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There is a global broad pattern in such cases, where ships and the crew on board are held hostage by a variety of entities for a variety of genuine or suspect reasons. In this often repeated phenomenon, the selected crew members are taken into custody and the ship itself is released after a few days on bonds and promises—and then sails away with a fresh crew, usually to acquire a new name and flag
Am I the only person who finds it strange that till now there has been no real in-depth human interest reportage on the family of the two Kerala based seafarers onboard the FV St Antony who have been killed so mercilessly on the high seas in the incident with the Italian tanker MT Enrica Lexie? Meanwhile, prime position is given to an incorrect and ill-informed line that India’s territorial jurisdiction extends to only 12 miles beyond its mainland’s coast. Sadly, all par for the course, as the murder of crow like apologists caw away, busy joining each other in a chorus while the real truth is sought to be ignored around the curtain of ignorance and agendas, controlled by puppet-masters behind the scenes.
Likewise, while there appears to be much sadness about the cost of holding the MT Enrica Lexie back in Kochi, no thoughts are being spared for the fate of Freddy, the owner of the FV St Antony, whose boat stands riddled with bullets and will now be rendered almost incapable of providing a livelihood to the fishermen involved because it becomes case property. While the Indian fishermen continue to make the rounds of police stations and hospitals and more, and the Indian seafarers onboard the MT Enrica Lexie, including the group led by the junior engineer who were reportedly threatened by the Italian guards for demanding that the ship report the incident to the Indian authorities are not being involved in the investigation, the Italian mercenaries onboard are reportedly enjoying a sojourn at a plush government provided guest house where they have been provided with every possible amenity and luxury including the facility of blowing literal and figurative smoke rings at the investigators.
Sometimes I wonder what the junior rank policemen must be thinking about this, as they go about catching petty thieves and lock them up inside the Cochin Harbour Police Station, while providing a full dress escort service to mercenaries who indulge in target practice on innocent seamen and fishermen, outside the same harbour. One report says that they are indeed, rather agitated. But then, at the end of the day, this may well be the episode that causes change to occur. And in Kerala, where literacy and awareness levels are certainly high, there is every hope that the common man will not be cowed down by those who would rule and oppress, as would have happened elsewhere.
There is a global broad pattern in such cases, where ships and the crew onboard are held hostage by a variety of entities for a variety of genuine or suspect reasons, which usually goes like this: First the media and through them the public has to be mollified, so a few high-profile photo and television opportunities are the order of the day—and correct sounding statements are made by all. Meanwhile, the PR companies and others are working hard behind the scenes, so the planted stories start emerging, usually taking on the ship-owner’s and more importantly their banker’s points of views—which are now purely commercial. In the third and concluding part of this often repeated phenomenon (and there are hundreds, if not more, seafarers who are the targets of criminalisation the world over) the selected crew members are taken into custody and the ship itself is released after a few days on bonds and promises—and then sails away with a fresh crew, usually to acquire a new name and flag.
Meanwhile, seafarers usually from third world countries, rot. The difference, this time, is that sailors and soldiers from a country which has every chance of joining the third world soon, appears to be involved. A bit confusing, that, but now that this fact has sunk in, that these sailors and soldiers are in as state guests for a while, the main purpose is to try and get the ship out and running as well as earning as soon as possible. Insurance won’t pay all that easily where it is proved that the incident was not exactly covered, so put up the bonds, and move on.
First things first, therefore as far as India is concerned, these bonds and promises are all but worthless unless backed by solid hard cash and assets from identifiable people or entities which exist in jurisdictions where or with which the Indian legal and government system has over-riding authority. I am going to be very interested in keeping track of this element of the next phase of developments in this case, and also on the government agency which will provide the advice on this matter, usually the Directorate General of Shipping, or DGS. Absolutely water-tight information on the beneficiary ownership of these ships is essential—preferably backed by sovereign guarantees. Let us not forget that somebody else’s armed and uniformed soldier has swung by and used my human beings for target practice in my front yard.
Next, by a series of Right to Information (RTI) applications, some amount of fact finding on how and why the initial reactions were what they were. Briefly there appears to have been attempts for a cover-up by an assortment of entities on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 evening itself, until the Indian Coast Guard and Indian Navy stepped in. After that, throughout much of 16 February 2012, even though the Enrica Lexie was at outer anchorage off Kochi, a line was placed in the public domain that this incident was not in India's jurisdiction, as the ship was variously well beyond 12 miles from the mainland—which failed when it was pointed out that enough laws existed on the statute books to ensure investigation and possible prosecution of the suspected criminals.
On 17 February 2012 the bogey of ‘compensation’ was raised, with numbers moving up rapidly from Rs10,000 to Rs5 lakh and after that the numbers stopped making sense, along with some rather disturbing inputs that pressure was being put on the Indian seafarers on board the Enrica Lexie as well as the families of the fishermen to toe a particular line. Simultaneously, stories started doing the rounds that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was going to take a stand and whispers about the Italian hand gained strength, till some straight talking by the ministry of home affairs as well as ministry of external affairs took charge of matters along a larger line of national interest.
When this also did not cut any ice, the political system of Kerala and India threw in the towel, demanding stern action. Whatever that meant. I guess they will now wait in the wings for the fuss to die down, and the next big news to overtake this incident. A failing airline might do the trick.
The rest, of course, is now with the legal system in India where, goes without saying, many of us have the faith in. In any case, it is not correct to comment on something which has entered the legal system, so that is as far as that goes.
However, since we are here not only for reportage, observation, analysis and more, but also to try and be part of the solution, what could one ideally hope for would emerge from this experience? Here’s a brief wish-list, along the lines of what has been discussed at seminar and conferences, but acquires greater urgency now.
As I write this, news comes in that MT Enrica Lexie has been moved from alongside the Ernakulum tanker berth to Cochin anchorage, where she awaits further orders. Likewise, matters will proceed, and as things have always been at sea—life will go on. What happens to the Italians in custody is also important, the law must prevail, and so be it.
However, the big takeaway that has been set in motion here is that national and international ship-owners and operators and crew onboard realise that they shall need to be cautious in the future, and our own administration has hopefully received a wake-up call that they cannot take the common people of this country for granted all the time.
For that, hats off to the real motivators, the fishermen of Kerala. Unsung heroes of this episode, there are facts which have been brought to my knowledge which reveal how strong they have been, unlike other elements in governance.
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(Veeresh Malik started and sold a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing. He is also involved actively in helping small and midsize family-run businesses re-invent themselves. Mr Malik had a career in the Merchant Navy which he left in 1983, qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, a love for travel, and an active participation in print and electronic media as an alternate core competency, all these and more.)
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