CHENNAI: Chief Minister MK Stalin on Thursday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch diplomatic steps to retrieve Katchatheevu, which was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974, and to take up the issue when Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe visits New Delhi on Friday. Stalin also urged Modi to discuss with Wickremasinghe the need to fulfil the genuine aspirations of Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka and ensure their rights and freedom are protected.
“I urge the Union government to initiate diplomatic efforts to revisit the agreement transferring Katchatheevu and make all efforts to retrieve the island as it will only re-establish the historical fishing rights and provide permanent relief to our fishermen. Until this is accomplished, the Union government may take steps to restore at least the traditional fishing rights of our fishermen,” Stalin said in his letter.
He pointed out that Katchatheevu has historically been part of India, and fishermen from Tamil Nadu have been traditionally fishing in the waters around the island. However, the transfer of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, through an agreement by the Union government without the state government’s consent, has deprived Tamil Nadu fishermen’s rights and adversely impacted their livelihood.
Tamil Nadu fishermen face highly restricted access to traditional fishing grounds, increased harassment and arrests by the Sri Lankan Navy on trespassing charges. Restoring the right to fish in the traditional fishing grounds of Palk Bay has always been among the top priorities of the Tamil Nadu government, Stalin said.
“The Prime Minister’s support and intervention in these matters will bring about a positive change in the lives of our fishermen and their families and also help address the genuine aspirations of Tamils in Sri Lanka. By addressing these concerns, India can safeguard the rights of our fishermen, protect their livelihood and improve our historical bilateral ties with Sri Lanka,” he added.
Expressing concern that attacks, harassment and apprehension of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy occur at an alarming frequency, Stalin recalled that from 2020 to 2023, the island nation’s navy has apprehended 619 Tamil Nadu fishermen and seized 83 boats in 48 incidents. The livelihood of Tamil Nadu fishermen has been severely affected, and their families suffer due to the arrest of their breadwinners. Sri Lankan authorities released 604 fishermen and 16 boats following the concerted efforts taken by the state and Union governments.
In 2023 alone, the Sri Lankan Navy arrested 74 fishermen. Of the 74 fishermen, 59 were released and repatriated to Tamil Nadu. Since 2020, as many as 67 fishing boats have been in the custody of Sri Lanka. The latest incident occurred on July 9, when the Sri Lankan Navy apprehended 15 Indian fishermen. Further, during the same period, Tamil fishermen were assaulted by Sri Lankan Navy and Lankan nationals in 38 different incidents. Such incidents often entail looting of materials such as ice boxes, fish catch, GPS, fishing gear, batteries, and engines.
“We appeal for initiating strong and enhanced measures to prevent harassment of our fishermen. Regular patrolling, establishment of communication channels and installation of warning systems could significantly reduce incidents of harassment and apprehension,” Stalin said.
The Sri Lankan President could be requested to make amendments to withdraw the nationalisation of apprehended fishing boats, Stalin said. He also recalled that a reconstituted joint working group comprising officials of both countries was set up in 2016 and this group is yet to successfully bring out an amicable solution to this festering problem of nationalisation of boats and attack on fishermen. Regular meetings and consultations will help build trust, facilitate effective communication and ensure smooth fishing operations.
“It is imperative to protect the social, political, cultural and economic rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka so that they can lead dignified lives as equal citizens. For this purpose, there must be adequate and meaningful devolution of powers to the provinces, which fulfils the genuine and unresolved aspirations of Tamils in the island nation,” Stalin said.
The island & the conflict
1974: The then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed treaties with Sri Lankan President Srimavo Bandaranaike Sri and ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka
1991: A resolution was adopted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly, demanding the retrieval of the island
2008: The then TN chief minister Jayalalithaa dragged the Centre to the Supreme Court and appealed to nullify the Katchatheevu agreements. She had said two treaties between the countries that gifted Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka are unconstitutional
Katchatheevu was owned by the Raja of Ramnad (present-day Ramanathapuram). The island later became part of the Madras Presidency. In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed the piece of land for fishing and the dispute remains unsettled