As election nears, political parties again make much of Katchatheevu
Katchatheevu is a small, uninhabited island between India and Sri Lanka. It does not even have drinking water. Nothing much happens there except a two-day festival at the St Antony’s Church, when fishermen from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu mingle and bond. In 1974, India ceded the island to Sri Lanka, a much contested decision. All the political parties in Tamil Nadu want it back. Both Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi have filed petitions in the Supreme Court against the transfer of Katchatheevu island from India to Sri Lanka. And both leaders, in their customary style, have been snarling at each other. Jayalalithaa claims the DMK filed its own petition because Karunanidhi fears the apex court will rule in favour of her petition.
Earlier this month, the matter came up in the Rajya Sabha, when members from the AIADMK, DMK, CPI and BJP united in protest against an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the government of India. Jayalalithaa had wanted the court to declare the 1974 and 1976 maritime boundary agreements unconstitutional. Replying to this, the Centre, in its affidavit, had said that there was no question of retrieving the island as no Indian territory had been ceded to Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu political parties are up in arms. They claim that Indian fishermen who venture near Katchatheevu are attacked by the Sri Lankan navy, and that they have been deprived of their livelihood.
Fishermen from both the countries once used the island to dry their nets. They no longer do so as nylon nets are used. The island had belonged to the zamindari of the Raja of Ramanathapuram, who used to lease it out to various parties. According to V. Suryanarayanan, senior professor and former director of the Centre for South and South-East Asian Studies, Madras University, zamindari does not mean sovereignty. But the present members of the Ramanathapuram dynasty are claiming Katchatheevu is theirs. In the Palk Bay that divides India and Sri Lanka, maritime boundaries were not drawn till Independence. Even after the boundaries were drawn, fishermen on both sides faced no barriers. There was no Sri Lankan navy to speak of till the 1970s.
In 1974, to help her good friend, the then prime minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, win elections, Indira Gandhi ceded the island to Sri Lanka. Apparently, there was a lot of opposition to this from the ministry of external affairs. In 1976, there was yet another agreement, delineating maritime boundaries for Indian fishermen. There is one view which holds that their fishing rights were literally bartered away. Karunanidhi, who was Tamil Nadu’s chief minister then, was against these agreements. But he did not choose to go to court. Nor did Jayalalithaa, when she became chief minister in 1991. But there was no serious patrolling of the waters in those days and nobody took these boundaries seriously.
In earlier times, the island had been a hotspot for some major smuggling. As ethnic strife erupted in Sri Lanka and its navy grew in strength, Tamils from there could not go out fishing, since the trigger-happy Sri Lankan navy was unable to distinguish between the LTTE and innocent fishermen. Once the conflict came to an end, Sri Lankan fishermen from the north (Jaffna Tamils) faced another problem. The Indian trawlers introduced in the waters in the late 1960s, to increase marine exports, had wiped the seabed clean. The twin trawlers used by Indians also cut the nets of Sri Lankan fishermen. Trawling has been banned in Sri Lanka. Its fishermen go deep-sea fishing in multi-day boats, while their Indian counterparts use trawlers and return in a couple of days. Indian fishermen also stray into Sri Lankan waters as there are no fish left on their side. Earlier, the Sri Lankan navy would arrest and release them. Now they are being detained, which has led to emotional outbursts in Tamil Nadu.
Saner counsel would encourage the resolution of the issue through dialogue, as Jaffna’s fishermen are also suffering. But with parliamentary elections round the corner, all Tamil parties are grandstanding on Katchatheevu. The Congress finds itself on the back foot, as it was Indira Gandhi who agreed to cede the island. Yet it must please prospective alliance partners in the state. In spite of the Centre’s affidavit in the Supreme Court, local Congress leaders are backing the retrieval of Katchatheevu. Tamil Nadu politicians seem convinced that support for Sri Lankan Tamils and getting Katchatheevu back will become electoral issues. But if the Congress starts supporting these issues, will the electorate take it seriously?