Chennai: During her meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa pushed for the retrieval of Katchatheevu, the centre of a long-standing dispute between the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

On 26 August 2014, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, representing the Centre, told a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha: “If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back."

What is Katchatheevu?

According to Sri Lanka’s ministry of external affairs website, Katchatheevu is an uninhabited islet in the Palk Strait that was formed due to volcanic eruption in the 14th century. The 285-acre land, strategically important for fishing activities, was owned by the Raja of Ramnad (Ramanathapuram) and later became part of the Madras Presidency after the delimitation of Gulf of Mannar and Palk Strait during British rule between the then governments of Madras and Ceylon. In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed this piece of land for fishing and the dispute remained unsettled.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency

In 1974, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement to settle the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait with her counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike. This forced M. Karunanidhi, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to write to Indira Gandhi on how the land was historically a part of Ramnad’s zamindari.

Though ceded to Sri Lanka, the agreement, which did not specify fishing rights, allowed Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu and to dry their nets on the island.

During Emergency, with the Tamil Nadu government dismissed in 1976, without the consultation of the state assembly and Parliament, another agreement was finalized to determine the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal and restricted both the countries’ fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.

“With the establishment of the Exclusive Economic Zones by the two countries, India and Sri Lanka will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones. The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone of Sri Lanka, nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the Exclusive Economic Zone of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be," said the agreement.

Sri Lanka Civil War

In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the retrieval of Katchatheevu. During the civil war and with northern borders under the control of the LTTE (expand), the fishermen had easy access into the fishing grounds. Later in 2008, Jayalalithaa moved the Supreme Court to nullify the Katchatheevu agreements of 1974 and 1976.

As the war between Sri Lankan government and LTTE reached an end by 2009, the Sri Lankan government strengthened its security at maritime boundaries. When Indian fishermen crossed boundaries, arrests followed and talks for retrieval of Katchatheevu followed suit in Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan government claims that depletion of marine resources on its waters has affected the livelihood of fishermen.

Recent moves

2014: The Centre informed the Madras high court responding to a PIL that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Katchatheevu is a settled matter and fishermen from India do not enjoy any right to engage in fishing activities in the region.

2015: Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickramasinghe stoked a controversy in an interview for Chennai-based Tamil Channel (Thanthi TV), suggesting that Indian fishermen may be shot if they intrude into Sri Lankan waters.

“Why are you coming into our waters? Why are you fishing in our waters...? Stay on the Indian side... There will be no issue... No one will shoot anyone else... You stay on the Indian side, let our fishermen stay on the Sri Lankan side... Otherwise don’t make accusations of Human rights violation by the Navy. You came in there."

The Church

Every February, thousands of devotees from Rameshwaram visit the 110-year-old St Anthony’s Church on Katchatheevu island built by a Tamil Catholic from Tamil Nadu, Srinivasa Padaiyachi.

Last month, reports claimed that the church was going to be demolished by the Sri Lankan government, but it was clarified later by the external affairs ministry spokesperson, Vikas Swarup, that nothing of the sort would happen.

“It has been reported that the existing church will be retained unchanged and the second shrine is proposed to be constructed approximately 100 metres away from the present shrine," he said, adding that the Sri Lankan navy has also dismissed media reports that it was planning a naval facility at Katchatheevu.

With inputs from PTI

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