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Katchatheevu issue: Jaishankar says Cong PMs simply did not care, gave away fishermen's rights

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New Delhi, Apr 1 (PTI) External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Monday claimed that prime ministers from the Congress displayed indifference about Katchatheevu island as if they did not care and gave away Indian fishermen's rights despite legal views to the contrary.

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Prime ministers such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi dubbed Katchatheevu, given to Sri Lanka in 1974 as part of a maritime boundary agreement, as a "little island" and "little rock", he told a press conference, asserting that the issue has not cropped up abruptly but was always a live matter.

The records exist of the then foreign secretary keeping the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi, the late DMK patriarch, fully informed of the talks between the two countries, Jaishankar said and accused the regional party of conniving with the Congress in 1974 and thereafter in creating the situation which has been a cause of "great concern". "The same people who connived at all this are today standing up and trying to pretend to be champions of fishermen," he said.

Citing details of the agreements between India and Sri Lanka first in 1974 and then in 1976, he said a recurring theme is the indifference shown by the central government and prime ministers of the day then about the territory of India, as he named Nehru and Gandhi for their remarks. "The fact is they simply did not care," Jaishankar said.

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In 20 years, 6,184 Indian fishermen have been detained by Sri Lanka and their 1,175 fishing vessels seized by the neighbouring country, he said, It is the Narendra Modi government that has been working to ensure that the Indian fishermen are released, Jaishankar said, adding, "We have to find a solution. We have to sit down and work it out with the Sri Lankan government." Jaishankar also dismissed Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh's suggestion that a pact between the two countries in 1974 allowing the repatriation of 6,00,000 Tamils from Sri Lanka to India was made possible due to the island agreement.

Nothing is in the agreement that offers any benefit other than what is already there, he said.

The minister, whose savvy and sharp articulation of the government's nationalist views has earned him his share of admirers, especially among BJP supporters, played down any link between the party raising the issue amid the Lok Sabha poll campaign.

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It is being raised as it has very much been a public issue and people, who have been "misled" for many years, have a right to know, he said.

Asked if the government plans to reclaim the island, Jaishankar parried the query, noting that the issue related to the island is in the Supreme Court. It is a sub-judice matter and nobody should speculate, he added.

The Congress and the DMK often raise the issue in Parliament and in public as if they have nothing to do with this, the external affair minister said.

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They approach the issue as though they bear no responsibility for it, he added. They should own up to what they have done, he said.

"The fact is today we know who did it and who hid it," Jaishankar said, The island issue has been frequently raised in Parliament and has been a matter of frequent correspondence between the Centre and the state government, he said, adding that he has replied to the current chief minister at least 21 times.

The minister said legals opinions, including from the then attorney general M C Setalvad, had backed Indian fishermen's rights in the island's waters but the Congress government gave it up in 1976 after assuring Parliament in 1974 that they will continue to have the rights they have traditionally enjoyed.

Prime Minister Modi has also targeted the Congress and the DMK over the Katchatheevu island issue. PTI KR KR ANB ANB

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