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Katchatheevu between India and Sri Lanka – Let it not become a point of friction

What is the reason for this Katchatheevu matter erupting into an explosive discussion in India today?

3 mins read
A view from Katchatheevu Island, Sri Lanka.

Katchatheevu, a 285-acre uninhabited island in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka, and about 33 km from the Indian coast, has suddenly become a matter of acrimonious debate in India today, as Indian parliamentary elections will take place in the next few days.

Claim on Katchatheevu:

There have been claims by both Sri Lanka and India, both of which were under British rule for several centuries, about the ownership of Katchatheevu for a very long time. Finally, a settlement was reached in 1974 when the Government of India agreed that Katchatheevu would be part of Sri Lanka, meaning that India has given up its claim on Katchatheevu.

While it was thought that the matter had been settled once and for all, there has been considerable unhappiness about this decision of the Government of India amongst the fishing community in the coastal region in Tamil Nadu, who have been using the Katchatheevu island for resting and drying their nets, etc., for several decades.

Election-time issue in India:

Meanwhile, some political parties in Tamil Nadu have been demanding that Katchatheevu should be claimed back by India. This thoughtless demand has not been considered by the Government of India, and obviously, this demand cannot be considered in the future also.

What is the reason for this Katchatheevu matter erupting into an explosive discussion in India today?

The reason is that the ruling party (DMK) in Tamil Nadu has been demanding that Katchatheevu should be retrieved and has written several letters to the Prime Minister reiterating this demand. The ruling DMK party in Tamil Nadu made it an electoral issue, whipping up passion, particularly amongst fishermen, as a strategy for vote bank politics in the ongoing election season in India.

In this scenario, the Prime Minister has pointed out that the decision to give up rights on Katchatheevu was taken by the then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with the full knowledge of the then DMK Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu, and for all practical purposes, the DMK government then did not protest, and its members in parliament remained silent on the matter.

The essence of the accusation of Prime Minister Modi is that while the present DMK government in Tamil Nadu is demanding that Katchatheevu should be taken back by India, the fact is that it was the then DMK government and the then Congress government who took the decision to give up the claim on Katchatheevu. Further, the document released under the Right to Information Act reveals that the approval of parliament was not obtained before giving up the claim on Katchatheevu, and the parliament was only informed later.

What is to be noted here is the ongoing bitter debate in India on Katchatheevu is debate between political parties in India. Nowhere has the Indian Prime Minister or Indian Foreign Minister stated that Katchatheevu would be taken back by India, though some political parties in Tamil Nadu are trying to misinterpret for political convenience to state that the Government of India would take back the Katchatheevu island in the future.

Need for a holistic approach by India and Sri Lanka:

It is well-recognized in India that Indian fishermen face some issues, as they cannot utilize the Katchatheevu island to carry out the fishing activity, as they were doing earlier before the year 1974.

What is required is that both the Government of India and the Sri Lankan government need to take a holistic view of the matter in approaching the issue, particularly keeping in view the common interests of both the countries and historical, traditional, and cultural relationships between both the countries. A mature discussion between the Indian government and the Sri Lankan government can certainly find a way that can elegantly find a solution, keeping the interests of fishermen in India and Sri Lanka.

In all probability, this heated discussion on Katchatheevu in India would last only until the 4th of June, 2024, when the result of the parliamentary election would be declared in India.

When the dust would settle down, an appropriate solution can be certainly arrived at.

Unfortunately, in the democratic setup in India and Sri Lanka, often politicians and owners of some media houses and a few journalists with vested interests say and write provocatively to keep the issue burning to serve their narrow political interests.

Anyway, the discerning observers both in India and Sri Lanka realize that both the countries need to have healthy and good relationships for mutual benefits. It is hoped that the Indian Prime Minister who started the current heated discussion to expose Tamil Nadu’s ruling party DMK’s double game must tone down to create an appropriate climate for discussions with Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government also should not overreact and understand the trends and utterances during the election period, which seem to be similar in both India and Sri Lanka.

N.S.Venkataraman

N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause and to promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

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