By Prof. Suryanarayan
In an article entitled Sri Lanka should address India’s Concerns, published in the Hindu Business Line, dated July 7, 2011, former Indian diplomat, G Parthasarathy, has made out a good case pleading that in the interests of sound bilateral relations, Colombo should address Tamil Nadu’s concerns relating to fishing rights of Indian fishermen and the necessity to usher in a new political system in which Sri Lankan Tamils can enjoy equal rights with the Sinhalese. Parthasarathy has served India with great distinction in several world capitals. He was our High Commissioner in Pakistan during a difficult period and was also the spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs in the tumultuous days following the India-Sri Lanka Accord.
However, I notice that Parthasrathy has not included all the relevant materials on the issue of ownership claims of Kachchatheevu and traditional fishing rights of Indian fishermen. Therefore, the facts and opinions mentioned in the first part of the essay do not reflect enlightened public opinion in Tamil Nadu.
He asserts that “records of the British India Government since 1876 have showed Kachchatheevu as part of Ceylon”. The Raja of Ramnad, in the then Madras Presidency, however laid claim to the island in the 1920’s. Kachchatheevu was recognized by India as Sri Lankan territory in agreements signed in 1974 and 1976”.
In order to have a proper appreciation of the issue, it is necessary to highlight the following points. It is unfortunate, but true, that all documents relating to the Zamindari rights of the Raja of Ramnad has been taken away to New Delhi and is kept behind the stone walls of official secrecy. However, there are a number of secondary sources to prove, without an iota of doubt, that the island was part of the Zamindari of Raja of Ramnad. The East India Company and the British Government upheld these claims. And when Zamindari was abolished after independence the revenue jurisdiction came to Madras province.
New Delhi did not dispute the Zamindari rights of the Raja of Ramnad, but it was not certain that Zamindari conferred sovereignty. No one claimed that Zamindar was sovereign, but what must be pointed out is that the sovereign had delegated the powers of collection of revenue to the Zamindar. And when the Zamindari was abolished all rights reverted to the Government of Madras Presidency. New Delhi’s contention is tantamount to questioning India’s unity. On the eve of independence, nearly 60 per cent of the land in British India was covered either by Zamindari, Mahalwari or Ryotwari. If New Delhi’s argument is accepted, the very existence of India as a united country will be at stake.
Sri Lanka’s case has been argued out by former Foreign Secretary W.T. Jayasinghe in his book, Kachchativu and the Maritime Boundary of Sri Lanka. Colombo had been claiming that the Island was part of Ceylon and that it had been “exercising sovereignty over the island from time immemorial”. But in the protracted negotiations that took place between the two countries, Colombo adopted a strange argument. As New Delhi, since 1956, has disputed Ceylon’s ownership to the island, the “burden of suggesting a suitable method of settlement should devolve on them”. In the course of my research work, I had the opportunity to interact with Thiru Ratnam, the TULF Member of Parliament representing Kyts constituency. Ratnam informed me that Kachchathivu was included in the Kayts constituency only after the maritime boundary agreement was signed in 1974.
Mrs Indira Gandhi sought legal opinion whether India had historical claims to the island, but the opinion was not unanimous. While Niren De, then Attorney General, was of the view that “on balance, the sovereignty over Kachchatheevu was and is with Sri Lanka”, MC Setalvad, former Attoney General, upheld India’s claims. My attempts to get the full text of the legal opinion were once again futile. More interesting, in order to avoid a constitutional amendment New Delhi took the stand that the island was a “disputed territory”. Let us hope as and when Jayalalithaa’s writ petition, under Article 32 of the Constitution, is taken up all relevant documents will be made available for judicial scrutiny.
It is maintained in the article that the demarcation of the maritime boundary was based on the “internationally recognized principle of the median line”. The experts in the field of International Law do not subscribe to this point of view. SP Jagota, then Director of the Legal and Treaties Division, Government of India, has written “the boundary line between India and Sri Lanka followed the median line, except as adjusted in the Palk Bay in relation to the settlement on the question of the Island of Kachchatheevu”. Prof. Nirmala Chandrahasan, former Professor of Law in the Colombo University, who has made an in-depth study of Sri Lanka’s maritime boundaries, has presented the true picture. To quote Nirmala, “The delimitation was based on agreement, rather than on equidistance principle, as the primary purpose was to settle the dispute over the Kachchatheevu Island, which the two parties had agreed to hand over to Sri Lanka. Hence the boundary line was drawn so as to pass just one mile west of the island of Kachchatheevu; in order that island should fall within maritime boundaries of Sri Lanka”.
Though Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka, a careful reading of Article 5 of the agreement, along with the text of the speech made Foreign Minister Swaran Singh in Lok Sabha on July 23, 1974, makes it clear that Indian fishermen continued to enjoy the traditional rights of fishing in and around Kachchatheevu. But these rights were sacrificed when the maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal were delimited in March 1976.
The ceding of the island of Kachchatheevu was a result of a deliberate political decision taken by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who wanted to come to the rescue of the Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was facing serious domestic problems. The acquisition of Kachchatheevu was projected by Colombo as a great diplomatic victory over India, but in that process the interests of the Government and people of Tamil Nadu were sacrificed by New Delhi in the name of mending fences with its southern neighbour.
Prof. V. Suryanarayan, former Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He is a former member, National Security Advisory Board, Government of India. His e mail address: [email protected]