Indira Gandhi’s decision to hand over Katchatheevu to SL becomes major poll issue in TN

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Chennai, March 31 (IANS) The decision of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to hand over the Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka in 1974, is becoming one of the major issues in Tamil Nadu during Lok Sabha elections, with the BJP taking up this in a big way.

The island is located between Neduntheevu in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in India and has been traditionally used by fishermen of both sides.

Already hundreds of fishermen families of Tamil Nadu are on the streets against the Sri Lankan Navy arresting Tamil fishermen and impounding their costly mechanised fishing boats for reasons like crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and poaching in Sri Lankan waters.

The Katchatheevu Island is culturally important for fishermen of Tamil Nadu and ceding this to Sri Lanka has led to several agitations by Tamil Nadu politicians. The Indo-Sri Lankan agreement allows Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu and dry their nets on the island

Official documents and records on the handover of Katchatheevu island, obtained by TN BJP chief K Annamalai through an RTI application, show how Sri Lanka had acquired the island.

It may be recalled that after Independence, Sri Lanka had denied the Indian Navy from conducting exercises without its permission.

Interestingly, India had in 1974 given up its claim to the island. A note of that time by the Ministry of External Affairs reads, ”The legal aspects of the question are highly complex. The question has been considered in some detail in this ministry. No clear conclusions can be drawn as to the strength of either India's or Ceylon's claim on sovereignty."

“This was against the opinion given by the then Attorney General of India and the best legal brains of the country M.C. Setalvad who stated that even as the matter was not clear or free from difficulty but has added the East India Company had given the zamindari rights to the Raja of Ramanad or Ramanathapuram. This is clear that India has the stronger claim sovereign rights of the island,” the note says.

The learned legal brain has also said that the state of Madras was enjoying the rights continuously and uninterrupted from 1875 to 1948, as per the then note.

According to the document, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Krishna Rao, had in 1960 written that India has a good legal case and could be leveraged for securing fishing rights.

The MEA consultative committee has said that there was a risk involved in giving up the island even though it was an uninhabited island, the document says.

“The opposition had then charged that Indira Gandhi had secretly negotiated with her Sri Lankan counterpart Dudley Senanayake during the Sri Lankan leaders' visit to India. The opposition had also come out against the Government for not responding to the statements of Ceylonense PM Senanayake in Sri Lankan parliament,” the ministry’s note states.

As per the note, Katchatheevu was even shown on Sri Lankan maps as their land. The then-Indian government however denied that the island has been given away but stated that it was a disputed site.

In 1974, the then foreign secretary Kewal Singh conveyed the decision of India to relinquish its claim of Katchatheevu to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi. The foreign secretary also had conveyed to Karunanidhi that Sri Lanka had taken a very determined position and informed the negotiators that the island was part of Jaffnapatnam in Dutch and British maps.

“This shows how the mighty India had decided or surrendered its right to Sri Lanka thereby leading to a constant issue for Tamil fishermen who has been hounded and arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy,” the ministry’s note says.