By Brij Khandelwal,
A long time ago, I had moved the Delhi High Court challenging the Indian government’s decision to give away the Kachchativu island to Sri Lanka.
When the transfer happened, in 1974, I was aghast.
I am not a Tamil, I do not live in Tamil Nadu either; but as an Indian I was shocked that India had chosen to surrender a chunk of its territory to another country.
That too land which a section of Indians (read Tamils) did not want to be given away.
I also knew that the government of Indira Gandhi had not got the decision ratified by parliament.
I moved a civil writ petition in the Delhi High Court that very year. The judges were T. Tatachari and M. Ansari. The case came to be known as “Brij Khandelwal vs Union Of India”.
I prayed that the court issue a writ of prohibition and/or any other appropriate order preventing New Delhi from ceding Kachchativu to Colombo.
Another petition was filed by Shyama Charan Gupta praying that the Indian government be stopped from giving away Kachchativu and, if this had already been done, to take back the island.
He also wanted the court to declare that the government and parliament have no powers to cede any part of India.
It was in June 1974 that India gave up the sovereignty over the 280 acres of the Kachchativu island in the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of sea dividing India and Sri Lanka.
Although the Island was uninhabited, fishermen from India used to go there to fish and to dry their nets. It was marine rich — and remains so today.
Many Indians also visited the island to pray at the church of St. Anthony.
Notices were issued to the central government asking why our petitions should not be admitted.
The government argued we had no right, constitutional or statutory or otherwise, to file the writ petition; no right of ours was threatened; and that we petitioners had no locus standi.
In any event, in view of the Emergency declared Dec 3, 1971 (in view of the India-Pakistan war), the agreement could not be challenged by invoking article 19 of the constitution.
The government also said there was no question of cession of Indian territory as there had been a long standing row between India and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) over Kachchativu.
The government insisted that Indian fishermen and pilgrims would continue to enjoy access to Kachchativu without obtaining travel documents or visas.
After Indira Gandhi was voted out in March 1977, I pursued the matter with the Indian foreign ministry.
My socialist friends, the late Surendra Mohan and then minister of state for external affairs Samarendra Kundu, pressured me to give up the battle, saying this could affect India-Sri Lanka relations.
I argued that not resolving the issue would lead to complications at a later date.
This is exactly what has happened now, with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa deciding to press the issue in the Supreme Court.
With the Sri Lankan navy, more aggressive after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, attacking and killing Tamil Nadu fishermen, and with Jayalalithaa demanding the return of Kachchativu, the dispute is bound to aggravate in the coming times.