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Kachchatheevu – Political Opportunism to the Fore

Paper No. 5532                                       Dated 22-Jul-2013

Guest Column by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Thirty nine years have elapsed since the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement, 1974, which delimited the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay. As a consequence of delimitation the island of Kachchatheevu was gifted to Sri Lanka.

The tiny island was a part of the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad. When Zamindari was abolished after independence the island became a part of the Madras Presidency. The ownership claim was disputed by the Government of Ceylon; Colombo maintained that the island was a part of Ceylon since the days of Portugese domination.

New Delhi, under the stewardship of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, was very keen to maintain good relations with its southern neighbor. The two leaders did not want ownership claims to Kachchatheevu to become a source of discord. In that process they were willing to ignore the strong feelings of the people of Tamil Nadu, irrespective of political affiliation.

The decision to cede the island to Sri Lanka was governed by political considerations. It was a typical case of personal equation between the two Prime Ministers playing the role of diplomacy. In order to avoid a constitutional amendment New Delhi chose to ignore the historical claims and adopted the stance that the island was a disputed territory.  What is more, though the principle of median line was adhered to in the delimitation of the maritime boundary, a deviation was made when it came to Kachchatheevu so that the island could fall on the Sri Lankan side.

Karunanidhi was the Chief Minister and the DMK opposed the agreement both within the Parliament as well as in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. The Tamil Nadu Government, however, did not succeed in convincing New Delhi about the justness of the ownership claims; such a stance was also   essential to protect India’s territorial integrity and safeguarding the traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen in the Palk Bay.  

For strange reasons Karunanidhi did not resort to judicial remedy to uphold the just claims. He should have challenged the ceding of the island to Sri Lanka on the following grounds. It was Indian territory and there was irrefutable evidence to prove the ownership claims.  Second ceding Indian territory to a nieghbouring country requires constitutional amendment.  It should be pointed out recourse to judicial remedy was successfully pursued by BC Roy, Chief Minister of West Bengal, when Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to transfer Beru Bari to Pakistan.  Karunanidhi could also have insisted that the ownership claims over the island be referred to the Supreme Court for its opinion. It may be recalled that legal luminaries like MC Setalvad were of view that the island belonged to India.

While working on my book, Conflict over Fisheries in the Palk Bay Region, I had the opportunity to interview S. Madhavan, the Law Minister in the Karunanidhi Government. On the specific question why Karunaidhi did not resort to judicial remedy, there was no convincing answer. The answer could be found only if one keeps in mind then volatile political situation in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi was hoping to get the critical support of Indira Gandhi in his efforts to consolidate power, which had come under increasing challenge from the AIADMK and its charismatic leader MG Ramachandran.  If the Government of Tamil Nadu had at that time resorted to judicial remedy or had insisted that the matter should be referred to the Supreme Court for its opinion, it is likely that India-Sri Lanka relations might have taken a different course.  Karunanidhi’s present opportunist stance can be understood only if one keeps in mind his desperate attempts to win back Tamil support which suffered serious damage during the Fourth Eelam War when he preferred to be a part of the Central Government in New Delhi than upholding the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils who had become cannon fodder in the senseless conflict between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers.

The same opportunism is visible in Jayalalitha’s approach to the thorny issue. It may be recalled that while unfurling the national flag from the ramparts of Fort St. George on August 15, 1991 Jayalalitha, then Chief Minister, called upon the people of the State to take a pledge to retrieve the island. She said her Government was willing to argue the case with the Centre and “if necessary “even prepared to fight for the issue. But it was only after 17 years that she filed the case in the Supreme Court.

Much water has flowed through the Palk Bay since the signing of the maritime boundary agreement in 1974.  The root cause of the present travails of fishermen in the Palk Bay is due to regular poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen, who go deep into Sri Lankan waters, resort to excessive trawling, deprive the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen of their livelihood and bring about untold damage to marine ecology. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha are maintaining Sphinx like silence on this subject.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.)