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Business News/ Politics / News/  Katchatheevu Island Row: Why has the controversy resurfaced ahead of LS polls? What did India do 50 years ago?

Katchatheevu Island Row: Why has the controversy resurfaced ahead of LS polls? What did India do 50 years ago?

Katchatheevu Island, a disputed stretch in the Palk Strait, was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Cong govt headed by late PM Indira Gandhi, through an agreement in 1974. Fifty years later, the BJP, led by PM Modi, has mounted an attack on the Congress and DMK for ‘callously’ giving it away to Sri Lanka.

Katchatheevu Row: What's the issue? What India did 50 years ago?Premium
Katchatheevu Row: What's the issue? What India did 50 years ago?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has slammed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Congress over the Katchatheevu Island row, saying the ruling alliance parties of Tamil Nadu have done nothing to safeguard the state’s interests. The Prime Minister’s charge on the opposition escalates the controversy in the run-up to the Lok Sabha Elections 2024.

“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," PM Modi said in a post on X, citing a report by the Times of India.

Political Flashpoint

Katchatheevu, a tiny island between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, has resurfaced as a political flashpoint in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is trying to make inroads ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections. 

The island, a disputed area, was ceded to Sri Lanka by the Congress government headed by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, through an agreement in 1974. But, led by PM Modi, the BJP has launched a scathing attack on the Opposition Congress and the DMK for "callously" giving away the strategic island to Sri Lanka.

The PM dug into a report on Monday that said the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, had given consent to the agreement, despite the DMK's public posturing against the deal.

Also Read:  Katchatheevu island row: PM Modi calls out DMK's ‘double standard’, says ‘…did nothing to safeguard TN’s interest'

Soon after PM Modi’s posts on Monday, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said the country's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted to give away the island to Sri Lanka.

The issue has resurfaced after a media report based on an RTI reply to a query filed by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai. The reply reveals the former Prime Minister, the late Indira Gandhi, had ceded the island to Sri Lanka in 1974. 

"Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people's minds - we can't ever trust Congress," PM Modi posted on X, on March 31, citing another report on the RTI response.

Questionable Timing

PM Modi also mentioned the issues during the rally in Meerut, where he flagged off BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh. The PM linked the island row to the capture of Tamil fishermen and the seizure of their boats by the Lankan forces. Taking a cue from the PM, Jaishankar also repeated the charges to put the Congress on the defensive.

Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge questioned the timing of the issue being raised by the Prime Minister. Kharge said Katchatheevu Island was given to Sri Lanka as part of a friendly agreement in 1974. He also reminded that the Modi government had undertaken a similar "friendly gesture" towards Bangladesh, related to the exchange of border enclaves.

Also Read: Katchatheevu Island row: Jaishankar lashes out at Cong, DMK, says ‘6,184 fishermen, 1,175 vessels detained by Sri Lanka’

Senior DMK leader RS Bharathi echoed Kharge’s response, saying the PM had "no achievements" to showcase and hence was only spreading "lies". “If PM Modi was keen on Katchatheevu, he could have reclaimed that island during his 10 years in office. Why didn't he take up the Katchatheevu issue?" Bharathi asked.

The Controversy

Katchatheevu Island, a 285-acre stretch, is located about 33 kilometres from the Indian coast, in the Palk Strait between Rameswaram in India and Sri Lanka. Fishermen from both countries used the Katchatheevu Island, which was initially part of the Madras Presidency. 

Katchatheevu had been a disputed territory between India and Sri Lanka since the British era.  A dispute broke out again after Independence over fishing rights around the island. 

The Congress government led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi agreed to cede it to the island nation under the 1974 “Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement." This is how Katchatheevu became part of Sri Lanka. 

The island had little strategic value then, but over the last decade, geopolitical dimensions changed due to the rising clout of China and its growing influence over Sri Lanka, making it a location of strategic importance for India. 

Significance for Tamil Nadu

Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu often face punitive action from the Sri Lankan authorities. Jaishankar informed on Monday that at least 6,184 Indian fishermen have been detained in the last 20 years. Sri Lankan authorities have seized 1,175 Indian fishing vessels in the same period

The DMK, which was in power in Tamil Nadu in 1974, had said earlier that the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi-led Congress government had ignored its views before the agreement was signed with Sri Lanka.

Many leaders from the state, including AIADMK leader and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, late J Jayalalithaa, had also flagged the issue. Jayalaithaa had also approached the Supreme Court over the issue. In fact, in August 2014, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union government had told the SC that the country would have to wage war to get back Katchatheevu Island

Last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin had written to PM Modi, urging that the matter should be discussed during Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's visit to India.


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Published: 01 Apr 2024, 12:58 PM IST
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