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Tuesday, April 16 2024
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Katchatheevu Island is an emotion not a piece of land

Katchatheevu Island
Photo Credit : IANS

Agra : The year was 1974. After the historic 18-day-long railway strike, the JP Movement for Sampoorn Kranti was gathering momentum. Riding high on the wave of the victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan, the Congress party led by Indira Gandhi was brimming with overconfidence bordering arrogance.

Out of the blue, as it were, came the news in June that the governments of India and Sri Lanka had decided to reach an agreement on long pending vexing issues.

On June 28, 1974, we learned that the sovereignty over 280 acres of Katchatheevu Island in the Palk Straits had been agreed to be transferred to Sri Lanka. The next day the prime ministers of India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement to this effect.

This came as a shock to me because I felt the territorial integrity, political independence and sovereignty of India had been compromised and “received a setback on account of the said agreement between India and Sri Lanka.”

I also came to know that many of my fundamental rights, statutory rights, and rights under the common law were threatened, and the moment the cession took place all the said rights ceased.

After gaining Independence on August 15, 1947, India succeeded to the rights and duties of the predecessor government, and the territories that formed part of the then Province of Madras in British India, automatically became territories of India after independence.

When India became a Republic on January 26, 1950, the said territories came to be governed by the Constitution of India, 1950, and that Katchatheevu Island, which was within the administrative jurisdiction of the Province of Madras at the time of Independence and which continued to be in the Province of Madras on the day when the Constitution of India came into force, has continued to be within the jurisdiction of the State of Tamil Nadu.

My submission was that till 1974, the uninhabited Island visited by the fishermen from India made use of it for purposes of fishing. Except when the festival of St. Anthony is celebrated every year, the island continued to come under the criminal and civil jurisdiction of the courts functioning in Tamil Nadu as well as under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

The Island belonged to India since the days of Ramayana, and India had, therefore, a valid legal claim to the Island on account of various historical facts.

The agreement had in fact been ratified on July 6, 1974. I strongly felt that the said agreement entered into by the Union of India ceding the Island of Katchatheevu, a part of the territory of India, threatened the very existence of my fundamental rights under Articles 19(1), 21, 25, and 31, the constitutional rights under the Constitution, the statutory rights and the other common law rights.

I then filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court. I also filed an application praying for a grant of stay of the contemplated transfer of Katchatheevu Island till the final disposal of the writ petition.

Notices were issued to the respondent, Union of India, to show cause why the writ petitions should not be admitted.

To cut the story short, the objections I raised were rejected. The provisions of the continuing Emergency of 1971, also became a hurdle as rights had been suspended. On the question of locus standi, though I did try to submit that as a secular citizen, my right to worship in the church on the island was curtailed, but it did not cut ice. The court in its wisdom disposed of the case.

But the political questions remain unanswered, the chief being the role of the opposition parties, which collectively failed to stall the transfer of the island thus compromising India’s territorial integrity. All the time I was arguing that no power on earth can give away a part of the motherland.

The right to cede territory did not exist in the constitution, you can only add territory and not subtract. But my plea fell on deaf ears and the general mood then was of forging friendly relations with a neighbour.

At several meetings, I emphatically and rather futuristically said “Today our relations may be cordial but tomorrow they could turn bitter,” which did happen in the 1980s climaxing with the death of Rajiv Gandhi. My fear then was what if the hostile neighbour leased the island to an enemy country because of its strategic location? Would that be in the interest of India? But no one cared.

But now the jinn is out of the bottle again. Questions are being asked about how a part of India was gifted away like in the feudal era when the royals used to gift “jagirs”. In a democratic country with a defined structure and rule of law in place, how could a government take the liberty to alter the map of India?

What the present-day opposition parties forget is that the tiny island is just not a barren patch of land but it represents the emotions and unity of Mother India. Any effort to redraw the territorial lines would be considered a suicidal initiative.

Luckily, due to the elections, this issue is again in the public eye. We hope the union government will soon release a white paper and expose the forces that conspired to this anti-national activity affecting national interests. I am sure the BJP under the leadership of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi will revisit the whole issue and get the island integrated with the mainland.

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