It is uninhabited and just a little over a square kilometre. But Kachchatheevu island has been a major irritant in relations between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for decades now.
Hostilities flared up in the Rajya Sabha on Monday with MPs from Tamil Nadu criticising the Centre for its affidavit to the Supreme Court, which stated that no portion of India’s land was ceded to Sri Lanka. The Centre was responding to a petition by Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa, filed in 2008, seeking that the apex court declare unconstitutional the 1974 agreement.
Tension over the island came into focus in 1974 after the Centre signed an agreement with Sri Lanka accepting that Kachchatheevu was not a part of India. According to the agreement, signed between the two countries, fishermen from both sides could use the island to dry their nets and even pray at the shrine of St Antony on the island.
Politicians in Tamil Nadu claim that the Centre ceded the island without passing a resolution in Parliament and thus the agreement is invalid. To bolster their point politicians claim to have records proving that the island was under the king of Ramanathapuram and later under the Madras Presidency. For decades there was no talk over the rights of the island as Sri Lanka was fighting a bitter civil war.
With the war over, there have been an increasing number of reports of confrontation between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen and cases of the Sri Lankan navy firing at Indian fishermen.
The manner in which the Centre ‘ceded’ Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka should be seen not as an aberration but as a general approach adopted by New Delhi while dealing with the states. Much of the problem about the rights over the island could have been avoided if, in 1974, the Centre had taken the then Tamil Nadu government into confidence.
Today, a similar pattern can been seen in the way the Centre has gone about unilaterally in its decision to carve a Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh, so much so that it has not even won the support of its state leaders.
For our democracy to be robust and to function in the manner it is meant to, the Centre cannot treat the states in such a cavalier fashion.
The states should be seen as equal partners in the democratic process and in decision-making, and should be consulted on matters that concern them. This is especially important in a coalition era where regional parties play an important role in government formation at the Centre.