Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Kachchatheevu: A no man's land everyone wants

Kachchatheevu, an uninhabited island, a little over a square kilometre in area, has been a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for decades. The Rajya Sabha on Monday saw 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 the apex court to declare unconstitutional the 1974 agreement. Tension over the island came to 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 can use the island to dry their nets and even pray at the St Antony’s shrine in the island. Politicians, across the political spectrum in Tamil Nadu, claim that the Centre ceded the island without passing a resolution in Parliament and thus it is an invalid agreement. To bolster their claims politicians claim that the island was under the king of Ramanathapuram and later under the Mdaras Presidency. Over the years, especially after the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, 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. More than 150 Indian fishermen have been arrested and are at present facing trial in Sri Lankan courts.
The manner in which the Centre ‘ceded’ Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974 should be seen not as an aberration but as a general tone adopted by New Delhi while dealing with the states. Much of the problem surrounding the rights over the island could have been avoided if in 1974 the Centre had taken the then state government in Tamil Nadu into confidence. Today, a similar pattern can also been seen in the way the Centre has gone about unilaterally on its decision to carve out a Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh, so much so that it has not even won the support of its state leaders on the decision.
For our democracy to be robust and to function in the manner it is meant to, the Centre cannot treat the states as lackeys. States should be seen as equal partners in the democratic process and in decision-making and should be consulted on matters that concern the respective state. This is all the more important in a coalition era where regional parties play an important role in government formation at the Centre.