Home INDIA Why A 1974 Legal Challenge Against Centre’s Katchatheevu Move Didn’t Work

Why A 1974 Legal Challenge Against Centre’s Katchatheevu Move Didn’t Work

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Why A 1974 Legal Challenge Against Centre's Katchatheevu Move Didn't Work


When the government was challenged by an ordinary citizen in 1974 for recognizing the small island of Katchatheevu as Sri Lankan territory, the government argued that it had no locus standi to intervene in the case.

Fifty years later, Brij Khandelwal, the first petitioner in the Katchatheevu case, says he stands by his belief that no government has anything to do with shrinking the country’s territory.

The uninhabited island, about 1.6 km long and over 300 meters wide, has returned to the spotlight ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, with the BJP accusing the then Congress government of giving it away to Sri Lanka.

In an exclusive interview with WhatsNew2Day, Mr Khandelwal recalled why he took up the issue.

“I filed this petition in 1974 because there was talk of a small island of only 200 hectares further south being given as a gift to Sri Lanka. I didn’t like the idea because I didn’t think any government would have anything to do with it. had to do with reducing the territory of India. They can increase the territory of India, but they cannot dilute it or reduce it,” he said.

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He said he had filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in 1974 over concerns that the island could be used for military purposes in the future if relations between the two countries deteriorated.

“My submission was that relations with Sri Lanka may be good today, but tomorrow they may turn sour and hostile. That happened later in the 80s. So I was very excited and concerned about it… my fear that one day a hostile government leases this piece of land and it is used for military purposes, what happens then?”

But with the state of emergency still in force and citizens’ fundamental rights suspended, his arguments are receiving strong reactions from the government.

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“The government argued that we had no locus standi in the case, that we had no business, no ties and no direct relations with Katchatheevu Island, and therefore we should not be heard. But as a free citizen, with all my fundamental rights intact, I had every right to intervene and raise this issue. I had every right to travel freely in any part of Indian territory and no government had any business in cutting off any part of the country,” Mr Khandelwal said.

But the court was not convinced.

“The court probably decided that I really had no standing, but more importantly because the emergency provisions were in place and I had no fundamental rights, so I couldn’t plead on that basis,” he added.

After the state of emergency was lifted, Mr. Khandelwal said he was not pursuing the matter very vigorously because “no government was interested.” “After 1977, when the emergency was lifted and the Janata Party came to power, I told them. But they asked me not to unnecessarily interfere in the relations between the two countries. So I kept quiet,” he added.

Read | “I replied 21 times”: S Jaishankar quashes DMK claims on Katchatheevu

The island was part of Indian territory until 1947 and there was no dispute over the legality of the entire matter, he added.

“It was the magnanimity of Indira Gandhi’s government that probably forced it to take this decision. She wanted good relations with Sri Lanka, which did not happen and the Prime Minister later lost,” Mr Khandelwal said.

The government had no good reason to oppose the case, he said, but the courts were under pressure because of the emergency.

“The question I had asked in 1974 still stands strong even today and I am convinced that no government has any intention of gifting any part of India,” he said, adding, “I think that the island is ours.”

The Katchatheevu row resurfaced after a media report based on an RTI reply received by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai on the 1974 Indo-Sri Lankan maritime agreement.

In 1976, after the Tamil Nadu government was dismissed during the Emergency, another pact banned fishermen from both countries from fishing in each other’s waters. The harassment of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Lankan authorities is a key issue in the state, and the BJP has raised it ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.

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