The car bomb blast by Islamic terrorists near Sangameswarar Temple in Coimbatore on October 23 and the violent clash earlier between the Indian Navy and Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Strait have highlighted the necessity for better coordination between the Centre and the states on matters of national security. Internal security falls within the jurisdiction of the state. Home Minister Amit Shah convened a meeting of home ministers on October 28 to discuss this critical matter. In that meeting, Tamil Nadu Law Minister S Regupathy harped on the Dravidian parties’ pet hobby, i.e., moving the International Court of Justice to “reclaim Kachchatheevu”. Former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had gone even further and said India should take back Kachchatheevu “even by force, if necessary”.
Kachchatheevu has become irrelevant, and the demand for its retrieval is impractical. There is a certain amount of sanctity in international agreements. Though India and Pakistan went to war on a few occasions, New Delhi never abrogated the Indus Water Agreement. In 1974, A B Vajpayee, then in opposition, characterised the ceding of Kachchatheevu as “bhoodan”; however, when he became the prime minister in 1998, he continued the policy of not reopening the issue of ownership. When coalition governments came to power, and the DMK/AIADMK shared power, the two parties went along with the Centre on India’s Sri Lanka policy.
During the Fourth Eelam War (2006–2009), the DMK was a partner in the Manmohan Singh government. During this, the most savage war against the Tamils was unleashed. According to UN estimates, 40,000 innocent Tamils were killed. Except for the political gimmick of a hunger strike, which started after breakfast and concluded before lunch, Karunanidhi preferred to go along with the Centre in its “inhuman” and “anti-Tamil” Sri Lanka policy.
A judicial solution should have been resorted to in 1974 when the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement was concluded and Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka. Documentary evidence shows that Kachchatheevu was part of the zamindari of Raja of Ramnad, and when zamindari was abolished, it became a part of the Madras Presidency. According to the Gazetteer of Ramanathapuram, the survey number of Kachchatheevu was 1,250. Indira Gandhi’s determination to cede Kachchatheevu was evident when New Delhi considered it not an Indian territory but a “disputed” territory. Moreover, the principle of “median line”, the basic principle of delimitation of maritime boundaries, was modified so that Kachchatheevu fell on the Sri Lankan side.
In the Fifties, Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to cede Berubari to East Pakistan. He considered Berubari to be a “disputed territory”. The then chief minister of West Bengal, B C Roy, appealed to the Supreme Court and argued that Berubari was an integral part of West Bengal. If an Indian territory is to be ceded to a foreign country, the Constitution has to be amended. The Supreme Court upheld B C Roy’s claim, and Berubari remains a part of India.
Why did Karunanidhi not approach the Supreme Court and prevent the ceding of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974? I interviewed S Madhavan, then law minister, and asked him why the government did not seek a judicial solution. There was no convincing answer. Instead, Karunanidhi got a resolution passed in the Legislative Assembly. A resolution by the assembly on a subject that falls within the Centre’s jurisdiction is not binding. At the same time, a judicial decision is binding both on the Centre and the state. The answer lies elsewhere. M G Ramachandran had broken away from the DMK and was becoming immensely popular. Karunanidhi wanted the Congress party’s support against MGR. What is more, there were many skeletons in the DMK’s cupboard. As a ruthless politician, Indira could have used them against Karunanidhi.
The role of Tamil Nadu in India’s Sri Lanka policy became embroiled in the blame game played by Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. As a result, finding an amicable solution to the travails of fishermen was pushed to the background. A significant incident needs to be highlighted. Since the early Nineties, I have been suggesting a two-pronged solution. First, get back Kachchatheevu on “lease in perpetuity” (Tin Bigha in reverse). While Chennai accepted the suggestion, New Delhi did not want to reopen the island’s ownership issue. Second, licensed Indian fishermen should be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters for up to five nautical miles [based on the 1976 Agreement where licensed Sinhalese fishermen were permitted to fish in the Wadge Bank (near Kanyakumari)]. In July 2003, the Government of Sri Lanka, for the first time, suggested that it was willing to consider proposals for licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters. This was a golden opportunity for New Delhi and Chennai to settle the issue. But unfortunately, the Tamil Nadu government did not make suggestions to the Centre.
The law minister’s present demand implies that the fault lies entirely with the Sri Lankan government. The truth lies elsewhere. On the three days our fishermen go fishing, they go deep into Sri Lankan waters. They use bottom trawlers, which are banned in Sri Lanka, and which cause irreparable damage to marine ecology. They destroy the Sri Lankan fishing boats and muddy the waters. If the Sri Lankan government approaches the International Court of Justice, our image in the comity of nations will take a nosedive. Incidentally, a few years ago, the Philippines went to the ICJ against China on the issue of fishing rights in the South China Sea and got a favourable decision.
Regupathy should answer two questions. How would the retrieval of Kachchatheevu bring about a peaceful solution to the present travails of Tamil fishermen in both countries? Two, in case Sri Lanka approaches the ICJ, what will his arguments be in defence of the retrieval of Kachchatheevu?
Founding Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras