The Katchatheevu Dilemma: Looking Beyond the Electoral Lens

The revival of the Katchatheevu island issue, a once-resolved maritime issue between India and Sri Lanka, has brought a new twist to India’s electoral campaign, even as the seven-phased general election is set to begin on April 19. It has palpable implications for the two major parties under the opposition INDIA alliance—the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a regional party in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu (TN). Both INC and DMK are now put under scanner for compromising India’s national interest. 

It all began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on Katchatheevu, sparking a new wave of contestations. Modi’s characterization of the issue as ‘eye-opening and startling’ indicated the widespread public outcry it incited, casting doubt on the reliability of the INC-led government’s decision to cede control of the island. Recent disclosures brought to light by TN leaders of BJP—hinting at the Congress government’s willingness to abandon claims over Katchatheevu—have fuelled Modi’s criticism. 

A day after Modi’s comments, India’s Minister of External Affairs (EAM), S. Jaishankar, also launched a scathing attack on the INC and DMK, accusing them of shirking responsibility regarding the Katchatheevu issue. Addressing a press conference in Delhi, Jaishankar emphasized the public’s right to transparency regarding the circumstances surrounding the relinquishment of Katchatheevu. He said: “In May of 1961, PM Nehru wrote that he attaches no importance at all to this little island and he would have no hesitation in giving up claim to it. He wrote that he doesn’t like matter like this being pending indefinitely and being raised again and again in Parliament. He saw it as a nuisance.” Jaishankar questioned the motives behind surrendering not only the island but also the fishing rights of Indian fishermen, despite assurances given to Parliament in 1976. Jaishankar elucidated the 1974 agreement between India and Sri Lanka, which delineated a maritime boundary, placing Katchatheevu on the Sri Lankan side. He stressed the need for diplomatic dialogue with Sri Lankan authorities to seek resolution. Providing context to the issue, Jaishankar highlighted the alarming frequency of Indian fishermen being detained and their vessels seized by Sri Lanka over the past two decades. This, he asserted, forms the backdrop of the ongoing discussions. 

Jaishankar dismissed the notion that the issue had arisen suddenly, citing correspondence from the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and his own extensive engagement with the matter. He emphasized that this is not a dormant concern but rather a pressing issue demanding immediate attention. Moreover, Jaishankar pointed out that in the last 20 years, 6184 Indian fishermen have been detained by Sri Lanka and 1175 Indian fishing vessels have been seized, detained, or apprehended by Sri Lanka. 

As EAM said, the issue had emerged many times before, with increasing incidents of Indian fishermen being arrested by the Lankan navy. For instance, on July 21, 2022, in reply to a question on the ownership right of Katchatheevu island raised by Vaiko in the Rajya Sabha, the minister of state in the Ministry of External Affairs said:  “The Government of India concluded maritime boundary agreements with Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976. Under the Agreements, the Island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line. Currently, the matter relating to the Katchatheevu Island issue is sub-judice in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.” The minister also noted that the issues pertaining to Indian fishermen were taken up through diplomatic channels and established mechanisms.

Katchatheevu, located in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, was a focal point of maritime dispute and political manoeuvrings. Apart from its religious importance—particularly with St. Anthony’s church—the geopolitical value of the island had attracted the attention of both countries. However, in 1974, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s leadership, India relinquished control of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka as part of the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement. While aimed at strengthening bilateral ties, concerns were also raised about its impact on the traditional rights of Indian fishermen.

Yet, the transfer of Katchatheevu has remained contentious, particularly in TN politics, where sentiments are influenced by historical ties and concerns for fishermen’s livelihoods. Leaders like J Jayalalitha and Chief Minister MK Stalin vehemently opposed the decision, arguing that it was made without consulting the Tamil Nadu state assembly and had adverse effects on Tamil fishermen.

The decades-long Sri Lankan civil war further complicated matters, temporarily diverting attention from the maritime issue but reigniting tensions post-war. This led to incidents involving Indian fishermen being apprehended by the Sri Lankan navy. Despite these challenges, demands for revisiting the Katchatheevu issue persisted, reflecting deep-rooted concerns and political significance in the broader geopolitical context of the Indian Ocean region.

During a parliamentary debate last year, Prime Minister Modi indirectly criticized members of the ruling DMK in TN, reminding them of their late leader M Karunanidhi’s role in consenting to the transfer of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. This remark sparked reactions in Sri Lanka, with some interpreting it as a subtle call for India to reclaim Katchatheevu. However, mainstream Sri Lankan parties refrained from commenting, possibly due to India’s significant support during Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. 

In fact, the reference to Katchatheevu by Modi, last year, coincided with efforts to enhance bilateral economic cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, including projects like underwater petroleum pipelines and electricity cable connections. Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal for a road linkage between the two countries also drew attention. However, observers had warned that any perceived shift in India’s stance on Katchatheevu could impact these efforts and jeopardize plans for the road linkage project, aimed at boosting trade and tourism. 

Katchatheevu, though a small uninhabited island, holds significant historical and religious importance for Tamil fishermen from both India and Sri Lanka. However, controversies emerged, such as the discovery of a Buddha statue on the island, prompting concerns and diplomatic responses from both countries. The ongoing dispute over Katchatheevu continued after the bilateral agreements in 1974 and 1976, which assigned the island to Sri Lanka, despite objections from Indian fishermen and Tamil Nadu politicians.

However, Sri Lanka consistently maintained a policy rooted in historical facts regarding the ownership of Katchatheevu, exercising jurisdiction and control over the island. Evidence dating back to 1924, according to Colombo, suggested that Survey Officers of the Government of India recognized Katchatheevu as part of then Ceylon as early as 1876. Further, Katchatheevu has been under Sri Lankan jurisdiction since the era of Portuguese and British rule.

It is true that the issue of Katchatheevu initially surfaced in 1921 during discussions to demarcate fisheries boundaries between India and Ceylon. Subsequent bilateral talks addressed maritime boundary delineation, culminating in the 1974 Agreement concerning historic waters in the Palk Strait and Palk Bay, officially affirming Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island. Article 4 of the Agreement establishes each state’s sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction over their respective maritime boundaries, including Katchatheevu island within Sri Lankan waters. Article 5 ensures that Indian fishermen and pilgrims retain access to Katchatheevu without the need for travel documents or visas, while Article 6 preserves the traditional navigational rights of vessels from both Sri Lanka and India in each other’s waters.

The preparatory notes leading to the finalization of the rights of the two parties indicated that under Article 5, pilgrims’ rights were limited to attending the annual church feast, while fishermen were granted access to dry their nets and catch. Consequently, considering the provisions of both Article 5 and 6 together, Sri Lanka argued, it is evident that no fishing rights are conferred upon Indian fishermen or vessels to engage in fishing in Sri Lankan waters. In continuation of this process, an Agreement on the Maritime Boundary between Sri Lanka and India in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal, along with related matters, was signed in 1976. This Agreement further elucidated the positions established by the 1974 Agreement between the two nations. Article 5 of the 1976 Agreement stipulates the following:

Each Party shall exercise sovereignty over the historic waters, territorial sea, and islands falling within its respective boundary. Each Party shall hold sovereign rights and exclusive jurisdiction over the Continental Shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), as well as their resources, whether living or non-living, within its boundary. Each Party shall respect navigation rights through its territorial sea and exclusive economic zone in accordance with its laws, regulations, and international law.  Colombo argued that these provisions leave no doubt regarding fishing rights. TN leaders always contested this position. 

The historical claim over Katchatheevu remained contentious till the mid-seventies, with both India and Sri Lanka asserting ownership based on conflicting historical documents. While India’s acquiescence to the cession of Katchatheevu can be attributed to political and strategic considerations, the issue continued to be politically sensitive, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

Despite legal challenges and political rhetoric, successive Indian governments have affirmed Katchatheevu’s status as Sri Lankan territory, signalling a reluctance to reopen negotiations on the matter. This position is broken now. This is surely the first time that the ruling NDA’s top echelons have come out in open with a position that the INC and DMK were not honest on the Katchatheevu issue which remained a complex and contentious aspect of India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary, with political, economic, and historical dimensions. Prime Minister Modi’s remarks, as well as EAM’s press conference, have triggered debates and raised concerns about the implications for bilateral cooperation and regional stability. 

The concerns of Tamil people are natural given the long history of the fishermen being frequently arrested. Now, there is a question looming: Can the 1974 and 1976 agreements be terminated based on evidence of the violations of their provisions? For the ruling dispensation in New Delhi, which aims to make electoral gains in South India, the issue carries significant weight. They know that the issue could open a new and sensitive front in the ongoing electoral battle, with accusations against the previous INC and DMK governments of surrendering India’s national interests. For the people of Tamil Nadu, the issue is not just sensitive but also a matter of life and livelihood, with profound implications for their daily lives and economic well-being. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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