The Union government on Friday informed the Supreme Court that the question of retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise as no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka.

Taking on record the Centre’s response to a writ petition filed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa seeking retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka, a Bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and S.A. Bobde posted the matter for final hearing after three weeks to enable Ms. Jayalalithaa to file her rejoinder.

Ms. Jayalalithaa, who filed the petition in December 2008 as AIADMK general secretary, sought a declaration as unconstitutional the 1974 and 1976 agreements between New Delhi and Colombo on ceding of Kachchatheevu, an island off the Rameswaram coast, to Sri Lanka.

Ms. Jayalalithaa said the island was historically part of the Ramnad Raja’s zamindari and later it became part of the Madras Presidency. The island was always of strategic importance and special significance for fishing operations in the area. In or around 1921, Sri Lanka started claiming territorial rights over the island without any justification and notwithstanding such claims it continued to be part of India. She highlighted the sufferings of fishermen from Tamil Nadu who inadvertently strayed into the island. Because of the hostile attitude of the Sri Lankan navy, fishermen feared to go fishing as they were either killed or taken into custody if they entered Kachchatheevu.

In its response, the Centre said the island was a matter of dispute between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and there was no agreed boundary. The dispute relating to the status of this island was settled in 1974 by an agreement and both countries examined the entire question from all angles and took into account historical evidence and legal aspects. This position was reiterated in the 1976 agreement.

It said: “no territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area in question was in dispute and had never been demarcated.” Therefore, the contention of Ms. Jayalalithaa that Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka was not correct and contrary to official records.”

The Centre said as per the two agreements, no fishing rights in Sri Lankan waters were bestowed to Indian fishermen. Under the agreements “Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit Kachchatheevu and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes. The right of access is not to be understood to cover fishing rights around the island to Indian fishermen.”

On the frequent incidents of firing against Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy and their arrest, the Centre said “the government has always taken up on a priority basis with Sri Lanka including at the highest levels any incident involving safety and security of Indian fishermen in the waters between two countries. Whenever Indian fishermen were arrested, the government of India intervened and got them released,” it said and sought dismissal of the petition as not maintainable.

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