A week before hearing on petitions by Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and her arch rival M Karunanidhi seeking retrieval of Kachatheevu Island from Sri Lanka, attorney general Mukul Rohatgi on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that the task was impossible.
“The island was given to Sri Lanka on the basis of a bilateral agreement in 1974. To retrieve it now, we have to go to war,” Rohatgi said.
Responding to the AG’s statement, a bench of Chief Justice R M Lodha and Justices Kurian Joseph and R F Nariman said, “In the Supreme Court, we talk of peace and not war.”
Rohatgi’s suo motu statement came during hearing of two petitions by member of Parliament AKS Vijayan and deputy speaker of Lok Sabha M Thambidurai, who had sought the SC’s intervention for early release of 107 Tamil Nadu fishermen arrested by Sri Lankan navy for allegedly straying into their territorial waters.
The fishermen flock to Kachatheevu as the area around the island yields a rich catch of fish and they routinely get arrested and harassed by the Lankan navy, the petitioners had alleged.
The court told the petitioners that they were members of Parliament and could well raise the issue in the House and impress upon the government the gravity of the situation. “How can the court get into a matter that lies squarely between India and Sri Lanka,” it asked.
“How do we invoke our jurisdiction in such matters? We do not deny there could be hardship for the fishermen. But how can we deal with issues relating to foreign countries? Best way is to leave it to the political dispensation. Now, the political dispensation has changed. You bring the issue to their notice. You are no lay person but important political person,” the bench said.
Rohatgi initially volunteered to arrange a meeting of the petitioners with the external affairs minister but later said as deputy speaker of Lok Sabha and an MP, the petitioners were quite important and could directly talk to the minister on this issue.
The bench disposed of the petitions saying the petitioners could make fresh representation to the NDA government raising issues of fishermen’s arrest, compensation to families and more vigilant patrolling by Coast Guard to prevent straying of fishermen into Lankan waters.
A few years ago, the Tamil Nadu assembly had unanimously passed a resolution moved by Jayalalithaa stating that the “government of India should take immediate steps to retrieve Katchatheevu Island ceded in 1970 to Sri Lanka” to help resolve the crisis and save lives of Indian fishermen.
In January 2009, the Supreme Court had issued notice on Jayalalithaa’s petition on the same issue. She too had questioned the legality of the agreement ceding Kachatheevu to Sri Lanka saying it did not have backing of a constitutional amendment. DMK chief M Karunanidhi too has been staunchly opposed to the ceding of Kachatheevu to Sri Lanka.
Jayalalithaa had said the Supreme Court, in Berubari Union case in 1960, had clearly laid down that no ceding of territory could take place without Parliament first approving it in terms of a constitutional amendment. The DMK chief too cited the same case to augment his arguments.
Seeking a declaration from the court to nullify the ceding of Kachatheevu, Jayalalithaa had sought a direction to the Union government to take steps for retrieving the island and include it within the territory of India, Times of India reports.