Retrieve Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was mistaken in thinking that a mere demarche served on Sri Lankan High Commissioner in New Delhi asking Colombo to release the 100-odd fishermen from southern Tamil Nadu taken captives by the island nation’s navy in the Palk Strait would ensure the release of hapless fishermen languishing in Sri Lankan jails.
GL Peiris, External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka who was in Delhi to invite Manmohan Singh to participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo, made it abundantly clear the fishermen would have to undergo deterrent punishment of paying huge fine and imprisonment for violating their territorial waters.
The Palk Strait is a narrow water body, sandwiched between the southern coast of Tamil Nadu and the northern coast of Sri Lanka.
Fishermen from Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka have been fishing in its waters from time immemorial and excellent comradeship existed among them.
The problem began after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gifted the uninhabited islet to Sri Lanka in 1974. Kachchatheevu formed part of Ramnad Zamindari, the present day Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu.
That the island of Kachchatheevu belonged to India was confirmed by BP Peiris, former Cabinet secretary of Sri Lanka, in a statement in May 1966 which said: “I remember coming across a proclamation issued in the time of Queen Victoria in which Kachchathivu is excluded from the northern district (Jaffna) as it belonged to the Raja of Ramnad.”
Two years after the transfer of the island, maritime boundary line was redrawn which rendered much of the Palk Strait waters out of bounds to fishermen from India, though they never accepted this illegally drawn line on the sea.
The Sri Lankan Navy has stopped shooting to death fishermen from Tamil Nadu which used to be the practice till a couple of years ago. But its navy continues to beat up fishermen, seize their valuable catch, destroy their fishing gear and take them prisoners, much to the dismay of the government in Tamil Nadu.
Sri Lankan minister Peiris has now made it clear that there would be no change in their policy of harassing fishermen from the Tamil Nadu side to prevent them from crossing the Lakshman rekha.
It leaves India with the only option of re-examining the legality and constitutional validity of ceding Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka. Under the Constitution of India, the executive has no power to cede any part of the country’s territory; only Parliament has that power. Parliament never authorised the transfer.
The sea around Kachchatheevu is rich in prawns and other valuable fish. By gifting it to Sri Lanka, New Delhi has deprived Tamil Nadu fishermen of their livelihood.
Since Colombo is no longer willing to honour the traditional rights of Indian fishermen in the Palk Strait and has gone to the extent of taking them captives for crossing the unsettled boundary line, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha and former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi have moved the Supreme Court to declare the secession of Kachchatheevu null and void.
There is no truth in the claim of minister Peiris that Kachchatheevu is a settled issue. The sooner the apex court passes an order on the long pending petitions, the better it is for all concerned.