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Katchatheevu: A Controversial Tiny Island in India-Sri Lanka Relations

Photo : istock

A political dispute has erupted in India over Katchatheevu, a small, uninhabited island belonging to Sri Lanka. Measuring just about 1.9 sq km (0.7 sq miles), the island sits in the Palk Strait, separating India and Sri Lanka. Located northeast of India's Rameswaram town in Tamil Nadu state and southwest of Sri Lanka's Jaffna city, Katchatheevu lacks a source of drinking water and features only a solitary church, hosting an annual three-day festival attracting devotees from both countries.

Since 1921, both British colonies, India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), laid claim to fishing rights in the waters surrounding Katchatheevu. However, India settled the dispute in 1974 by relinquishing its claim to the island. A subsequent agreement between India and Sri Lanka prohibited citizens of both countries from fishing in each other's waters.

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The issue has resurfaced following accusations from India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi against the opposition Congress party for 'callously' ceding the island to Sri Lanka. Modi's remarks stem from recent revelations by a leader of his Bharatiya Janata Party regarding government discussions about Katchatheevu in the 1960s. Opposition leaders allege that Modi's party is exploiting the Katchatheevu issue, sensitive in Tamil Nadu, to garner votes in the upcoming general elections.

Documents unearthed by K Annamalai, chief of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, highlight debates within the Indian government regarding Katchatheevu in the 1960s. While some officials advocated for India's claim based on historical sovereignty, India eventually conceded the island to Sri Lanka.

Despite ongoing legal battles challenging the agreement, India's foreign minister, S Jaishankar, admitted that the issue had been concealed from public scrutiny for too long. However, he clarified that the matter was sub judice when asked about revisiting the 1974 agreement. In 2013, the Indian Government informed the Supreme Court that Katchatheevu could not be 'retrieved' from Sri Lanka since it was never demarcated and remained disputed territory. Former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi echoed this sentiment, stating that India would have to engage in warfare to reclaim Katchatheevu.

Nevertheless, BJP's Annamalai asserts that the central government aims to reclaim Katchatheevu to safeguard the interests of Tamil Nadu's fishermen. The Sri Lankan Government, however, maintains that Katchatheevu falls under its jurisdiction and awaits official communication from India regarding control over the island.

April 3, 2024 3:24 p.m. 13995

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