Katchatheevu Island Issue

Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island located in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. The island has been a subject of controversy and dispute between the two countries for several decades. It is currently under the control of Sri Lanka.

History

Katchatheevu was historically under the control of the Kings of Ramanathapuram in modern Tamil Nadu. During the British colonial era, the island was administered by both India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). After India’s independence in 1947, Sri Lanka claimed the island due to its strategic location, and the issue was discussed several times before 1974.

Transfer to Sri Lanka

In 1974, amid international pressure following India’s nuclear tests and the need to garner support from neighbours, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed an agreement with Sri Lanka, ceding Katchatheevu to the island nation without any discussion with the Indian people or parliament. This move was seen as an effort to secure Sri Lanka’s support, as the country was set to host the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in 1976 and was likely to have a representative as the president of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Controversies and Issues

The transfer of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka has created several problems for Indian fishermen.

The 1974 agreement secured the rights of Indian fishermen to dry their nets and use the island’s church for religious observances.

However, the 1976 delimitation of the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), as required by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), superseded the 1974 agreement, effectively revoking Indian fishermen’s rights to engage in these activities on the island.

In India, the cessation of Katchatheevu is claimed to be illegal, as it was not ratified by the Indian Parliament. The Supreme Court of India ruled in the Berubari Union case (1960) that the cessation of Indian territory to another country must be ratified by the parliament through a constitutional amendment act. Therefore, the transfer of Katchatheevu is considered unconstitutional and illegal by some in India.

Sri Lanka’s Stance

Over the years, Sri Lanka has asserted its claims over Katchatheevu, denying the rights of Indian fishermen on the island. The Sri Lankan government maintains that the Indian court cannot nullify the 1974 agreement and claims that they gave an island called “Wedgebank” to India in exchange. Some Sri Lankan politicians have made insensitive statements, suggesting that it is easier to shoot Indian fishermen than to arrest them.

Recent Developments

In March 2024, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised the Congress party for its alleged negligence in ceding Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. His remarks came in response to an RTI query by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai, which revealed that the Indira Gandhi-led government had handed over the island to Sri Lanka in 1974. Modi accused the Congress of weakening India’s unity through this action.

The Way Forward

The controversy surrounding Katchatheevu is a genuine concern for Indian Tamils. A discussion-based solution that clarifies the issues and seeks consensus must be adopted to avoid further problems in the future. Diplomatic efforts and dialogue between India and Sri Lanka are essential to resolve the long-standing dispute and ensure the rights and well-being of the affected communities on both sides.


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