Bangla pact jogs Lanka isle demand

The operationalisation of the agreement to swap enclaves with Bangladesh has spurred several Tamil Nadu politicians to intensify the demand for taking back the island of Katchatheevu that India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.

By Pheroze L. Vincent
  • Published 13.05.15
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New Delhi, May 12: The operationalisation of the agreement to swap enclaves with Bangladesh has spurred several Tamil Nadu politicians to intensify the demand for taking back the island of Katchatheevu that India ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974.

According to the Tamil Nadu government, the largely uninhabited island, just 10km off the Rameswaram coast, belonged to the Raja of Ramnad before being absorbed into the erstwhile Madras Presidency during colonial times. But British Ceylon also claimed it.

In June 1974, an accord between then Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike saw India give up its claims on the 285-acre island. The pact strengthened the hands of Bandaranaike, who shared Indira's affinity for socialism and centralism, against the Lankan nationalists who opposed her.

Katchatheevu has a shrine to St Anthony, the site of an annual festival that attracts Catholics from both countries, and has been important to Tamil Nadu's fishermen who fish and dry their nets there.

Under the 1974 agreement, Indians were to be allowed to participate in the festival and continue to exercise their traditional fishing rights.

Indians continue to join in the festival, which was stopped between 1982 and 2009 because of the Lankan civil war, but Indian fishermen are routinely shot or arrested by the Lankan navy for fishing in Sri Lanka's waters.

Colombo argues that the Indian fishermen use trawlers, which are banned in Sri Lanka, and over-fish in Lankan waters.

Several Tamil Nadu MPs raised Katchatheevu in Parliament last week. AIADMK member A. Navaneethakrishnan said that ceding Indian territory without a constitutional amendment like the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh was illegal and the island should be taken back.

The Centre has maintained that this is sub judice as the Supreme Court is yet to decide the petitions moved by former Tamil Nadu chief ministers Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi in 2008 and 2013. As custodian of land records, the Tamil Nadu government is party to the case.

Both petitions seek revocation of the 1974 treaty on the grounds that it was never ratified by Parliament as promised, and that it has brought hardship and harm to Tamil Nadu's fishermen.

This January, the Centre filed an affidavit in the apex court saying it was not concerned with the matter because Katchatheevu never belonged to India and never figured on India's revenue maps, either before or after Independence.

Legal experts say that even if the apex court finds the treaty unconstitutional, it would still be difficult for India to unilaterally scrap an international accord and Delhi might have to talk to Colombo and find a way to stop the harassment of its fishermen.

Some parties and Tamil Nadu politicians have suggested renegotiating the treaty -making it more friendly towards the Indian fishermen -rather than revoking it.

"Any bilateral agreement with a neighbour has to take the local population onto confidence if they are affected," CPI national secretary D. Raja said. "The agreement has to be renegotiated."