Centre targets Opposition again as Katchatheevu row escalates | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Centre targets Opposition again as Katchatheevu row escalates

Apr 02, 2024 07:58 AM IST

Union govt accuses Congress and DMK of neglecting national interests in ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1970s; Modi and Jaishankar criticize opposition.

The Union government on Monday sharpened its attack on the Congress and its ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), accusing them of overlooking national interests in the ceding of Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka in the mid-1970s and hiding various aspects of the matter.

Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge and Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge and Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister S Jaishankar targeted the opposition parties, with the latter accusing the Congress and the DMK of misleading the public. Modi lashed out at the DMK for failing to protect Tamil Nadu’s interests and accused the party of “double standards” on the issue, while Jaishankar contended India’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, treated the island as an issue of “no importance”.

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“Rhetoric aside, DMK has done NOTHING to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests. New details emerging on #Katchatheevu have UNMASKED the DMK’s double standards totally,” Modi said in a post on X, a day after he criticised the Congress, which was in power when India signed a pact with Sri Lanka on maritime boundaries in 1974.

Modi, who has often criticised the Congress and the DMK for being run by dynasts and not following democratic processes, reiterated that the two parties are family units. “They only care that their own sons and daughters rise...Their callousness on Katchatheevu has harmed the interests of our poor fishermen and fisherwomen in particular,” he said.

Modi’s post came a day after the BJP intensified its attack against the Congress and the DMK for not securing the rights of the fishermen who are detained for fishing in waters around the island. Based on the response to an RTI query filed by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai, the party claimed the then government’s decision to cede the island to Sri Lanka affected national interests.

Jaishankar targeted Nehru and his daughter, former premier Indira Gandhi, while addressing a briefing at the BJP headquarters and said they “simply did not care” about the issue. Reading from a background note prepared by the external affairs ministry in 1968, he said Nehru had written in May 1961: “I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claim to it. I do not like matters like this pending indefinitely and being raised again and again in Parliament.”

While the 1974 agreement stated Indian fishermen would be able to access Katchatheevu without travel documents and enjoy their traditional rights of fishing, an additional pact signed in 1976 had taken away these rights, Jaishankar contended.

Jaishankar cited an official document on a meeting in Madras in June 1974 between then foreign secretary Kewal Singh and then Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK leader M Karunanidhi, and said the Union government kept the state fully informed of its talks with Sri Lanka on the maritime boundary.

Singh said he had the authority of the prime minister and external affairs minister to suggest a compromise proposal to divide waters in the Palk Bay, and Karunanidhi said he was “inclined to accept” the solution but couldn’t be expected to take a public stand in favour of it for political reasons, Jaishankar said, adding the DMK couldn’t say it wasn’t consulted on the issue.

Jaishankar contended the timing of the revelation wasn’t linked to the Lok Sabha polls, and said it is the people’s right to know what transpired. “We know who did this...What we do not know is who hid this,” he said.

He refuted the Opposition’s allegation that the issue is being politicised ahead of the elections and said it continues to be a live topic. He said in the past 20 years, 6,184 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels were detained by Sri Lanka. Katchatheevu island figured in questions, debates and consultative committee meetings in Parliament, and the Tamil Nadu chief minister has written to the Union government about it “numerous times”, and Jaishankar said he himself replied to the current chief minister 21 times on the issue.

Jaishankar said the Congress and the DMK have approached the issue as though they have no responsibility while the BJP government has had to cope with the consequences. He, however, ducked questions on whether the 1974 agreement will be renegotiated, saying the matter is now in the Supreme Court.

His reference was to two writ petitions filed in the Supreme Court, one filed by late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa in 2008 and another filed by Karunanidhi in 2013.

The Congress accused the government of changing its stance on the issue. Former Union minister P Chidambaram said the government, in response to an RTI query in 2015, justified the circumstances under which India acknowledged that the island belonged to Sri Lanka. “Why is the Foreign Minister and his ministry doing a somersault now?” he said on X.

Chidambaram added: “It is true that fishermen were detained in the last 50 years. Likewise, India has detained many SL fishermen. Every government has negotiated with Sri Lanka and freed our fishermen. This has happened when Mr Jaishankar was a foreign service officer and when he was Foreign Secretary and when he is Foreign Minister. What has changed for Mr Jaishankar to launch a tirade against the Congress and DMK?”

Tamil Nadu chief minister M K Stalin hit back at Modi’s criticism of the DMK on the Katchatheevu issue, questioning the BJP’s “sudden love” for fishermen ahead of the elections and questioned the latter on issues, including the 37,000 crore flood relief packages sought by the state.

“The people of Tamil Nadu want to put forth only three questions to those, who, after being in a Kumbakarna slumber for 10 years, are displaying a sudden love for the fishermen for elections. Why does the Union government return just 29 paise out of the 1 paid by Tamil Nadu as tax. Why has not been a single penny given to Tamil Nadu as flood relief despite the state having faced two natural disasters (the floods in Chennai and Thoothukudi in December 2023). Ten years of BJP. Is there any special scheme brought to Tamil Nadu under the regime? Instead of involving in diversions, please respond to all these, Prime Minister,” he said in a post on X.

Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanaka Chaturvedi alleged there were discrepancies in the government’s response to the issue. In a post on X, she too referred to the RTI response of 2015, when Jaishankar was serving as foreign secretary, and noted that the response said: “This did not involve either acquiring or ceding of territory belonging to India since the area in question had never been demarcated. Under the Agreements, the Island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.”

Chaturvedi added, “Today the Foreign Minister and yesterday the PM claimed it has been ‘ceded’. So is the change in stance for their election politics or has Modi ji made a case for Sri Lanka?”

She further alleged the government has levelled accusations against previous governments with an eye on elections. “Without a thought to the chair he (PM) holds and the accusations he makes for political point scoring in the upcoming elections in the hope that they can win some seats in Tamil Nadu. With the intention to divide the electorate by casting aspersions. Lets remember such decisions are taken by governments, which includes inputs and advise from professionals like diplomats, military officers, legal advisors and bureaucrats.”

Chaturvedi following the BJP’s example of filing a RTI about territorial issues, anyone from Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh can similarly seek information about incursions. “Will someone from BJP file an RTI to get information on how Nepal has claimed three villages in the Kalapani area and how Kathmandu published a new map showing India’s Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limipiyadhura as part of its territory?” she said.

Other opposition leaders posted several official documents on X, including the external affairs ministry’s responses to RTI queries in November 2014 and January 2015 that stated Katchatheevu lay on the Sri Lankan side of the maritime boundary delineated in 1974.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Rezaul H Laskar is the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.

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