Political voices demanding retrieval of the troubled Katchatheevu island from Sri Lanka are bound to grow in the run up to the next Assembly polls. While Chief Minister and AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa, who had moved the Supreme Court to annul the 1974 and 1976 Indo-Lanka pacts ceding the island, has yet again written to the Prime Minister to retrieve the island, other party leaders are likely to toe her line.
Can raising the Katchatheevu bogey actually fetch votes for parties from the coastal regions of Rameswaram, Pudukottai and Nagapattinam? The fishing community is unwilling to commit on this now but acknowledges that their anger over the failure to retrieve the islet could echo during the polls in different forms.
“BJP leaders, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had promised to retrieve Katchatheevu, find a lasting solution to the problem and create a separate ministry for fisheries while addressing the ‘Kadal Thamarai’ conference ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, But after coming to power, they have totally ignored the fishing community,” charges N J Bose, a fishermen association leader.
What is Katchatheevu? It is an uninhabited off-shore island in the Palk Strait originally owned by the Ramnad Raja. The island is used by fishermen to dry their nets. During the British rule, it was administered jointly by India and Sri Lanka. But in the early 20th century, Sri Lanka claimed territorial ownership over the islet. In 1974, India ceded it to its southern neighbour. Two years later through another accord India gave up its fishing rights in the region.
As no solution was in sight and the Centre has not given any indication for retrieving Katchatheevu or to find a solution to the fishermen problems, the fishing community might boycott the assembly elections to register their protest, he cautions.
The inaction on the part of the Modi government at the Centre has certainly emboldened the Sri Lankan authorities if the frequent arrests and confiscation of boats was any indication, he feels. “We will express our protest in a fitting manner when it comes to our turn,” he adds.
With ‘Tamil pride’ being linked to the issue no politician is willing to be a passive player. “Parties can’t antagonise the fishing community as a whole. That explains why DMK president M Karunanidhi belatedly moved the Supreme Court on the issue. For that matter, TMC leader G.K. Vasan, while serving in the UPA Cabinet as Shipping Minister did not concur with the Centre that Sri Lanka had sovereign right over the island,” points out an observer.
However, another section of fishermen says that retrieving Katchatheevu may not end the problems of the fishing community but it could force Sri Lanka to come to the negotiation table for working out a solution.
“The Rameswaram fishermen might get an additional seven nautical miles in the Palk Bay if India got back the island but there is no guarantee that the Indian fishermen would confine themselves within the seven nautical miles for fishing,” contends U Arulanandham, president, Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen (ARIF).
Nonetheless, A Irudhayaraj, who has been fishing in the Palk Strait for more than three decades, was of the view that the problem could be addressed to a great extent if India retrieved Katchatheevu. The fishermen who ventured 20 nautical miles inside Lankan waters could be asked to confine themselves in the seven or 10 nautical miles beyond Katchatheevu if India got back the island, he says.
Parties and positions
AIADMK: The unconstitutional Indo-Sri Lankan Agreements of 1974 and 1976 should be nullified. Government of India should not treat the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) with Sri Lanka as a settled question.
DMK: Katchatheevu agreement should be scrapped as it is against the constitutional mandate and not concurred by Parliament or the Government of India.
MDMK: The 1976 agreement is not binding on Indian fishermen. Retrieval of Katchatheevu is the only solution to guarantee livelihood of fishermen and ensure their safety.