Nothing can remotely explain, let alone justify, the killing of two Indian fishermen by Italian Navy marines on board a merchant vessel who mistook them for pirates. In recent years, commercial vessels have been tormented by Somali pirates who have held ships and crew to ransom, often for months. Merchant ships need to be aware of the risks involved in sailing in certain regions but there can be no cause for panic at the first sight of an approaching craft. From available accounts, the Italian personnel on board the Enrica Lexie did not follow international protocols in dealing with a suspect boat. Warning shots were apparently fired, but the Italian vessel did not do evasive manoeuvres before deciding that the fishing boat actually carried pirates, and not fishermen. The Italian ship ought to have changed course and watched for the boat tailing it before taking drastic measures. Contrary to the Italian ship's claims, the fishermen were not armed; they were waiting for the ship to pass before proceeding further. In any case, common sense would suggest that the area, 14 nautical miles off Alappuzha in Kerala, was not a danger zone. Somali pirates do range over long distances but are certainly not likely to operate bang off the south-western coast of India. Nine of the other 11 fishermen in the boat were sleeping, and no matter what the Italian ship's crew claim to have seen through their binoculars, the boat posed no visible threat.
Although India summoned the Italian Ambassador and registered its protest at the killing, this nasty incident calls for concerted efforts among governments to prevent similar mid-sea misadventures. India is part of the global effort to patrol the piracy-affected sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, but not enough seems to have been done to prevent tragic mix-ups of the kind that cost the lives of two innocent men on Thursday. If the fishermen knew that armed guards are likely to be aboard merchant vessels looking at all boats with suspicion, they would have stayed further away from the Enrica Lexie. As it happened, neither the marines nor the fishermen expected to encounter each other. One of the fishermen killed is from Tamil Nadu, where fishing boats have often come under attack from the Sri Lankan Navy for crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line. On the eve of 26/11, sailors from Gujarat were killed on the high seas by terrorists. While taking steps at the international level to guard against the killing of innocents on the high seas, India's unsuspecting fishermen also need to be made aware of the different kinds of dangers they might have to face in pursuit of their livelihood. Sadly, the sea and its creatures are no longer the only challenge facing our mariners.