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

In an exclusive interview with NDTV, Mr Khandelwal recalled why he had put his foot down over the Katchatheevu issue.

In 1974, when it was challenged by an ordinary citizen over recognizing the tiny Katchatheevu island as Sri Lankan territory, the government argued he had no locus standi to interfere 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 any business in diminishing the country's territory.

The uninhabited island, about 1.6 km long and over 300 metres wide, has shot back into the limelight 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 NDTV, Mr Khandelwal recalled why he had put his foot down over the issue.

"I filed this petition in 1974 because there was some talk about a small island of only 200 acres down south being donated as a gift to Sri Lanka. I didn't like the idea because I thought no government had any business to reduce the territory of India. They can add, but not dilute or diminish the territory of India," he said.

Read | "Nehru Saw It As Nuisance": S Jaishankar Doubles Down On Katchatheevu Row

He said he filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in 1974 out of the concern that the island may be used for military purposes in the future if relations soured between the two countries.

"My submission was today relations may be good with Sri Lanka, but tomorrow they could turn sour and hostile. That did happen later in the 80s. So I was very keen and concerned about it... my fear that someday if some hostile government leases out this piece of land and it is used for military purposes, what happens then?"

However, with the Emergency still on and the fundamental rights of the citizens suspended, his arguments faced a fierce response from the government.

Watch | Video: Katchatheevu Island, The New Flashpoint In BJP Vs Opposition

"The government argued that we had no locus standi in the case, we had no business, no link and no direct relations to the Katchatheevu island, therefore we should not be heard. But as a free citizen, with all my fundamental rights intact, I had every business to interfere and raise this issue. I had every right to move around freely on any part of the Indian territory and no government had any business to cut away any part of the land," said Mr Khandelwal.

But the court wasn't convinced.

"The court probably decided I really had no locus standi, but more importantly, because the emergency provisions were enforced and I had no fundamental rights, so I could not plead on that ground," he added.

After the Emergency was lifted, Mr Khandelwal said he did not pursue the matter very strongly 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 Trashes DMK Claims Over Katchatheevu

The island was part of the Indian territory till 1947 and there was no dispute over the legality of the whole case, he added.

"It was about the magnanimity of the Indira Gandhi government that probably forced her to take this decision. She wanted good relations with Sri Lanka, which didn't happen and the prime minister later lost," said Mr Khandelwal.

The government had no solid reason to oppose this case, he said, but the courts were under pressure due to Emergency.

"The question that I had raised in 1974 - they stand well even today and I firmly believe no government has any business to gift any part of India," he said, adding, "I think the island belongs to us."

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

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.