Kachchatheevu: True Story

It can be said that the success of Sri Lanka's foreign policy throughout its long career was its cordial relationship at all times with India and high minded statesmanship of the latter. The successful outcome of the Indo-Ceylon talks was manifestation of this underlying spirit.

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The following excerpts are adapted from ‘Kachchativu: and the Maritime Boundary of Sri Lanka’ by Mr. W.T. Jayasinghe, former Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs, Sri Lanka. This book delves into the early history and utilization of the waters between Sri Lanka and India. It underscores Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachchativu, which has been evident since British colonial times. – Editors

This book is a study of the problem posed by the island of Kachchativu (Kachchatheevu) in India Sri Lanka relations which could have become a critical issue but this did not happen as it was resolved peacefully by the two countries through diplomacy and negotiations.

Kachchativu is a diminutive sized island lying between the North Western coast of Sri Lanka and the South Eastern coast of India and is well known for its prawn fisheries.

It has no other material significance but its importance lay in its strategic location in the maritime zones which were of vital strategic importance especially to India with its formidable shore-line virtually engulfing the region.

The details of the problem and how it was resolved is the theme of this book as described by one who was a principal negotiator for Sri Lanka apart from being one of the outstanding public servants and diplomats of Sri Lanka. W.T. Jayasinghe was a key figure in the administration of his time who moved from Controller of Immigration to Foreign Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he served with no less than Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the height of her fame.

Her role as Prime Minister which brought the island to the forefront of world affairs with her proposal for a peace zone in the Indian Ocean and in the Non-Aligned movement which led to Sri Lanka becoming the venue of the Fifth Non-Aligned Summit is a measure of the contribution made by W.T. Jayasinghe as Foreign Secretary.

At the same time, W.T. Jayasinghe is well known for his commitment to his duties and almost ascetic personality in which he dedicated himself to the service of the nation. He has a record of high academic attainments and scholarship which bore fruit in his two publications on the Indo-Ceylon problem and the one under review on Kachchativu.

In these two works, he has shown masterly scholarship, objectivity and insights which render these classics for which the nation should be grateful. Their value lies as virtual personal testaments which draw on his familiarity with the subjects and the key role which he played. For authenticity, they have no parallel and this book on Kachchativu is a classic example.

Kachchativu is a diminutive island but its significance arose from its location in an areas of vital strategic interest to India. However, the paradox is that from earliest times it was accepted that it was under the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

This was called into question by India in the 20s in the context of its endeavours to assert its rights as part of its struggle for independence. A claim to this effect was also made by the Rajah of Ramnad which presumably strengthened India’s own case which was that by virtue of its contiguous location and its earlier contacts Kachchativu could be regarded as its territory. Paradoxically it was only in 1968 that this question of sovereignty was raised and it became an issue between the two governments.

It was formally raised by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake on his official visit to India in December 1968 who discussed it with the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and formally stated his position that there was no question as such of sovereignty over Kachchativu inasmuch it was part of Sri Lanka’s territory. This became a major issue with India in view of its own claims to it supported by that of the Rajah of Ramnad.

India indicated however that it could consider a compromise in the partition of the island between India and Sri Lanka.

The subject was discussed by the two Prime Ministers at subsequent meetings such as on the occasion of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in London in 1969, when it was thought that a consensus was reached but there was no confirmation of this and the issue seemed to be in doubt.

This uncertainty remained until 1974 when the issue was raised by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on her formal visit to New Delhi in January 1974 when she discussed the subject with Mrs Indira Gandhi at a series of meetings. This culminated in the official and summit level discussions where Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over it was affirmed.

This was the outcome of top level discussions at administrative and political levels which had occurred almost continuously in the previous years in which Mr. Jayasinghe as Foreign Secretary played a key role.

There is no doubt that it was his expert handling of the negotiations together with the forthright uncompromising stand of Prime Minister Bandaranaike that led to the settlement which was embodied in Agreements signed by both Prime Ministers on the 26th June 1974 and 28th June 1974 in Colombo and in New Delhi respectively. A number of other related matters arose such as the length of the shore line and the boundary in the sea which were settled amicably.

The successful outcome of these discussions and the agreement reached on Kachchativu represented a landmark in relations between the two countries and in the words of the press communique heralds an era of even closer and more fruitful cooperation for their mutual benefit.

This book is a saga of all these meetings and discussions which culminated in creating a new chapter for Indo-Sri Lanka relations and which represented a personal achievement for the author of this book, Mr. Jayasinghe.

This is a self-evident conclusion which the author with characteristic modesty and humility does not highlight. His two works are indeed landmark contributions to the study of Sri Lanka history and foreign policy, as it is a platitude to observe that the key to them is the relationship with India.

It can be said that the success of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy throughout its long career was its cordial relationship at all times with India and high minded statesmanship of the latter. The successful outcome of the Indo-Ceylon talks was manifestation of this underlying spirit.

Sri Lanka has reason therefore to be grateful to Mr. Jayasinghe for his unique contributions not only in these two publications but more for the monumental role which he played in bringing about the outcome. One can describe these books as classic instances of inside stories written by the chief actors themselves which makes them indispensable for authenticity.

Of course these can be vain glorious works as they often are to extol the role of the writers but in these cases of the books of Mr. Jayasinghe they are the opposite in that they are notable for the low profile of the writer even though in most cases he was the architect. One looks forward to similar works by him in the key issues in which he played a master role.

The Prime Ministership of Sirima Bandaranaike was abundant in such events and initiatives and they offer ample opportunity for Mr. Jayasinghe as her loyal and efficient partner to make them subjects of his future works. We thank him therefore on behalf of the country for these masterly publications and we look forward to many more in the future.

Vernon Mendis

Deshamanya Dr Vernon Loraine Benjamin Mendis (1925– 2010) was a prominent Sri Lankan diplomat, who served as the United Nations' Special Envoy to the Middle East. He is referred to as the Sri Lanka's Father of Diplomacy.

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