Katchatheevu, a view from Sri Lanka

While the immediate reason for rabble rousing over the island is due to the polls, there are other factors at play, like the possible threat of China using it to extend control in the Indian Ocean
Katchatheevu, a view from Sri Lanka
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

As India’s economic influence continues to grow on Sri Lanka, shards of mistrust resurface, reflecting the contentious nature of India-Sri Lanka relations that had seen highs and lows from time to time. But the latest row, a spat over Katchatheevu, an uninhibited island lying between India and Sri Lanka, clearly had one more reason besides political expediency during election time.

The BJP recently hit out at the Congress for handing over an important island half a century ago, situated closer to Rameswaram than to Sri Lanka’s Jaffna. While looking to score political brownie points as Tamil Nadu went to poll, the BJP also riled Tamil Nadu’s DMK for not doing enough to safeguard the rights of Tamils and tweeted that DMK’s silence over Katchatheevu was telling and their callousness has harmed the interests of Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk. The Congress has accused the BJP of creating a false narrative on the 1974 Indo-Sri Lanka Maritime Agreement, through which Indira Gandhi ceded the island to Colombo.

The island historically belonged to the Ramnad Zamindari, established in 1605, which altogether comprised 69 coastal villages and 11 islands, including Katchatheevu. Records claim the island was a revenue source, thus establishing a historical claim over the island. Sri Lanka’s claim had been that the St Anthony’s church, the only structure on the uninhabited island, belongs to the Jaffna Diocese and since 1921, Katchatheevu was under British Ceylon, strengthening its claim over the island.

Katchatheevu, a view from Sri Lanka
Is PM Modi right? Explaining the politics behind Katchatheevu

In 1976, when the maritime boundary line in the Sethusamudram region was divided between the two nations, the adjoining sea expanse including the disputed island fell within Sri Lanka’s maritime jurisdiction. Unlike the present day, when every inch of land gives rise to a battle cry or rhetoric, in the early 1970s when the island was ceded, priority was accorded to the maintenance of healthy relations with a neighbour over creating a dispute over territory.  In turn, Indian fishermen continue to have the right to access and dry their fishnets and each year, have access to the island for two days of the year when a religious festival to celebrate St Anthony, the patron saint of fishing communities.

But such politics are rare today. Responding to Premier Modi’s rousing statement over the island, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said the matter was resolved fifty years ago and there was no reason to reopen the discussion.

While the immediate reason for rabble rousing over Katchatheevu is due to the elections, there are other reasons at play, analysts say. Given half a chance, India would still like to reacquire the island, not simply to protect the fishing rights of the Tamil Nadu fisher community but also to extend Delhi’s writ over more landmass. It can reduce the number of fishermen daily getting arrested as well. There would be definite political and reputational benefits if the island was brought under Delhi’s rule, but at this moment, Katchatheevu offers an opportunity to get even with political opponents in a state where the BJP does not enjoy a significant support base. 

What other reasons lie behind the impassioned statements? Besides access, Katchatheevu is important to India for reasons beyond politics. It has cultural, religious, geographical and geopolitical significance. Indian fishermen also pray at St Anthony’s shrine and seek his blessings. Beyond the feel-good factors, analysts identify the foremost reason to redevelop an interest in Katchatheevu is to contain China’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In this context, the little island between Rameswaram and Jaffna assumes new strategic significance.

At present, India’s relations with the Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh remain strained. Following the fiscal crisis in Sri Lanka, India played a critical role in supporting the nation, yet Colombo’s romance with Beijing is far from over, even if it is akin to a forced marriage now as the island nation sinks into deeper debt. China has strategic presence and projects in many parts of Sri Lanka. The island’s economic vulnerabilities stem from multiple reasons, including corruption and government inefficiency, but the business model of Chinese infrastructure development projects and the inflexibility in debt restructuring are proof Colombo is going to be under Beijing’s sphere of influence for many years to come.

As many South Asian countries including Sri Lanka gravitate towards China for infrastructure funding, especially in the IOR, Delhi’s discomfort continues to grow. If left unopposed, there is an element of fear that Katchatheevu area too could come under China’s growing influence, finding a base on Sri Lanka’s soil. This possibility is never too far off from the minds of Tamil Nadu politicians, who fear Chinese presence affecting the fishing activities of Indian fishers who have the right of access to Katchatheevu.

What’s hardly explained is that Katchatheevu was not handed over to Sri Lanka on a platter, or made possible due to a great friendship between the two women who were leading India and Sri Lanka at the time, Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The little island was ceded 50 years ago to settle a contentious maritime boundary. The India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line was delineated in 1974, followed by a 1976 agreement that demarcated the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal.

Through the 1976 arrangement, the Wadge Bank, located near Cape Comorin, fell within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone, ensuring India possibly got more out of these agreements than Colombo did. At the same time, both countries benefited from amicably settling the maritime boundary, paving the way for stronger India-Sri Lanka relations at the time. The agreements also addressed a range of rights including fishing activities between the two nations, in particular, protecting Indian fishers’ rights.

Besides the right to dry fishing nets and visit Katchatheevu as pilgrims, there was an agreement to allow free movement of vessels in the Palk Strait. What fell into a grey area was fishing rights, giving rise to a continuing problem with Indian fishers being arrested by Lankan authorities. The 1976 agreement barred Indian fishermen from fishing in Sri Lankan waters, though the maritime violations continue.

Yet, the BJP’s call for retrieval is not as simple as protecting Tamil Nadu fishers’ rights. It is about the possibility of Katchatheevu at some point of time being used to exert China’s influence over the Indian Ocean region.

(Views are personal)


Dilrukshi Handunnetti | Award-winning journalist and lawyer. She is a founder and director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR)

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express