billion for Italy).
Moreover, due to the euro zone economic crisis, Italy has been forced to enact a round of defense spending cuts. Indeed in terms of GDP, Italy’s expenditures on defense is now less than 2 percent, while for India it is about 2.5 percent.
Overall, GFP ranks India has having the fourth most powerful military in the world, behind only the U.S., Russia and China -- while Italy ranks ninth.
India is also a nuclear power, with an estimated 80 to 100 nuclear warheads.
But Italy has nuclear warheads, too… kind of.
Under a nuclear weapons sharing program with the U.S., Italy is believed to have access to between 20 and 40 warheads at its Ghedi air base and 50 such weapons at Aviano.
However, any discussion of Italy's military strength must be considered in context of its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Indeed, any military attack on Italy would constitute an attack on all 28 NATO members -- which includes the most powerful nation on earth, the U.S. -- and trigger reprisals.
NATO is an extremely formidable military entity – consider that in 2010, the members of the coalition accounted for almost three-fourth of global defense spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
The combined population of NATO members, a little over 900 million, does not quite match India’s teeming mass of humanity, but the 28 members of the alliance -- spanning 25 European states, US, Canada and Turkey – enjoy superior firepower. The U.S. alone has more than 5,000 nuclear warheads at its disposal.
In addition, a war between Italy and India would present serious logistic challenges – New Delhi and Rome are separated by some 3,700 miles – not to mention the frenzy such a confrontation would trigger in Moscow, Beijing and India’s biggest enemy, Islamabad, Pakistan.
Granted, diplomats around the world and the United Nations would scurry like mad to prevent a war that would benefit neither party. Indeed, Italy and India are both capitalist democracies (more or less), while a war would also be extremely unpopular in both countries.
India has been attempting to move closer to the West – an attack on a prominent NATO member like Italy would seriously damage, perhaps destroy, such overtures. Italy, deeply mired in a financial crisis, simply cannot afford to engage in something as complex and costly as a war with a distant nation.
India and Italy also enjoy strong trade relations -- Daniele Mancini, Italy’s ambassador to India, recently said that India is already one of the ten largest destinations for Italian investments and estimated that by 2015, bilateral trade will increase to 15 billion euros.
No one wants to risk that kind of money.
One more complicating factor: the leader of India’s ruling Congress Party, i.e., the most powerful person in India, is Sonia Gandhi, an Italian woman.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.