Doubling down on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charge at Opposition over the Katchatheevu island row, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar today said Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first Prime Minister, wanted to give away the island to Sri Lanka.

In 1974, the then Indira Gandhi government had accepted the island, about 1.6 km long and over 300 m wide, a Sri Lankan area under Indo-Sri Lankan maritime agreement. The issue has resurfaced after a media report based on a RTI reply received by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai on the 1974 pact. In 1976, after the Tamil Nadu government was dismissed during the Emergency, another pact restricted fishermen of both countries from fishing in each other’s waters. The harassment of Tamil Nadu fishermen by Lankan authorities is a key issue in the state, and the BJP has raised this with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.

Addressing the media, Dr Jaishankar today quoted former External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh’s 1974 address in Parliament. “I feel confident that the agreement demarcating the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay will be considered as fair, just and equitable to both countries. At the same time, I wish to remind the honourable members that in concluding this agreement, the rights of fishing, pilgrimage and navigation, which both sides have enjoyed in the past, have been fully safeguarded for the future,” he said, quoting the former minister.

In less than two years, Dr Jaishankar said, there was another agreement between India and Sri Lanka. “In this agreement, India proposed the following: with the establishment of the exclusive economic zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones. The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive zone of Sri Lanka,” he said.

“(In) 1974, assurance is given. By 1976, an agreement is concluded which gives away this assurance,” he said.

The consequence, he said, is that 6,184 Indian fishermen have been detained in the last 20 years. In the same period, 1,175 Indian fishing vessels have been seized by Lankans, he added.

The Katchatheevu issue, he said, has been repeatedly raised in Parliament by various parties over the past five years. “In fact, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has written to me numerous times. My record shows that I have replied to the current Chief Minister (MK Stalin) 21 times on this issue. This is not an issue which has suddenly surfaced. This is a live issue,” he said.

The Congress and DMK, he said, have approached the matter “as though they have no responsibility”. “We believe that the public has a right to know how this situation came about.”

“We know who did this, how the situation arose. What we do not know is who hid this, what has been concealed from the public,” he said.

India’s claim, he said, is mainly that the Kathatheevu island belonged to the Raja of Ramnad and that he had it from the British era. Later on, his rights moved to the Madras government. “The Indian view was also that there was no documentary evidence that Sri Lanka had an original title,” he said, adding that the Sri Lankan argument was that they have records going back to the 17th century.

After both India and Sri Lanka became independent, he said, there were issues between these countries about using this island. In 1974, Dr Jaishankar, said then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Mrs Gandhi spoke about this on the latter’s trip to India.

In 1958, then Attorney General MC Setalvad said in a legal opinion that while the matter is not free from difficulty, “the balance lies in favour of concluding that the sovereignty of the island was and is in India”, Dr Jaishankar said.

The key people, he said, were of the opinion that “we have a case” and felt that we must at least insist for fishing rights around the island. “The island was also given away in 1974 and the fishing rights in 1976,” he said.

“How did this happen has many aspects to it. One is the indifference shown by the central government and Prime Ministers of the day about the territory of India. The fact is, they simply did not care,” Dr Jaishankar said.

Quoting an observation by Prime Minister Nehru in May 1961, he said, “I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claim to it. I do not like matters like this pending indefinitely and being raised again and again in Parliament.”

“So, to Pandit Nehru, this was a little island, he saw it as a nuisance. For him, the sooner you give it away, the better,” the minister said.

This view, he said, continued in the Indira Gandhi era. Mrs Gandhi, he said, had remarked in a Congress meeting that this island was a “little rock”. “This dismissive attitude was the historic Congress attitude towards Katchatheevu.”

The External Affairs Minister’s press interaction came after Prime Minister Modi targeted the Congress for “callously” giving away the island to Lanka.

“Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds – we can’t ever trust Congress,” he said on X, sharing the report.” Sharing a media report that said Mrs Gandhi had taken then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi into confidence with regard to the decision on the island, the Prime Minister said DMK has “done nothing” to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests.

Congress’s Manickam Tagore hit back, calling the BJP’s charge on the issue a “diversionary tactic”. “The problem with BJP, RSS and PM Modi is that people are rejecting them in Tamil Nadu and they want a diversionary tactic… The government of India headed by Indira Gandhi signed an agreement called the Indira Gandhi-Sirimavo Bandaranaike agreement in that time to save 6 lakh Tamils and to save them, this island was given to the Sri Lankan government. We are very clear that if our fishermen are attacked, we will raise our voices to take back Katchatheevu Island. But, in 10 years, Prime Minister Modi has failed to do so. They will not get even one seat in Tamil Nadu by these cheap tactics,” he said.

DMK’s A Saravanan said the External Affairs Minister has said nothing new. “The question is why the BJP is raking up this issue now. Because they are scared, they know they are going to lose this election and in Tamil Nadu, they are facing a rout. The Prime Minister cannot answer the question, why no flood relief for Tamil Nadu. He is now bringing up false bogeys,” he said.

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