Katchatheevu: Regular item in Indo-Sri Lanka talks

Sri Lanka’s Katchatheevu island that started a war of words between the BJP keen to expand its presence in Tamil Nadu and the ruling DMK in the state is a strategically located island between the neighbours that once upon a time disallowed the presence of foreign powers in the region. The move to cede island did not go down well in Tamil Nadu irrespective of successive political regimes.

PM Narendra Modi, citing a media report, accused the Congress of “weakening” the country’s integrity and interests by “callously” handing over the Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka in 1974. His response came after a Right To Information (RTI) report revealed how the Congress government led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi handed over the key island to the neighbouring country. This is not the first time the PM had raised the issue. He has raised the issue of this island being handed over in the past as well.

In a post on X, DMK spokesperson Manuraj S said the issue was a “woeful and outdated political campaign” matter. But last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader MK Stalin wrote a letter to PM Modi ahead of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to India, asking the PM to discuss key issues, including the matter of Katchatheevu. The issue has repeatedly figured in bilateral conversations between New Delhi and Colombo over the years.

Katchatheevu is a 285-acre uninhabited island in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka.

It lies northeast of Rameswaram, about 33 km from the Indian coast. It is about 62 km southwest of Jaffna, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, and 24 km away from the inhabited Delft Island, belonging to Sri Lanka. Katchatheevu is not suited for permanent settlement as there is no source of drinking water on the island.

It was controlled by the Jaffna kingdom of Sri Lanka in the medieval period. In the 17th century, control passed to the Ramnad zamindari based out of Ramanathapuram, about 55 km northwest of Rameswaram.

The island became part of the Madras Presidency during the British Raj. But in 1921, both India and Sri Lanka, at the time British colonies, claimed Katchatheevu in order to determine fishing boundaries. This dispute was not settled until 1974.

As a part of ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement’, Indira Gandhi ‘ceded’ Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. At the time, she thought the island had little strategic value and that ceasing India’s claim over the island would deepen its ties with its southern neighbour and disallow the presence of foreign players who in those days were interested to make inroads in the Southern Indian Ocean region.

The issue of fishing rights was not ironed out by the agreement. Sri Lanka interpreted Indian fishermens’ right to access Katchatheevu to be limited to “rest, drying nets and for visit to the Catholic shrine without visa”. Indira Gandhi’s moves had faced protest in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1970s and even later.

BJP alleged that Congress government’s decision to give away Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka led to the capture and imprisonment of Tamil Nadu fishermen by Lankans as they at times wander to the island, which is only 25 km off their state’s coast, and are arrested.

Eyeing votes in Tamil Nadu, which is going for Lok Sabha polls in first phase, the BJP launched a scathing attack on Congress citing a media report based on a RTI reply to Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai.

The report states that Indira Gandhi government in 1974 to hand over the island in Palk Strait to the neighbouring country.

The report also cites first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s comments on the issue, a source of dispute between India and Lanka, that he would have no hesitation in giving up claims on the island.

Addressing a press conference at the BJP headquarters, Sudhanshu Trivedi said that the island was with India till 1975.

Tamil Nadu fishermen used to go there earlier but the agreement India signed with Lanka under the Indira Gandhi government barred them from doing so, he said.

In a dig at Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Trivedi asked as to why he is keeping mum on the issue and that he should tell people that not only his party, but his family too is responsible for this.

The decision of the then Congress government at the Centre has led to the capture and imprisonment of Tamil Nadu fishermen by Lankans as they at times wander to the island, which is only 25 km off their state’s coast, and are arrested, Trivedi claimed.

Unfortunately, neither the DMK nor the Congress is raising the issue, but Modi is due to his commitment to the issues pertaining to the country and its people, he said.

Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK is an ally of Congress and part of the opposition block I.N.D.I.A. The issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka and arrests of Indian fishermen by the Lankan Navy have been emotive items in Tamil Nadu.

Roy Walsh

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