Explained: Did India ‘give away’ Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka?

PM Modi targets Congress over the island issue ahead of polls


With Lok Sabha elections round the corner, Katchatheevu, a small island between India and Sri Lanka, has once again hit the headlines. An RTI reply received by Tamil Nadu BJP president K. Annamalai has stirred up the political storm, with even Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching an attack on the Congress party.

"Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu,” Modi wrote on social media platform X.

Soon, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stepped in and said former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had displayed an indifference towards Katchatheevu and Indira Gandhi ceded the island to Sri Lanka. “They gave away the Indian fishermen’s rights despite legal views to the contrary,” Jaishankar said.

Where is Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is a small uninhabited 285- acre islet in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka—12 miles from Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram and 10.5 miles south of the Delft Island in Sri Lanka. It doesn’t have even a drop of drinking water. Every year, a two-day festival happens at the St Antony's Church in the island and the fisherfolks from both the countries visit the island during this time. St Antony is considered the guardian of the fishermen.

Till a decade ago, fishermen from both India and Sri Lanka used to dry their nets in the island. But now, they have shifted to using nylon nets.

Katchatheevu once belonged to the Zamindari Raja of Ramanathapuram. Till a decade ago, members of the Ramanathapuram Zamindari used to claim rights for Katchatheevu.

Why was Katchatheevu ceded to Sri Lanka in 1976?

The islet was controlled by the British Ceylon till 1921. Both India and Sri Lanka had not made any claim on the island and it remained undisputed till 1974 when both the countries decided to redraw their maritime boundaries. The fishermen used to fish on both sides till the maritime boundaries were demarcated in 1974. Indira Gandhi and the then Sri Lankan president Sirimavo Bandaranaike were good friends.

According to the exchange letter of an agreement between the two countries, Wadge bank, off the Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), was bought by India from Sri Lanka in exchange of Katchatheevu.

Indira Gandhi decided to cede the island to Sri Lanka in 1974, which was opposed by the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi. The maritime boundary between the two counties in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal was realigned in 1976 and the Wadge Bank was taken by India.

“The fishing vessels of Sri Lanka and persons on board these vessels shall not engage in fishing in the Wadge Bank. However at the request of the government of Sri Lanka and a gesture of goodwill, the government of India agrees that Sri Lanka fishing vessels duly licesend by the government of India may engage in fishing in the Wadge bank for a period of three years,” reads the exchange letter from ministry of external affairs dated march 23, 1976.

Even after that, there was no conflict in the region and the fishermen continued to fish on both sides. It was a seabed filled with chalk shells, prawns, pearl oysters and corals, which had depleted over the years. At one point of time, the scientists also felt that the region could be explored for oil. The islet was also a spot for major smuggling during the 1990s. But after the ethnic strife began in Sri Lanka, the islet became a point of conflict and the Sri Lankan navy became watchdogs in this region. The Tamil fishermen were not allowed to go to fish near Katchatheevu as the Sri Lankan navy could not differentiate between LTTE sympathisers and the Tamil fishermen.

However, the use of trawlers by the Indian fishermen started wiping the seabed and the Tamil fishermen in Sri Lanka raised alarm about their marine resources being depleted. This resulted in the Sri Lankan navy arresting the Indian fishermen who got into the international waters. The issue still continues for which both the countries have still not found a solution.

The controversy now

In 2013 and 2014, the ceding of Katchatheevu turned into an election issue. Apparently, Jayalalithaa gained out of it as she turned it into an emotional issue against the DMK and its patriarch Karunanidhi. During every election, the Katchatheevu issue would be raked up by the political parties. This time the BJP raised it, only to turn it into an anti-Congress and anti-DMK issue. While it may not help the BJP gain votes in Tamil Nadu, it may be used by the saffron party to play the anti-Congress card in North India.

Katchatheevu, however, is completely a non-issue in Sri Lanka.

“It is a myth that the islet was simply given away. The ceding happened only after it was rooted in real claim and negotiations. Prime Minister Modi’s recent attention to this island is for elections. Prima-facie, it is part of the election strategy to corner the Congress and to get mileage out of an emotive issue. There is more to it than meets the eye,” says Dr Rohan Gunaratna, Professor of Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Rohan Gunaratna, a Sri Lankan, is the author of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday Massacre

Incidentally, Katchatheevu has never been an emotion issue for the fishermen as they are much aware that there are no fish in and around the island these days.

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