Indian Central Government’s pragmatism has safeguarded territorial integrity of Sri Lanka | Daily News

Indian Central Government’s pragmatism has safeguarded territorial integrity of Sri Lanka

Resolving the Kachchtaivu issue more diligently was one of the unique occasions where India has amply displayed its commitment to safeguarding the geographical and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Indian standpoint on Kachchtaivu, a small island situated between India and Sri Lanka near the Palk Strait, is patently clear when perusing articles published by internationally renowned journals way back in 1974. The latest on the Kachchtaivu is the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K Stalin’s appeal to the Prime Minister of India to annex the disputed island as part of the Indian Territory resonating with the voice of former Chief Minister Jayalalitha. All the politicians who reach higher echelons of Tamil Nadu politics have been confronted with this issue many times following the Indo Sri Lanka agreement of 1974.

Chief Minister Stalin may have had good reasons to come out of his own will. He may have come under pressure from his electorate on the fishing issues on the Palk Strait that plagued them for years. The union government has a different perspective on issues relating to immediate neighbours. It has already taken a firm stand on the matter, and it is steadfastly defending the decision arrived at by the Indian political authority at the time.

Professor S.D Muni, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in an article written under the caption Kachchtaivu Settlement: Befriending Neighboring Regimes in the renowned Economic and Political Weekly states thus India’s leadership has a clear stake in stabilizing and consolidating the existing distribution of power, political patterns and strategies for socio-economic development in the South Asian region. Towards this goal, the Indian leadership is endeavouring to evolve a consensus, together with its counterparts in South Asia, on the issues of peace, security and stability that are vital to itself and also to the neighbouring regimes.

As a natural corollary, India’s leadership is keen to strengthen such governments in South Asia which would be amenable to its perception of the subcontinent and willing to work towards the evolution of the desired consensus. The removal of minor irritants like the Kachchtaivu territorial dispute is part of the movement towards achieving this consensus. As per the preceding excerpts from the article written by Professor Muni, the stand taken by the Union Government in New Delhi is clear that the Kachchtaivu Island bears no dispute.

However, time and again, Tamil Nadu has made claims for Kachchtaivu on the ground that the aim was to secure the fishing rights of the fisher folk in Tamil Nadu. A natural phenomenon for an Indian state with a densely populated coastal belt to entertain such ideas and gain access to fishing rights in the areas close to the Southern tip of India.

What is vital in this context is the agreement signed between the two countries in affirmation. India–Sri Lanka maritime boundary agreements were signed in 1974 and 1976 between India and Sri Lanka to define the international maritime boundary between the two countries. Treaties on maritime demarcations were necessary to facilitate law enforcement and resource management and avoid conflict in the waters since both countries are located closely in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Palk Strait. The first agreement was regarding the maritime boundary in waters between Adam’s Bridge and the Palk Strait and came into force on July 8, 1974. The second agreement, signed on March 23 and entered into force on May 10, 1976, defined the maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal.

Tri-junction point in the Gulf of Mannar India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives signed yet another agreement to determine the tri-junction point in the Gulf of Mannar in July 1976. Later in November, India and Sri Lanka signed another agreement to extend the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar. The Union government, during litigation in 2008 informed the Supreme Court of India that the question of retrieval of Kachchtaivu from Sri Lanka did not arise as no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka. Considering the Centre’s response to a writ petition filed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa seeking retrieval of Kachchtaivu from Sri Lanka, a Bench of Justices B.S. Chauhan and S.A. Bobde posted the matter for a final hearing after three weeks to enable Jayalalithaa to file her rejoinder.

Jayalalithaa, who filed the petition in December 2008 as AIADMK general secretary, sought a declaration as unconstitutional the 1974 and 1976 agreements between New Delhi and Colombo on ceding of Kachchtaivu, an island off the Rameswaram coast, to Sri Lanka. Jayalalithaa said the island was historically part of the Ramnad Raja’s zamindari, and later it became part of the Madras Presidency.

The island was always of strategic importance and special significance for fishing operations in the area. In or around 1921, Sri Lanka started claiming territorial rights over the island and notwithstanding such claims; it continued to be part of India. She highlighted the sufferings of fisher folk from Tamil Nadu, who inadvertently strayed into the island. The Union Government said the island was a matter of dispute between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and there was no agreed boundary. The contention relating to the status of this island was settled in 1974 by an agreement. Both countries examined the question from all angles and considered historical evidence and legal aspects. The position was substantiated in the 1976 agreement. It said: “no territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area in question was in dispute and had never been demarcated.” Therefore, the contention of Jayalalithaa that Kachchtaivu was ceded to Sri Lanka was not correct and contrary to official records.” The Union government said as per the two agreements, no fishing rights in Sri Lankan waters were bestowed to Indian fishermen. Under the agreements, “Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit Kachchtaivu and will not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for the purpose.

The right of access is not to be understood to cover fishing rights around the island to Indian fishermen.” The union government made its position clear on the frequent occurrences of firing by the Sri Lankan Navy involving Indian fishermen and their arrest. It said, “The government has always taken up on a priority basis with Sri Lanka including at the highest levels any incident involving safety and security of Indian fishermen in the waters between two countries. Whenever Indian fishermen were arrested, the government of India intervened and got them released,” it said and sought dismissal of the petition as not maintainable. The latest development in this regard is the recent announcement made by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K Stalin. He requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to annex Kachchtaivu to India. Prime Minister Modi was in Tamil Nadu for several inaugurations when Stalin came out with this request.

Kachchtaivu is a settled matter

However, Prime Minister Modi did not respond to Stalin and steered clear of controversy. This is the third in a series of attempts made by consequent Chief Ministers to the union government to annex Kachchtaivu to India.

Center has moved with pragmatism and prudence on all these occasions rejecting such calls due to strategic relations that exist between India and Sri Lanka. India, as a regional power, is armed with geopolitical clout in the Indian Ocean region. It is, therefore, clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will stand by the decision of BJP’s Ex-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who emphatically said that Kachchativu is a settled matter. Sri Lanka has not commented on the issue and keeps its reservations under wraps since they are aware that India through, its Neighborhood first Policy initiated by Prime Minister Modi, has overwhelmingly accomplished its duties to the region.

The relations between India and Sri Lanka had culminated and reached unprecedented heights, with India extending a hand of friendship and unstinted cooperation when Sri Lanka was reeling under the pressure of an abysmal economic meltdown ever experienced since its independence in 1948. India has extended financial and material help that reached a whopping 3.5 billion US$ creating a special bond between India and Sri Lanka as neighbours.


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