On May 3, the resolution by the Tamil Nadu Assembly asking the Centre to retrieve Katchatheevu, ceded by India to Sri Lanka in 1974, has not come as a surprise to many.
For decades, the cessation of the tiny, uninhabited island (measuring less than 300 acres) by India has been a political and cultural issue in Tamil Nadu, and the frequent reports of alleged harassment of Indian fishermen by Lankan authorities has added a sense of urgency.
The 1974 agreement allowed for Indian fishermen to use the island to dry their nets. It also allowed pilgrims to visit the St Anthony’s Church located there. However, a maritime agreement between both countries in 1976, negated these privileges, much to the dismay of many, especially Indian fishermen, whose livelihood was at stake.
There have been reports of frequent skirmishes amid allegations that Indian fishermen are trawling beyond maritime boundaries. In fact, the state government’s May 3 resolution cited such “continued violent attacks, torture and arrest of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy,” and called for its retrieval.
Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa pointed out that in the last two months alone there were seven instances of harassment and imprisonment of fishermen from Tamil Nadu by the Lankan Navy, and that at least 30 fishermen were still languishing in prisons there, five of them jailed over a year ago.
“Under these circumstances, the retrieval of Katchatheevu is the only way to protect our fishermen, ” she said. The question now is whether the resolution can change the existing state of affairs?
Jayalalithaa has often spoken against the ceding of the island, since 1991. The resolution is the latest. In 2001, she had approached the Prime Minister mooting the idea of leasing the island in perpetuity, for fishing. In 2008, she approached the Supreme Court, wanting it to declare the 1974 and 1976 agreements as null and void.
In fact, the Assembly resolution held the 1974 ceding illegal and cited the Supreme Court verdict in the Berubari case to beef up its argument. In that judgment, the apex court had said any such act required that both houses of the Parliament ratify such agreements.
This was not done in the case of Katchatheevu. During discussion on the resolution, Jayalalithaa also butted heads with the rival DMK which had been in power in 1974 and accused it of doing nothing to retrieve the island.
Like a sizzling return of service by Roger Federer, DMK president M Karunanidhi issued a statement claiming he called an all part meet on June 29, 1974, and pointed fingers at the AIADMK for its refusal to sign the resolution on Katchtheevu.
Karunanidhi also said that he recorded his government’s disappointment in a letter to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He also claimed that while his government adopted a resolution in the Assembly in 2006 to retrieve Katchatheevu , even though Jayalalithaa had come up with the lease-for-perpetuity idea a few years earlier.
While it may appear to be business as usual between the two Dravidian parties — their nth ping pong match — experts say the issue of Katchatheevu cannot be wished away. “Both the parties are in a way guilty of inaction in the past. However, both are trying to find a solution now. The underlying cause for the issue taking centre-stage now is the fact that there is a sizeable vote bank among the fishermen as well as the Christian community because of the church there,” says a political analyst, adding that it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will give back Katchatheevu simply because India was asking.
Experts also quote fishermen as saying mere retrieval of the tiny Katchatheevu will not help, since there is no fish there. However, the idea of lease on perpetuity may work well for all concerned, say experts. The Lankan government can charge the fishermen, who in turn can pursue their livelihood without any fear of harassment or imprisonment.
The Indian government’s foreign policy leans towards not upsetting the southern neighbor. As evidenced by the great reluctance exhibited during the UNHCR resolution on War Crimes episode. Given the status of the UPA and the congress party in Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties are quite clearly pressing these issues knowing well that they have nothing to lose. The question therefore is whether any efforts would be made in this direction at all by the Indian Government.
The big question however is whether Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka can sit down and do business.