April 8, 2024


Who’s in the right on the Katchatheevu issue?

Come campaign and election time, many bread and butter issues usually take centre stage, like unemployment, healthcare, economic well-being, etc. Once in a while, something crops up that not many people know about, especially if it’s something historical.

That’s exactly what the controversy surrounding Katchatheevu is. Chances are not many citizens know about it, but it’s something that the government and opposition parties are fighting about. This small island between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka is at the centre of political discourse. While the BJP accused the Indira Gandhi government of ‘giving it away’ to Sri Lanka, the opposition begs to differ and has pointed out the BJP’s hypocrisy. Who’s right?


Katchatheevu means “barren island” in Tamil. In political terms, not so much, it looks like. This 1.15 square-kilometre island, located in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, is back in the news.

History states that the island was formed following a volcanic eruption in the 14th century. While there aren’t any residents, it does have an early 20th-century Catholic Church called St Antony’s church. Here, priests from both countries conduct religious services during the annual feast for the devout.

Sri Lanka’s Jaffna kingdom controlled the island in the medieval period. In the 17th century, it was passed on to the Ramanathapuram-based Ramnad kingdom in India. During the British rule, it was part of the Madras Presidency. Since 1921, India and Sri Lanka have laid claim over it, primarily to demarcate maritime fishing boundaries.

Even after both countries gained independence, the tussle continued. In 1974, they signed an agreement to demarcate their maritime boundaries. It stated the boundary runs one mile off the western coast of Katchatheevu. That meant the island was basically in Sri Lankan waters.

While some might see the matter settled, it remained a political issue in Tamil Nadu politics, primarily due to the attacks on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy. In 2013, the Centre told the Supreme Court that there was no question of ‘retrieving’ Katchatheevu since no Indian territory was ceded to Sri Lanka.

Now, thanks to a Right to Information (RTI) reply, some information has come to light. In 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said he wouldn’t hesitate to relinquish India’s claim to Katchatheevu. Nehru’s comments were made despite Attorney General MC Setalvad’s assertion in 1960 that India had a stronger case than Sri Lanka over the island.

Last August, Modi criticised the Congress and the opposition for “giving away Katchatheevu” to Sri Lanka under Indira Gandhi’s leadership. In Tamil Nadu, political parties have been asking successive governments to “bring back” Katchatheevu by reviewing the 1974 agreement.

This tiny island is once again at the centre of a political back-and-forth. But who’s got the winning argument?

VIEW: Shouldn’t have been given away

For all the DMK’s rhetoric and posturing about this issue over the years, the new information recently uncovered makes it difficult to believe that the DMK is some sort of sole guardian of Tamil Nadu’s best interests. Voters have been told for years that the island was given away by the Indira Gandhi government because North Indian politicians didn’t care about Tamil Nadu. The DMK has thrived on this false sentiment.

What the record shows is that DMK supremo M Karunanidhi was aware of an agreement even before some in the Centre. It begs the question, why didn’t he do anything to stop it? Now, the Congress-DMK alliance in the state is left with no leg to stand on concerning this issue and has to explain themselves to the people on the 1974 decision.

Former AIADMK leader and Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court in the aftermath of the Lankan civil war. She argued that the 1974 agreement affected the livelihoods of Indian fishermen. Modi, now, has also argued against the agreement as a national security issue.

COUNTERVIEW: BJP’s argument is inconsequential

A couple of things should be noted at the outset. First, this issue is being ginned up by the BJP now, mainly due to the upcoming elections. Second, it’s likely to have little to no bearing on the outcome of the Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu. If the BJP was going to campaign on this, their return on investment would be minimal. Local fishermen don’t buy the BJP and Modi’s attacks and have said it’s nothing but a political ploy.

The reason is that it’s seen as a distraction from other issues. But putting that aside, the agreement helped India in certain ways. It resurrected India’s diplomatic credentials. It came after India’s role in the Bangladeshi War of Liberation. What the agreement achieved was security in the Indian Ocean in the face of growing Soviet and American influence. It also helped continue India’s friendship with Sri Lanka by legalising the free movement of Indian pilgrims and fishermen to Katchatheevu.

Former diplomats from both countries have pointed out that the agreement was done in good faith and took into account the bilateral ties. From India’s point of view, the government was able to get access to the resource-rich Wadge Bank with the 1976 agreement. While the Modi government has stated that it’s working to ‘bring back’ Katchatheevu, Sri Lankan ministers have refuted this and claimed boundaries can’t be changed on a whim.

Reference Links:

  • What’s behind the Katchatheevu island controversy? – The Hindustan Times
  • Explained: The Katchatheevu dispute with Sri Lanka that Modi is raking up this election season – Scroll
  • What will be domestic and global impact of Katchatheevu controversy? – Firstpost
  • Beyond Poll Posturing, The Katchatheevu Revelations Serve to Repair A 50-Year-Old North-South Fault Line – News18
  • Rameswaram fishermen fume at Modi government over Katchatheevu – Deccan Herald
  • Katchatheevu | Diplomacy, statecraft, ‘whole truth’ – Deccan Herald
  • BJP plays Katchatheevu card, but will Tamil Nadu buy national security line? – India Today
  • Katchatheevu island issue: India got Wadge Bank… agreement in good faith, say former diplomats – The Indian Express

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) The BJP is right on the Katchatheevu issue.

b) The Opposition is right on the Katchatheevu issue.


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