Mint Explainer: What the controversy over Katchatheevu Island is about

Over the past 20 years, Sri Lanka has detained 6,184 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels, (File Photo: Mint)
Over the past 20 years, Sri Lanka has detained 6,184 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels, (File Photo: Mint)

Summary

  • Katchatheevu has remained a contentious issue, especially in Tamil Nadu's politics, since a 1974 agreement.

NEW DELHI : An uninhabited island has sparked a political controversy in the election season.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reignited a longstanding debate in Indian politics by criticizing the Congress party for relinquishing control of the Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka in 1974, under Indira Gandhi's leadership. This move has elicited responses from opposition parties, bringing the island's status back into the spotlight.

What do we know about Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island situated in the Palk Strait, lying between India and Sri Lanka. Despite its modest size of approximately 285 acres, the island has been a point of dispute between the two nations. 

Historically, both countries have staked claims to Katchatheevu. Following extensive negotiations that began in the early 20th century, India and Sri Lanka signed a maritime boundary agreement in 1974, assigning the island to Sri Lankan territory. 

A subsequent agreement in 1976 addressed additional maritime boundary issues, impacting Katchatheevu. While these agreements aimed to resolve the controversy, the debate over Katchatheevu persisted in Indian politics, focusing on the relinquishment of claimed territory and restrictions imposed on Indian fishermen's rights in the surrounding waters.

The genesis of the current controversy

The controversy resurfaced last week when Prime Minister Modi accused the Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) of mishandling the Katchatheevu issue. 

Media reports alleged DMK's M Karunanidhi's acquiescence in transferring the island to Sri Lanka, despite the party's public stand against such a move. Further fuelling the debate, foreign minister S Jaishankar cited prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru's comments from 1961 downplaying Katchatheevu's value and criticized the Indira Gandhi government's 1974 and 1976 agreements with Sri Lanka that compromised Indian fishermen's rights. This prompted a rebuttal from Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, highlighting the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) territorial concessions to Bangladesh in 2015.

Why does this remain an issue?

Katchatheevu has remained a contentious issue, especially in Tamil Nadu's politics, since the 1974 agreement. The state's chief minister MK Stalin recently urged PM Modi to discuss the matter with Sri Lankan leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, advocating for the restoration of fishing rights or the island's transfer to India.

This issue is critical for Tamil Nadu fishermen, who have encountered difficulties with Sri Lankan authorities. Over the past 20 years, Sri Lanka has detained 6,184 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels, Jaishankar has said.

What now?

The future course of action regarding Katchatheevu is uncertain. While the BJP's renewed attention to this matter may stem from intentions to strengthen its position in Tamil Nadu, challenging the ruling DMK, the Sri Lankan government remains firm in denying fishing rights to Indian fishermen. Some analysts have pointed out that the BJP's focus on Katchatheevu could have more to do with domestic politics as it hopes to make inroads into Tamil Nadu at the expense of the ruling DMK.

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