Lok Sabha polls | A person of Karunanidhi’s stature surrendered on Katchatheevu issue, says Annamalai

Watch | Annamalai: A person of Karunanidhi’s stature surrendered on Katchatheevu issue
| Video Credit: Shibu Narayan

In an interview to The Hindu, BJP Tamil Nadu president K. Annamalai talks about the Katchatheevu issue

April 07, 2024 11:01 pm | Updated April 08, 2024 04:09 pm IST - COIMBATORE

K. Annamalai

K. Annamalai | Photo Credit: M. Periasamy

Days after BJP Tamil Nadu president K. Annamalai brought back into limelight the issue of ceding of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka five decades ago, he tells The Hindu that it is unconvincing that then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi “badly surrendered” on the issue. Excerpts, from the interview.

You had brought the Katchatheevu issue to limelight to highlight that in 1974, the then Tamil Nadu government headed by M. Karunanidhi was fully informed by the Central government about the bilateral agreement between India and Sri Lanka. What will be its impact on this election?

I look at it in two ways. One — the reason we brought it out was that the DMK was trying to make this a poll issue. Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, in his last visit to Ramanathapuram about 15 days before the model code of conduct came into force, said that the DMK was not informed when Katchatheevu was given away. After that, I applied through the Right to Information (RTI) Act and got this (the document) to tell people what had happened. Whatever Mr. Stalin is saying on the stage is just drama. Because 50 years back, they were fully informed and probably soft pedalled the issue then. I believe [us bringing out the issue] will resonate with the fishermen. Since the boundary was shrunk 50 years ago, the problems we see today are a direct manifestation of that.

The second issue is about our stand. The State BJP has been very categorical over the last two years. About a year ago, the it formed a committee under Pon. Radhakrishnan. We went and met all the fishermen in the coastal parts of Tamil Nadu, prepared a report, and submitted it to the Union External Affairs Minister, wherein we mentioned the party’s view that Katchatheevu should be retrieved.

I made three visits to Sri Lanka in the last one-and-a-half years, and had the opportunity to meet all the leaders, including Douglas Devananda, who is continuing as Fisheries Minister under different regimes. I met the Tamil political parties, and listened to their views too. We do not want to make it a friction between the two countries. We are in power and anything we say, and act, should not be detrimental to India’s foreign policy. In 2018, Sri Lanka passed a new law that the impounded boats would become nationalised and auctioned. We have stopped it now. We are not allowing them to auction the boats. All Tamil political parties in Sri Lanka are unanimously supporting this Act.

Now, when we gave away Katchatheevu in 1974, Article 6 gave rights to Tamil fishermen to put the fishing nets and return or maybe stay, but not stay overnight there. That is also a problem because Article 6 is gone. Our interest is not to create any friction. Our interest is that the Tamil fishermen issue should not flare up anymore. When we sat with the fishermen, they took us in the boat, and they showed us the high rocks from the shore. They cannot fish there. If they go a little further, Katchatheevu starts. So, they do not have a fishing zone. After looking at all options, we have been talking to authorities at the Centre, Ministers, and all powers that this is the only way to solve it. We need to reinstate Article 6 because it is only a pact made by two foreign secretaries. The first agreement was passed in Parliament and even that was bulldozed. The second one was between foreign secretaries and that, we believe, is blatantly illegal. Two foreign secretaries cannot remove an Article that was passed in Parliament.

So, first, we tell the fishermen and the people of Ramanathapuram not to believe in the lies of Chief Minister M.K. Stalin. The second one is slightly long-term. We appreciate the answer of External Affairs Minister Jaishankar to a pointed question. He had said that all options are on the table. From the party side (the BJP), are clear that we want retrieval of Katchatheevu.

Do you have any time frame in mind?

As part of India’s boundary settlements with various powers, especially with Bangladesh, at different points of time, it was always a give and take policy. We adopted a reciprocal approach during Prime Minister Nehru’s time and now during Prime Minister Modi’s time. It was a smooth affair. But Katchatheevu was unique. Nothing was given to India. Only Katchatheevu was given away. Everywhere else, there was a balance. There is no balance (here). No one knows why we gave it away. We should have spoken about the fishing rights and some arrangement should have been there. But, there was zero arrangement. Article 6 was there because they did not want the Tamil Nadu people to protest at that point of time.

The document that the External Affairs Ministry gave for your RTI application says that the then Central government had told the Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi about security concerns and the possibility of Sri Lanka looking at China....

I think it is a total lie. If you look at the document, they have said two things. Where was China in 1974? And what was China’s geopolitical and economic interests then? When did China enter Sri Lanka? It was in 2000. Second thing they said, which I think is a blatant lie too, is that oil shores have been discovered and that they did not want anyone to know about it. Why has no one spoken about oil in the last 50 years ? It is a foreign secretary coming and saying something and the Chief Minister not even registering or saying that Katchatheevu can be given but over his protest.

But, at that point of time, what do you think the CM could have said ?

He could have simply said I will not agree, Tamil Nadu will not agree.

When they cite the security issue ?

Yes, of course. Tamil Nadu should have said that it would not agree. What was China’s standing in 1974? Even in the U.N., Taiwan was a powerful voice. Even the Chief Secretary mildly pushed saying that a line can be drawn at the centre of the island. I find it absolutely unconvincing. A Chief Minister of Kalaignar Karunanidhi’s stature, who understands politics in and out, had badly surrendered.

But he did try to say to postpone it for two years....

Why should it even be postponed ? It was because Kalaignar had an election to manage. His whole idea was to balance that election because MGR had just started a new party. So, the point in his mind was to give it (Katchatheevu) away. He could have simply told Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that it cannot not be given.

It was during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s time that the then West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar (Ray) protested when the enclave issue was happening and even for enclave exchange with Bangladesh, he said “do it over my dead body.” I am giving this context to say that Kalaignar Karunanidhi could have acted in a much better, more aggressive way. I do not think Indira Gandhi would have given (Katchatheevu) by antagonising a border State like Tamil Nadu. If the Chief Minister had put his foot down and said a firm no, it would not have happened.

Is there any timeframe you are anticipating for retrieval of Katchatheevu ?

I am not a part of the government or the official thinking process. As a party karyakartha, we are doing everything from our side. We are creating an issue, we are taking it to the public and making friendly approach to Sri Lankan political parties. We also tell them “let us solve the fishermen issue and see how we can do it.”

But Sri Lanka has said the issue was resolved 50 years ago

Naturally, Sri Lanka will say so. Any country will. It got what it wanted in 1974. For Sri Lanka, it is everything to lose, its boundary will shrink, if Katchatheevu is retrieved. They want to put a solar project at Neduntheevu now. The Chinese wanted to come in. The question is how to make Sri Lanka agree and at the same time get a solution for Tamil Nadu fishermen. For this, the ruling political party, the Tamil Nadu BJP, has to make a firm stand. We have made a firm stand.

So, you will be pursuing this with the next government?

yes. With our government, with Prime Minister Modi.

PMK has asked for a caste census, Congress has also said in its manifesto that it will bring a caste census. Your views ?

Let us just revisit the caste census and see what was spoken about it many years ago by the Congress and its tall leaders. Opening Mandal Commission report is like opening a can of worms, said Rajiv Gandhi. In 2011, a so -called caste census was brought in with the 2011 census. Some form of caste census was ready by 2014 before elections. Even Sonia Gandhi and Mallikarjuna Kharge then said there was no concurrence among the ministers and dropped it.

In Tamil Nadu, the DMK government refused to give extension to the Justice Kulasekaran Committee. Why did Mr. Stalin not give an extension to the committee ? So my answer is based on this context. In our political party, in our alliance across India, people have their own views. Each party operates in a different zone and with a different ideology. In the BJP, we have to, of course, accommodate all the voices and the different ideologies. For five elections the Congress ran on caste census, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and lost. In Karnataka, they say the report is lost

I do not think it is a matter for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Prime Minister Modi has clearly said two different times that for any government service, the poor and the minority should get the first rights. We leave it to our party. It has to take an All India perspective. So let them take a call. we are waiting for our party’s call.

The other issue is the PMK has asked for a reservation for Vanniyars in the MBC quota

As a karyakartha of an all India party, my view is very clear of the all India view point. We are for reservations and there is no doubt in that. And Prime Minister Modi has supported internal reservations for Madigas in Telangana. At the same time, we are also very conscious of the fact, in a State like Tamil Nadu, where you have 69 % reservation and too many caps, there has to be measured, careful steps. So, let us all come to a conclusion. Right now, for the 2024 poll, let us focus on who has to come to power and the broad contours of why they have to come to power.

With respect to other issues, I do not think it is a topic for today. Maybe, I would like to have an honest conversation about it before the 2026 Assembly election in Tamil Nadu.

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