Explained: Why Katchatheevu finds itself at the centre of a political storm again

Katchatheevu is a small islet in the Palk Strait, connecting the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. In 1974 and 1976, both nations signed agreements demarcating the boundary lines between the two countries. Why is BJP raising the issue now?
Explained: Why Katchatheevu finds itself at the centre of a political storm again

As Tamil Nadu gears up for Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has raked up the decades-old Katchatheevu issue, saying it was the ‘right of the public to know’ why there is a persisting problem regarding fisherfolk between India and Sri Lanka. The party has alleged that the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) colluded and were “hand in glove” in the ceding of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. Countering this issue, Congress leaders said the issue was settled in 1974 itself and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to focus on the alleged incursion of Chinese troops into Indian territories.

Katchatheevu is a small islet in the Palk Strait, connecting the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. It was a disputed territory between Sri Lanka and India, reportedly since 1921. In 1974 and 1976, both nations signed agreements demarcating the boundary lines between the two countries. Since then, there have been multiple resolutions and debates around Katchatheevu and the rights involved, and a frequent matter of debate in Tamil Nadu politics.

Katchatheevu in the map
Katchatheevu in the map

How it started

On March 31, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said new facts had revealed how Congress ‘callously’ gave away Katchatheevu. 

“This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds- we can’t ever trust Congress! Weakening India’s unity, integrity and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” he said, citing a news report published by Times of India.

The report is based on the Right to Information (RTI) information obtained by Tamil Nadu state BJP chief K Annamalai from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). It says that the decision to “hand over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka by Indira Gandhi in 1974 is a focal point in Tamil Nadu’s Lok Sabha campaign” and goes into the details of RTI that says that the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru gave little importance to the island. It further says that there was ‘indecision’ in the matter and India was ‘vacillating’ until 1974 in the matter.

Following this, Annamalai released a video saying that the Congress and DMK “colluded in the ceding of Katchatheevu by Sri Lanka. The Congress, whenever in power, had the least interest in securing our country’s border, territorial integrity & sovereignty.” He said Katchatheevu was an “important piece of Bharat” and “was mysteriously ceded away in 1974.” He also refers to the persisting issue of Indian fisherfolk and their vessels being captured by the Sri Lankan government, and says that this kindled his curiosity and he approached the MEA to find out what happened.

He also referred to a portion from the Meeting of Informal Consultative Committee in 1968 in which the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is quoted as saying, "I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claim to it. I do not like matters like this pending indefinitely and being raised again and again in Parliament,” and said that Nehru thought Katchatheevu was “some small little island and he's not interested to hold on to it.”

A second tweet by PM Modi on April 1, sharing a second news report by Times of India, said, “Rhetoric aside, DMK has done NOTHING to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests. New details emerging on #Katchatheevu have UNMASKED the DMK’s double standards totally…”

This report also cited the same documents obtained by Annamalai under the RTI Act and said that the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi gave his “concurrence” to the Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement that was signed in 1974.

What does the RTI say

The RTI response contained two documents, the first about a meeting of the Informal Consultative Committee in March 1968 and the second, a record of a discussion of a meeting between the then Foreign Secretary and the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in June 1974.

TNM accessed the RTI documents and found that the first document refers to an Informal Consultative Committee meeting in 1968, with references to previous discussions on the matter. This includes a statement attributed to Nehru in 1961 when he reportedly said he wanted to settle the matter but the situation was not suitable because of Sri Lanka’s disturbed internal situation.

It also refers to a statement by then Joint Secretary (Legal &Treaties), Dr K Krishna, saying in 1960 that “India has a good legal case” which “may be used to obtain fishing rights around the island.” The then Attorney General MC Setalvad, in 1958, had said that “the sovereignty of the island was and is in India.”

The second document pertains to a meeting between the then Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh and then CM M Karunanidhi held on June 19, 1974, in which the latter was apprised of the proposal to sign an India-Sri Lanka agreement to draw maritime boundary lines for the two nations. “On the substance of the proposal, the Chief Minister indicated that he was inclined to accept the suggested solution……. The Chief Minister … said that, for obvious political reasons, he could not be expected to take a public stand in favour of it. The Chief Minister, however, assured Foreign Secretary that he will help keep the reaction at a low key and would not allow it to be played up. Foreign Secretary appreciated this gesture and stressed that nothing should be done to embarrass the Union Government or turn the affair into an issue between the Centre and the State. In this connection, Foreign Secretary also recalled that the Tamil Nadu Government had been kept informed throughout the negotiations with Sri Lanka,” the document said.

External Affairs Minister Jaishankar says ‘public has the right to know’

The next in the BJP to raise the issue was External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, who held a press conference and said the public had the “right to know” what transpired in the Katchatheevu issue. He said that in 1974, assurance was given that the rights of fishing, pilgrimage and navigation which both sides enjoyed in the past would be fully safeguarded, but in 1976, Sri Lanka said that India could not fish or access the island.

“In the last 20 years, 6,184 Indian fishermen have been detained by Sri Lanka and 1,175 Indian fishing vessels have been seized, detained, apprehended by Sri Lanka,” he said and added that this issue has been raised in the Parliament multiple times and that he had written to TN Chief Minister MK Stalin 21 times.

“The Congress and DMK have approached the matter as if they have no responsibility for it and there is no history to it. They would like to project it that way…we believe that the public has a right to know how this situation came about, how the 1974 was agreement reached, how Katchatheevu was given, and how the fishing issue was handled. We know who did it, we are looking and discussing who hid it,” he said. He also said the DMK’s claim that Katchatheevu was given away without their consultation was wrong and they were fully informed. 

MEA’s position contrary to the one in 2015? 

Rajya Sabha MP Priyanka Chaturvedi raised concerns about the contrasting information provided in the RTI reply obtained by Annamalai by comparing it to another RTI filed in 2015. She alleged that an RTI reply given by MEA while S Jaishankar was the foreign secretary stated that Katchatheevu Island was demarcated between India and Sri Lanka, and did not involve acquiring or ceding territory belonging to India. “Under the Agreements, the Island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line,” the 2015 RTI document read. Priyanka questioned whether the change in stance was due to elections or if PM Modi was making a case for Sri Lanka. 

The Congress-led Union government in 2013 filed an affidavit in SC saying that the question of retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise as “no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka.” It further noted that the islet was a matter of dispute between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and there was no agreed boundary, a matter which was settled through the agreements in 1974 and 1976. 

Former diplomat KC Singh said that India raising the Katchatheevu issue for domestic politics would hurt diplomatic relations with Sri Lanka. “That a seasoned diplomat like Dr S Jaishankar

is mouthing it damages his image. It can push Sri Lanka back into Chinese arms like Maldives while begetting BJP little gain in the south,” he stated.

Opposition reaction

Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge questioned the timing of the BJP’s sudden concern and said that the party’s desperation was palpable. He said that the Maritime Agreement between India and Sri Lanka was a “friendly gesture” similar to the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh. “Your own Govt's Attorney General, Shri Mukul Rohtagi in 2014 told the Supreme Court: ‘Katchatheevu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974… How can it be taken back today? If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.’ Did your government take any steps to resolve this issue and take back Katchatheevu?” he asked.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the real threat to India’s integrity was China over the last few years. “In 1974, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-Indira Gandhi Pact allowed the repatriation of 6,00,000 Tamil people from Sri Lanka to India. In a single move, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi secured human rights and dignity for six lakh stateless people,” he said.

MK Stalin said TN people were asking three questions to those who were “staging a drama after being asleep for ten years, for political gains.”
“If Tamil Nadu gives one rupee as tax, why does the Union government return only 29 paise? Why did TN not receive even one rupee flood relief despite facing two natural calamities in succession? Is there any special scheme brought to Tamil Nadu under the ten years of the BJP regime? Prime Minister, answer all this without indulging in diversions..”

What is the Katchatheevu issue?

Katchatheevu was once part of the Ramnad Zamindari along with 69 coastal villages and 11 islets, under the Nayak dynasty of Madurai. In 1947, after the Zamindari Abolition Act was passed, the island came under the jurisdiction of the then Madras state. However, the issue seems to have stemmed before independence itself, in 1921, when colonial India and Ceylon government tried to negotiate a ‘fisheries line’ to curb the overexploitation of marine resources. Both the nations had their own reasoning to claim that the island belonged to them,

In 1974, an India-Sri Lanka maritime agreement was signed between Indian PM Indira Gandhi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. This pact primarily dealt with two things: demarcation of the boundary in the waters around Palk Strait which comprised Katchatheevu; and the rights of both nations over the demarcated area. This pact said that the “vessels of Sri Lanka and India will enjoy in each other's waters such rights as they have traditionally enjoyed.” 

In 1976, during the Emergency, when the TN government was suspended, a supplementary agreement was signed between the Foreign Secretaries of both nations, in which the remaining area in the waters was demarcated and the rights of the nations were spelt out. While the 1974 agreement dealt with Palk Strait, this agreement dealt with the remaining areas in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal that were not covered in the first agreement. According to this supplementary agreement, one country should not venture into the others’ limits without permission. It is to be noted that both these agreements have not been ratified yet. It is for this reason that All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazahagam (AIADMK) chief J Jayalalithaa approached the court in 2008 seeking the declaration of the agreement as unconstitutional.

Furthermore, when the 1974 and 1976 agreements were signed, in return for Katchatheevu, Sri Lanka gave up its claim over Wadge Bank—an area south of Kanniyakumari rich in biodiversity and considered India’s richest source of sea life. According to a Newslaundry report, this move was considered strategic at that time as Palk Straits was unpopulated compared to Wadge Bank which is a ‘lifeline’ for fisherfolk in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is also to be noted that in January 2024, the Modi-led BJP government had invited bids for oil and gas exploration in Wadge Bank, threatening the livelihoods of the fisherfolk. 

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