Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu's political island


Troubled island: Fishermen may echo their anger during polls

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.

Date with history

  • October 21, 1921: During talks between the then Governments of Madras and Ceylon in connection with the delimitation of Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar, a Ceylonese representative claims that Katchatheevu belongs to Ceylon. But the Raja of Ramnad’s representative insists that the islet was within his zamindari.
  • June 28, 1974: Then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formally exchanges an agreement with her Sri Lankan counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
  • June 29, 1974: M Karunanidhi, then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, writes to Prime Minister insisting that Sri Lanka did not at any time exercise any sovereign rights over Katchatheevu. Citing historical records, he says the islet belongs to the Raja of Ramanad since time immemorial.
  • August 15, 1991: In her Independence Day address, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa urges Centre to retrieve Katchatheevu and restore the fishing rights for Tamil fishermen.
  • October 31, 1991: Tamil Nadu Assembly adopts a resolution demanding retrieval of Katchatheevu.
  • 2001: Chief Minister Jayalalithaa meets then Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee and urged India to obtain the island on lease-in-perpetuity for fishing.
  • 2008: Jayalalithaa, in her capacity as AIADMK general secretary, moves the Supreme Court to declare the Katchatheevu agreements of 1974 and 1976 as null and void.
  • June 8, 2011: Tamil Nadu Assembly adopts fresh resolution for impleading the Department of Revenue in the case filed by Jayalalithaa.
  • May 3, 2013: Yet another resolution demanding retrieval of Katchatheevu adopted by AIADMK Government.
  • May 10, 2013: DMK president M Karunanidhi files a separate petition in Supreme Court seeking to annul Indo-Sri Lankan accord on Katchatheevu.
  • July 2014: Central Government informs Supreme Court that islet is a sovereign property of Sri Lanka. The 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka do not confer any fishing rights on fishermen from India.
  • January 2015: Central Government seeks to distance itself from the dispute saying the Union Government was administratively concerned with the subject matter.
  • October 27, 2015:Chief Minister Jayalalithaa writes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging his intervention to get back Katchatheevu.

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.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2020 4:59:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/tamil-nadus-political-island/article7817742.ece

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