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Can India bring back Katchatheevu island?

By Pavan Chaurasia      02 April, 2024 03:28 PM      0 Comments
Can India bring back Katchatheevu island

New Delhi: Indian politics is once again in the boil due to the allegations made by PM Modi on the Congress that its government in the past had compromised the sovereignty and national security of India by giving the Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka.

The allegations are very serious and the Congress party is facing a lot of difficulty in brushing aside this issue. On the other hand the ruling party at the Centre, the BJP is coming down heavily on the Congress over this issue. It has also put the credibility of the DMK, the ruling party of Tamil Nadu and an ally of the Congress, a member of the INDI alliance, under stake as DMK government in Tamil Nadu has been writing letters to the Central Government to get back the island from Sri Lanka. It is therefore imperative that we understand the entire issue as well as the politics behind it.

What is the Katchatheevu Island row all about?

In a bilateral act of generosity, the Indian government under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi gave up Katchatheevu Island to the Sri Lankan government under Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1974. This was before the two neighbours exchanged letters in 1976 that demarcated the maritime boundary line in the Sethusamudram littoral region. It was formerly a part of the Zamindari of Ramnad. The Nayak dynasty of Madurai founded the Ramanathapuram principality, also known as Ramnad, in 1605.

However, events on October 24, 1921, when representatives from colonial India and Ceylon attempted to negotiate on a "Fisheries Line" to stop overexploitation of maritime resources and find a workable solution to Katchatheevu, appear to be the origins of the Katchatheevu conflict.

Leading the Ceylonese opposition against the Indian perspective that Katchatheevu belonged to Indian marine territory was B. Horsburgh, Principal Collector of Customs. This was because Katchatheevu belonged to the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad, a claim that Tamil Nadu continues to assert as its own. Horsburgh produced evidence to support his claim that the Jaffna Diocese owned Katchatheevu, including the island's St. Antony's Church.

Why has the controversy resurfaced ahead of LS polls?

The issue has come up at a time when the campaign for Lok Sabha elections 2024 has taken up the center stage of Indian political discourse and all the parties are making tireless efforts to seek maximum support from the electorates. By bringing up this issue, PM Modi has killed several birds with this very stone. Firstly, this issue has turned the heat towards the Congress party as it was the first prime minister of India and Congress leader Pandit Nehru who had decided not to take up this matter seriously as he believed that such a small island hardly matters to a country as big as India. And more importantly, it was again the Congress government under Smt Indira Gandhi who signed the agreement that gave up the island to Sri Lanka.

Secondly, since the RTI (Right To Information) filed by TN BJP President K Annamalai has clearly mentioned that then CM of Tamil Nadu and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi was privy to the decision made by the Indira Government, this has given ammunitions to BJP to highlight as to how even the DMK is not serious about Tamil interest and is complicit with the Congress.

Thirdly, the BJP, by raising the issue that invokes Tamil sentiments, will try to gain a foothold in the politics of TN and emerge as an alternative in the state which has , for long been dominated by DMK and AIADMK. Galvanized by the popularity of TN BJP President K Annamalai, the party is now trying to capture those electorates who are fed up with the corruption and nepotism of DMK but do not want to vote for AIADMK due to the absence of any figure that matches the stature of ex CM of TN Late Ms J Jayalalithaa.

It would be interesting to see how the voters in Tamil Nadu react to this. But one thing is sure that this issue will not die very soon as it is not just an emotional but also an economic issue as it concerns the fishing rights of people of Tamil Nadu. The DMK and the Congress have a lot of questions to be answered as the timing of this issue being raised is when the campaign for Lok Sabha elections have reached their peak.

Can India bring back Katchatheevu island?

International Relations and foreign policy is an extremely complicated topic where there is no simple solution to any problem. There is no absolute winner or loser in this game. Countries only have a relative gain or relative loss instead. In the case of Katchatheevu Island too, the solution is not something that can emerge in a year or two. Since Sri Lanka is a friendly neighbour, India cannot seek military solution to it. Also, any unilateral step by India would cause great harm to its international credibility. Any solution to it would need proper consultation with Sri Lankan government. The government of India can offer something else in return like a hefty grant, a long term fishing right somewhere else etc. But that would require a government in Sri Lanka that can convince its huge population and reduce the trust deficit between the two countries.

(Pavan Chaurasia is an expert on International Relations and holds a PhD from the School of International Relations, JNU.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.  

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PhD candidate in the School of International Studies, JNU. UGC-SRF (Senior Research Fellow) in Polit...Read more


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