NEW DELHI: AIADMK members in Lok Sabha today asked the government to bring a bill to take back Katchatheevu island from Sri Lanka.
"You cannot just say that the matter is before Supreme Court ... Parliament is supreme. How can we not discuss (the issue)? It is part and parcel of the Indian territory. When the agreement (with Sri Lanka in 1970s) had taken place, rules and regulations were not followed strictly.
"You are bringing a bill in Parliament to cede some areas to Bangladesh. Did you bring such a bill in Parliament on Katchatheevu then? You can bring such a bill now," AIADMK member M Thambidurai said.
Thambidurai, who is Deputy Speaker, made the comments after External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said she would not be able to comment on the Katchatheevu issue as the matter was pending before the Supreme Court.
He was allowed as a "special case" by Speaker Sumitra Mahajan to take part in a discussion on a calling attention motion on harassment to Tamil fishermen by Sri Lankan Navy.
Responding to the calling attention, Swaraj said government was making efforts to get 38 Indian fishermen released from Sri Lankan prisons, weeks after getting the death sentences against five others remitted and ensuring their release.
"Efforts were made at the highest levels to get the five fishermen (who were awarded death sentence by a Lankan court) released and their sentences remitted. Earlier, Indian fishermen arrested by Lankan navy used to get released after spending 60 days in jails there," she said, adding that the period of detention has come down to even three days.
"This tone and tenor of Sri Lanka towards India has changed after our government has taken over. .... So our tone and tenor towards them should also undergo a change," Swaraj said, apparently pointing towards strident remarks made by some of the AIADMK members.
Thambidurai said the five fishermen, who were facing death sentences, were released by the Sri Lankan leadership because they were going for fresh elections and wanted Tamil votes.
Noting that the Sri Lankan President "granted full remission of the (death) sentence to all five fishermen" who have since returned to India, Swaraj said "as on date, 38 Indian fishermen along with 82 fishing vessels are in custody of Sri Lanka on charges of fishery related violations.
"As I speak, we are working towards their early release and repatriation," she said.
She also referred to an incident in November when three Indian fishermen had "unknowingly drifted in their damaged boats" to the Lankan coast due to inclement weather.
"These fishermen were rescued and provided relief along with repair of their fishing vessel by the Sri Lankan Navy and have been repatriated to India only yesterday," she said.
In order to ensure safety and security of Indian fishermen, the government was working on a proposal to develop a National Automatic Identification System (AIS) network for effective tracking of small fishing vessels fitted with customised AIS transponders, the Minister said.
It was also being "actively explored" to ensure that these transponders also act as early warning system to warn the fishermen if they crossed the international maritime boundary, Swaraj said.
"Government continues to remain engaged with Sri Lanka government so as to ensure that fishermen on both sides can continue to pursue their livelihood in a safe, secure and sustainable manner," she said.
Both countries have "agreed that the use of force could not be justified under any circumstances and reiterated in this regard the importance of extending humane treatment to all fishermen," Swaraj said.
Swaraj said the government, in consultation with all fishermen's associations, was working on a policy for deep sea fishing for a long-term solution to the issue that would "involve migration of our fishermen to deep sea fishing."
The government has also simplified and streamlined the guidelines for fishing operations in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone "to create an enabling environment", she said, adding that now on only documents relating to registration of boats and health certificate of the fishermen would be required for seeking permission for deep sea fishing.
Earlier speaking on the calling attention, AIADMK member P Venugopal accused the Lankan navy of "highhandedness" and carrying out "brutal attacks" on Indian fishermen and said there have been 500 such attacks and 50 instances of capturing of boats by the forces of the island nation.
Speaking on Katchatheevu island, he said the government must not lose sight of the strategic location of the island as it wanted to shift its naval base from Diego Garcia to the vicinity of the Palk Straits and Gulf of Mannar.
While his party colleague K Gopal sought abrogation of the 1974 and 1976 India-Sri Lanka agreements on Katchatheevu, P Kumar and J Jayavardhan (both AIADMK) said the Centre had not granted any financial help to the five fishermen who were awarded death sentence by the Lankan court, though the Tamil Nadu government had provided a total of over Rs 63 lakh as their legal expenses.
In response, Swaraj said while it is acknowledged that the state government paid the legal expenses, "but despite this, they were given the death penalty. It was our efforts at the highest levels that the death sentence was commuted."
She also said that cases were going on since 2011 and therefore it would not be correct to blame the present government as it was the erstwhile government at the Centre which was responsible.