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The agreement with Sri Lanka was signed on June 26-28, 1974, within a week of the meeting of Karunanidhi and the Indian foreign secretary on June 19, 1974. (File image/News18 Tamil)

As per an RTI by MEA, the Centre told Karunanidhi in 1974 that Indian fishermen would enjoy access to the Katchatheevu Island as hitherto. But Sri Lanka says this was never the case

Indian fishermen continue to be arrested by Sri Lankan authorities because India had surrendered fishing rights near Katchatheevu Island in 1974 itself “beyond doubt” and a further agreement in 1976 only further put this out explicitly, shows a Sri Lankan document of 2008 that News18 has accessed.

This document is the reply of Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama in the Sri Lankan Parliament in September 2008.

The Sri Lankan minister cited Article 6 of the 1974 India-Sri Lanka agreement to say that “by this article, only navigational rights of the vessels of both Sri Lanka and India over each other’s waters have been preserved” and said provisions of Article 5 and 6 taken together “do not confer any fishing rights on the Indian fishermen or vessels to engage in fishing in Sri Lankan waters.”

The minister said all that Indian fishermen could do post-1974 in terms of rights of access to Katchatheevu was to “dry their nets and catch”.

Bogollagama said an agreement between both countries in 1976 “further clarified” the position established by the 1974 agreement.

In the 1976 agreement, it was mentioned that “each party shall respect rights of navigation through the territorial sea and exclusive economic zone…”.

The Sri Lankan minister said that the 1974 and 1976 agreements taken together with the Letters of Exchange signed between the foreign secretaries of both sides “has put the question of fishing rights beyond doubt and clearly rules out any fishing rights…it clearly prohibits fishing vessels and fishermen of one country fishing in the others’ waters”.

Bogollagama cited Paragraph 1 of the ‘Exchange of Letters’ which clearly said – “Fishing Vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of Sri Lanka…”

Why This is Important

DMK has been arguing now that its chief M Karunanidhi had never consented to the 1976 agreement which took away Indian fishermen’s rights to fish around Katchatheevu, as he was not in power then.

The RTI document revealed by the Ministry of External Affairs of India has brought forth the minutes of a meeting between India’s then foreign secretary and then Tamil Nadu CM M Karunanidhi in 1974, in which Karunanidhi gave his approval for re-drawing of the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary that would leave Katchatheevu on the Sri Lankan side.

The agreement with Sri Lanka was signed on June 26-28, 1974, within a week of the meeting of Karunanidhi and the Indian foreign secretary on June 19, 1974.

DMK now argues that it was the 1976 agreement which surrendered India’s fishing rights in Katchatheevu and hence, Karunanidhi was opposed to it. However, the Sri Lankan document with News18 now shows that India had surrendered the fishing rights in Katchatheevu in 1974 itself, within days of getting Karunanidhi on board.

In that meeting with Karunanidhi, the Centre told him that the new boundary line would cross 1-2 miles west of Katchatheevu and the “ostensible reason for the lines would be to ensure the maintenance of traditional fishing and other rights enjoyed by Indian nationals on and around the island, which would fall on the Sri Lanka side of the line.”

“Because of our strong stand, they (Sri Lanka) finally agreed that Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to the Katchatheevu island as hitherto.”

However, as the Sri Lankan document revealed by News18 now shows, Sri Lanka never bestowed Indian fishermen the right to fish in waters around Katchatheevu since 1974.

Fishermen’s Plight

The Sri Lankan document of 2008 says several personalities in Tamil Nadu have raised the issue of Katchatheevu, “making proposals based on their own perceptions without any apparent valid legal basis, pertaining to the rights of Indian fishermen”.

“In fact, there has been a case filed by the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa at the Indian Supreme Court. However, a decision given by a court outside the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka would not be binding on Sri Lanka. Any such court order or judgement will not alter or have any impact on a bilateral treaty concluded between two sovereign states,” the Sri Lankan minister said.


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