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Opinions‘Katchatheevu isn’t an election issue in TN’

‘Katchatheevu isn’t an election issue in TN’



It is safe to assume that the Bharatiya Janata Party's Tamil Nadu President Kuppusamy Annamalai had the BJP high command's blessings when he sought an RTI response on the controversial Katchatheevu issue.

The way Narendra D Modi, Amit A Shah and a host of other BJP leaders at the level pounced on to Annamalai's ‘exposure' on what should tantamount to the ‘treachery' by the father-daughter duo of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and the way then DMK chief minister M Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu, played along, should remove all doubts that the BJP leaders had coordinated it all — starting from the word ‘Go' and the government's RTI response to the state BJP president.

There is no reason to question Annamalai's credibility that he has received the RTI response from the Centre and it says what he and others have since been saying it contains.

That a diplomat-turned politician in External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar should take time off to address a hurriedlyc alled news conference at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on the subject should remove all doubts about the seriousness with which the ruling party is approaching the issue and also the genuineness of the content in the RTI response to Annamalai.

Yet, there is the question if as a career diplomat going all the way up to become the nation's foreign secretary before becoming minister, Jaishankar believed that had actually ‘ceded' Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, and that it was not a mutually accepted Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) that put the islet on the other side.

If anything, he himself as external affairs minister has stood by past decisions, both inside and outside Parliament, so to say.

Whatever that be and however much Modi wants to convince the nation's voters that he was not doing or saying everything only with elections in mind — a line that he took in a rare and recorded interview to Thanthi TV in Tamil — the BJP resurrecting an issue that is buried deep in the archives of the Government of India aims only at the current Lok Sabha polls.

By raking it up at a Meerut rally, Modi may have wanted to paint the Congress rival blacker than already.

However, it is not an election issue in southern Tamil Nadu where the issue belongs, as someone sitting elsewhere may want to assume.

In fact, no issue pertaining to southern Sri Lanka, barring the continuing presence of China, is news in the South Indian state. Even China is not an election issue.

It cannot be when the Sri Lankan ethnic issue was not, even though it continues to be a political issue and social concern, like the fishers dispute.

It is enough to recall how Vaiko, the indomitable defender of the LTTE, lost badly in his native Virudhunagar constituency in the crucial Lok Sabha polls of 2009, when Sri Lanka's ethnic war had already peaked and UPA-1 in New Delhi had obtained a fortnight-ceasefire from the Sri Lankan government of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka-related issues are talking points in Tamil Nadu, but not election issues at any time.

BJP leader and later-day external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj found it for herself in 2014 when after her ‘Kadal Thamarai' or ‘Sea Lotus' campaign in the Rameswaram sea, the BJP did not gain a single extra vote anywhere in the state, starting with the Ramanathapuram constituency, where the temple island is situated.

If the Katchatheevu issue is not election material in the state this time, too, it is not without reason.

For the past three decades, the late Jayalalithaa and her AIADMK after her time, has been flogging the issue against the local DMK rival.

And on every occasion, the DMK would recall — as it has done now — how Karunanidhi had the state assembly pass a resolution against the Centre's unilateral decision to give away the tiny islet to the southern neighbour.

It is also true that the fishermen community in Rameswaram is well aware that there is no fish left around Katchatheevu for them to bother about the ownership and/or access to the tiny islet.

They showed their disinterest in participating in the annual St Anthony's feast at the isle-church along with their Sri Lankan Tamil fisher brethren from Jaffna and elsewhere earlier this year.

They boycotted the festivities, purportedly protesting against the arrest and court-ordered imprisonment of three of their brethren in the island-nation, for ‘trespassing' and ‘poaching'.

Next year on, if they wanted to return to participate in the festivities, the Sri Lankan side is not unlikely to cite this year's boycott, to deny them permission.

Put bluntly, the trawler-fishers from Tamil Nadu and the Karaikkal enclave of the Union Territory of Puducherry want access to fish in what India has conceded as Sri Lankan waters since the twin accords of 1974 and 1976, claiming it to be a ‘livelihood issue' protected under international best practices.

Against this, the unanimous official Indian view since long, including those headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and now, Modi since 2014, has only strengthened the Sri Lankan case of ‘trespassing' and ‘poaching' by the Indian fishers.

There is also ready acceptance that bottom-trawling and fishing by purse-seine nets are banned in both nations, owing to their destructive capacity, but enforced in Sri Lanka better than across the Palk Strait, in India.

The recent Indian conversion of the controversy into a ‘livelihood issue' also for the Tamil Nadu fishers, has not registered in the Sri Lankan mind, official or fishers'.

Hence, the next meeting of the joint working group of officials, promised by the Centre before the Madras high court recently, is not going to achieve any breakthrough, whenever held.

Which may not be before the year-end, as Sri Lanka too is facing twin elections to the presidency and parliament, the latter, now or later.

The high court's direction in this regard can be followed if and only if the other ‘sovereign' accepts the Indian suggestion but independent of the non-binding judicial order in this country.

Even without the current electoral controversy in India, through the past two or three years, there have been sporadic incidents of protests by Sri Lanka's Tamil fishers, with selective and competitive blessings from Jaffna politicians, including ministers and parliamentarians.

Suffice to recall that it was a Tamil parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran, who first moved two private member's bills to stiffen the punishment for ‘trespassing fishers' from other countries (read: India), a few years back.

Under the then government of then president Maithripala Sirisena, then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe converted it into an official bill, which was passed unanimously with near-full attendance. Today, Ranil is the president, full-stop.

Incidentally, what is the Katchatheevu issue all about? Were then prime ministers Nehru and Indira Gandhi at fault?

The answer may be an ambiguous yes-and-no if you understood the geo- of the times, and not a definite ‘yes', as critics of the two and also of the DMK are wont to say.

Going beyond what has been documented, Indian bureaucrats and political leadership, unlike many of their Western counterparts, do not have a mandated habit of recording every exchange with every foreign leader or delegation, verbatim for successor governments to understand and proceed with.

They were either too-guarded or non-habituated to going the whole hog.

Instead, they stopped with flagging only conclusive portions of their discussions and discourses on record, if at all.

What have remained thus are bilateral agreements, alongside legislative proceedings and news conference reports.

It is thus that the BJP, like the AIADMK in the past, has been partial in stopping with then foreign secretary Kewal Singh briefing then DMK chief minister Karunanidhi on the 1974 agreement.

As DMK spokesmen are not tired of repeating, as they have done this time too, Karunanidhi did not acquiesce to the agreement but, instead, had the state assembly pass a resolution against the Centre's decision.

It is still anybody's guess why either Modi or state BJP's Annamalai has not mentioned that the then leader of the Jana Sangh parent, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had opposed the 1974 accord in Parliament.

Nor has either referred to later-day BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy, a veteran from Tamil Nadu's Madurai city, moving the Madras high court, challenging the ‘ceding' of Indian territory without Parliament's approval under Article 4 of the Constitution, on Vajpayee's suggestion, in 1965.

Two petitions on similar lines, filed by Jayalalithaa first, and Karunanidhi, separately later, in their personal capacities, were pending before the Supreme Court since the mid-nineties.

The Tamil Nadu government impleaded itself in Jaya's plea when she returned as chief minister in 2011.

Both petitions may have abated now, with the death of the petitioners.

Incidentally, Jayalalithaa had demanded it in her maiden Independence Day address as chief minister in 1991.

Both her AIADMK and rival DMK parent have included it as a routine insertion in their election manifestos, since.

They have been even more vehement in demanding the safety, security and fishing rights for the state's fishers, in what tantamounts to Sri Lankan waters.

Yet, what if a hurt DMK or the state government under its care, or even the AIADMK rival or any other citizen, starting with some fishers, moves the Supreme Court, for directions to the Centre for ‘retrieving' Katchatheevu, calling its transfer ‘unconstitutional', to begin with?

The Centre, while repeating what all Annamalai and Modi have said in public and thus putting on court records their criticism of the Congress and DMK governments in the distant past, would still have to say what it intended to do. This may apply, technically, to all future governments, whether headed by Modi and/or his BJP, though pollster-predictions are that both would get a third term. Whatever that be, successive governments, including the present one, especially External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, have declared their adherence to the twin pacts of 1974 and 1976.

The latter modified the earlier agreement to deny Indian fishers their right to fish and dry nets in the tiny islet, guaranteed under the original pact. So did most of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard chiefs in their times reiterate the official position, though they stopped with the Indian fishers ‘illegally crossing into Sri Lankan waters' (leading to their arrests and confiscation of their trawlers and gears).

Today, Indian fishers concede that there are no fish in the Katchatheevu waters. The Sri Lankan side now also says that the question of Indian fishers having to dry their nets does not arise as they are no more cotton-thread nets, but nylon nets.



The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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