The failure of the BJP government of Narendra Modi to prevent the unabated spree of abductions of Tamil Nadu fishermen and seizure of their boats from the Palk Strait by the Sri Lankan Navy has made Chief Minister Jayalalitha step up efforts to retrieve the tiny islet of Kachchatheevu India ceded to the island nation in 1974. Seventy-seven fishermen and 102 fishing boats are in Sri Lankan custody. Her 15 July letter to Modi drawing his attention to “escalated frequency” and the “magnitude of incidents of abduction” has not brought any relief so far. When an aid worker from Kolkata was abducted and held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the External Affairs Ministry spared no effort in seeking her release and safe return. When it comes to abductions of fishermen from Tamil Nadu by the Sri Lankan Navy, the External Affairs Ministry advises them to avoid the Palk Strait and take to deep sea fishing. At the time of ceding Kachchatheevu, which altered the nation&’s maritime boundaries, AB Vajpayee, then leader of the Jan Sangh, foresaw the dangers of the move and wanted to approach the Supreme Court, but could not find enough supporters. It may be recalled the Supreme Court in 1960 prevented the government of India from ceding Berubari in West Bengal to Bangladesh on grounds that ceding any Indian territory to a foreign nation could be done only through a constitutional amendment passed by both Houses of Parliament. Kachchatheevu, an integral part of Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, was ceded to Sri Lanka by a bilateral treaty.
The cession document provides adequate safeguards to Indian fishermen to fish in the traditional waters surrounding Kachchatheevu in perpetuity. The International Maritime Boundary Line drawn up by the two countries after cession in 1976 makes it clear in the preamble by stating, “Having settled the Kachchatheevu issue,” that Indian fishermen&’s inalienable right to fish in and around the waters of Kachchatheevu was protected. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard, instead of taking a holistic approach to the ceding of Kachchatheevu and the IMBL, stick to the IMBL accord and ignore the 1974 treaty. Sri Lanka has taken the stand that once the IMBL was signed, it was binding on both countries as per international law. The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry has mooted the proposal of allowing 250 Indian trawlers on specific days. India should not fall into this trap, but insist on Sri Lanka honouring its commitment made in the cession treaty, failing which the islet should be retrieved. The Jayalalitha government has challenged in the Supreme Court the cession of Kachchatheevu without following procedures laid down in the Constitution of India. Till the court gives its verdict, status quo ante should be restored and the Sri Lankan Navy should be restrained from attacking Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Strait. Since the transfer of Kachchtheevu, more than 700 fishermen had been shot dead by the Sri Lankan Navy in the Palk Strait. New Delhi should realise that Tamil lives matter.