The Katchatheevu controversy

Syllabus: Security challenges and their management in border areas

Context

Why is the uninhabited 285 acre islet important to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka? What was agreed upon in the 1974 pact between India and the island nation? What has been the stand of the Tamil Nadu government over the years? Can Sri Lanka claim sovereignty?

The Gist

  • On August 18, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin revived the debate over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited and barren 285-acre islet about 14 nautical miles off Rameswaram.
  • Fisherfolk of the two countries have been traditionally using the islet for fishing. Though this feature was acknowledged in the 1974 agreement, the supplemental pact in March 1976 made it clear that fishing vessels and fishermen of the two countries “shall not engage” in fishing in the historic waters.
  • Sri Lanka claims sovereignty over Kachatheevu on the ground that the Portuguese who had occupied the island during 1505-1658 CE had exercised jurisdiction over the islet. India’s contention was that the erstwhile Raja of Ramnad had possession of it as part of his zamin.

The story so far:

  • On August 18, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister revived the debate over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited and barren 285 acre islet about 14 nautical miles off Rameswaram.
  • He reiterated the demand for retrieval of the islet from Sri Lanka, which will, according to him, put a permanent end to the problems of fishermen of the State.
  • Addressing a fishermen’s conference in Mandapam of Ramanathapuram district, he pointed out that following his letters to Prime Minister, fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities, were released but the boats and fish nets, essential to the livelihoods of the fishermen, had not been returned.

When did Katchatheevu become a part of Sri Lanka?

  • During June 26-28, 1974, the then Prime Ministers of India and Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi and Sirim R.D. Bandaranaike, signed an agreement to demarcate the boundary between the two countries in the historic waters from Palk Strait to Adam’s Bridge.
  • A joint statement issued on June 28, 1974, stated that a boundary had been defined “in conformity with the historical evidence, legal international principles and precedents.” It also pointed out that “this boundary falls one mile off the west coast of the uninhabited” Katchatheevu.

How important is Kachatheevu?

  • Fisherfolk of the two countries have been traditionally using the islet for fishing.
  • Though this feature was acknowledged in the 1974 agreement, the supplemental pact in March 1976 made it clear that fishermen of the two countries
  • “shall not engage” in fishing in the historic waters, territorial sea and exclusive zone or exclusive economic zone of either of the countries “without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India.”
  • While certain sections of political parties and fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu believe that the retrieval of Katchatheevu would resolve the problem of fishermen having to illegally cross the International Maritime Boundary Line, fishermen of the Northern Province in Sri Lanka say that this would only add to their suffering from the adverse impact of T.N. fishermen using the fishing method of bottom trawling on their territorial waters.

What triggered the negotiations between India and Sri Lanka?

  • Sri Lanka claimed sovereignty over Kachatheevu on the ground that the Portuguese who had occupied the island during 1505-1658 CE had exercised jurisdiction over the islet.
  • India’s contention was that the erstwhile Raja of Ramnad [Ramanathapuram] had possession of it as part of his zamin.
  • According to an article published by The Hindu on March 6, 1968 which was based on an interview of the erstwhile Raja Ramanatha Sethupathi, Kachatheevu was under the jurisdiction of the zamin “from time immemorial”.
  • However, during a debate on the matter in Lok Sabha in July 1974, the then External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh said that the decision had been taken after “exhaustive research of historical and other records” on the islet.

How was the 1974 pact received?

  • The present demand for the Katchatheevu retrieval traces its origin to the opposition that the pact generated in 1974.
  • During the debates in both Houses of Parliament in July 1974, most of the Opposition including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Jan Sangh, Swatantara and the Socialist Party, staged walk outs in the two Houses.
  • Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the Jan Sangh’s leader, had contended that the decision to transfer the islet had been taken “behind the back” of the people and Parliament.
  • The then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, in 1973 when the talk of the islet transfer had been doing rounds, had urged Indira Gandhi that the popular feeling was in favour of retaining Katchatheevu which “belonged to India and not to Tamil Nadu alone,” according to a report published by The Hindu on October 17, 1973.
  • Three months later, he wrote a letter reiterating the stand, a copy of which was released a day after the 1974 agreement was signed. M. G. Ramachandran, founder of the AIADMK, had criticised Karunanidhi for “his failure to guide the Centre properly” on the issue and sought his resignation.

When did the issue emerge again?

  • The Katchatheevu issue was revived in August 1991 with the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa demanding retrieval during her Independence Day address.
  • She later modified her demand to one of getting the islet back through “a lease in perpetuity.”
  • In the last 15 years, both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi had approached the apex Court on the matter.

What has the Centre said?

  • In August 2013, the Union government told the Supreme Court that the question of retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise as no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka.
  • It contended that the islet was a matter of dispute between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and there was no agreed boundary, a matter of which was settled through 1974 and 1976 agreements.
  • In December 2022, the Centre, pointed out in its reply in the Rajya Sabha that Katchatheevu “lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.”
  • It added that the matter was sub-judice in the Supreme Court.

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