I am flummoxed by the usually smug, often bigoted and always sanctimonious Indian media coverage on the Enrica Lexie affair.
This is why.
A little more than a month ago, yet another Indian fisherman was reported to have been killed by the Sri Lankan navy while fishing off the Kodiakarai coast- Point Calimere- which sits at the edge of the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. He was the second to have been murdered within ten days. The fisherman, 28-year-old Jeyakumar, was on an Indian fishing boat that was boarded by the Lankan navy, after which he and two other fishermen in the boat were ordered to jump into the sea. Jeyakumar was frozen with fear- some reports say he remained traumatised by his experiences during the tsunami that struck the coast in 2004. Enraged by his apparent disobedience, the Lankans tied a rope around his neck, threw him overboard and dragged him in the water until he drowned. His body was found with the rope tied around its neck by his friends later.
About two hundred Indian fishermen have been killed by the Sri Lankans in the last thirty years. And, although a few of these deaths have made it to the Indian media, there has been no large-scale indignation and no self-righteous screaming. No strident reminders about India being an emerging power that should act like one. No outdated outrage after pulling old colonialist rabbits out of a hat. Nobody has their knickers in a twist here: not the government, not the media, not shipping and certainly not the broader Indian society- outside southern fishing communities, of course. Jeyakumar and the incident- that the Sri Lankans said was 'baseless'- was quickly forgotten after a brief mention in the newspapers last month.
On another sea border, this time with Pakistan, the war of attrition (read 'Harami Nala', published HERE two years ago) - and of torture and worse- has gone on for decades. Thousands of fishermen have been arrested, their boats confiscated and sometimes auctioned. At least sixty Indian fishermen have been detained in Pakistan for fishing in its waters in the last month alone. Fishermen are kept in Indian and Pakistani jails without trial for years; sometimes neither side will even release their names, something that would let their families know whether they are dead or alive at least. Some presumably die in prison; we just do not know how many or who. Of those actually brought to trial, hundreds have completed their sentences and have not been released. All this a result of a combination of stubborn antagonism, the absence of GPS on many fishing boats and nebulous, disputed borders that lie between two stubborn States.
This has been going on for decades without media outrage. No screaming headlines even for a day, actually. I guess an ongoing atrocity is stale news- the old adage about a million deaths becoming just a statistic rings true. Or perhaps following a story for more than a week is too fatiguing for the apathetic folk in our newsrooms who claim to be journalists.
More than three years ago, on 18 November, 2008, the Indian naval vessel Tabar fired upon and sank the Thai fishing vessel 'Ekawat Nava 5' about 300 miles southwest of Salalah, Oman. The fishing boat had a crew of 15 or 16. Only one survived- he was picked up by a passing vessel after six days in the water. INS Tabar had claimed it saw armed pirates on deck and the Ekawat was a pirate mother vessel; the survivor claimed that the boat had been hijacked but was not being used as a mother ship. The owner of the fishing boat had reported to the International Maritime Bureau that his boat had been hijacked, a fact that the British Navy had then confirmed, adding that any military action could harm the crew of the fishing boat. The IMB sent an alert to other multi-coalition patrol vessels but IMB head Choong said it was unclear whether the Indian naval vessel had received it, as it had no direct IMB links. "The Indian navy assumed it was a pirate vessel because they may have seen armed pirates on board the boat which had been hijacked earlier," Mr Choong told the Associated Press, calling the incident an 'unfortunate tragedy'.
Not a squeak at that time, or since, in the Indian media, except for reports carried about the 'heroic' efforts of the Indian navy in counter piracy operations. Not a thought for more than a dozen Thai and Cambodian fishermen presumably killed by us.
The Indian response to piracy was no less indiscriminate and trigger happy when piracy came to its own shores two years or so after the Ekawat incident. Rattled by insurance companies adding its west coast to the 'war zone' after a spate of attacks close off Gujarat, Mumbai, Kerala and Lakshadweep, the Indian government seemed to have authorised its navy with shoot to kill orders at the time. There are many incidents that point to this, including that of the sinking of the mother vessel Prantalay off the Lakshadweep coast a year ago, in January 2011. The Indian navy fired upon (and subsequently sank) the Prantalay disregarding its hostage crew, many of whom jumped into the water after a fire broke out on the mother vessel. Did any of the crew die in the Indian attack? It does not appear so, judging by reports, but if so it was providence, and not because of Indian actions.
Of course, there have been incidents involving other navies- the South Koreans, the Russians and the Americans, who killed a Taiwanese skipper of a fishing boat- but we are talking, somewhat uncomfortably, of India here. Let us point our fingers at ourselves first.
So why has the tragic killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian naval personnel on the Enrica Lexie precipitated such outrage in the Indian media that it has consumed headlines for days? Could it have something to do with the simple fact that the Lexie was brought to Kochi and- along with the crew and the armed guards- could be paraded, photographed and videotaped? Is the television coverage just a Costa Concordia moment or is it something more?
Why the stridency and screaming? Why the derogatory and colonial references to Italians that smack more of bigotry than anything else does? I do believe that the Indian media is more interested in the story than the Indian nation is, for whatever reason. If you disagree, tell me the names of the two dead fishermen, please.
Who decides to ignore the atrocities committed on thousands of fishermen for decades and go to town on the killing of two others? Who decides to send out a call for India to disregard due process, legal jurisdiction or international law? Who decides that the saga of the Enrica Lexie is more important, or more tragic, than that of the fisherman Jeyakumar? Who decides to tell us what we should be upset about?
Who decides these rules of enragement?