The Katchatheevu Island

The Katchatheevu Island

The Katchatheevu Island

The Katchatheevu Island

Prime Minister Narendra Modi referenced the island of Katchatheevu during a speech in the Indian Parliament on August 10.

  • PM Modi criticized congress and pointed out that it was the Indira Gandhi government that ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.
  • Katchatheevu, once a part of India, was given away under the Indira Gandhi administration’s decision, which remains a historical point of contention.
  • The transfer of Katchatheevu remains a hot-button political issue in Tamil Nadu, drawing attention from politicians across different parties.
  • Katchatheevu’s transfer continues to evoke strong sentiments and debates in Tamil Nadu, reflecting the island’s significance as a regional political matter.

Where is the island of Katchatheevu?

  • Katchatheevu is a small island located in the Palk Strait, situated between India and Sri Lanka.
  • It is an uninhabited island that spans about 285 acres in size.
  • Geographical Location:
    • Katchatheevu is positioned in the Palk Strait, which separates the southeastern coast of India from the northern coast of Sri Lanka.
  • Proximity to India:
    • The island is situated to the northeast of Rameswaram, a town in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
    • It is approximately 33 kilometers away from the Indian coastline.
  • Proximity to Sri Lanka:
    • Katchatheevu is situated about 62 kilometers southwest of Jaffna, which is the northernmost city in Sri Lanka.
    • Additionally, it is located around 24 kilometers away from Delft Island, an inhabited island belonging to Sri Lanka.
  • Size and Dimensions:
    • Katchatheevu is quite small in size.
    • It is approximately 1.6 kilometers in length and slightly over 300 meters wide at its broadest point.
  • The only structure on the island is an early 20th century Catholic shrine – St Anthony’s church.
  • During an annual festival, Christian priests from both India and Sri Lanka conduct the service, with devotees from both India and Sri Lanka making the pilgrimage.
  • Katchatheevu is not suited for permanent settlement as there is no source of drinking water on the island.

What is the island’s history?

  • The island of Katchatheevu has a relatively recent geological origin, arising from a volcanic eruption in the 14th century.
  • In the early medieval period, Katchatheevu was under the control of the Jaffna kingdom in Sri Lanka.
  • By the 17th century, control over the island shifted to the Ramnad zamindari, situated in Ramanathapuram, located around 55 km northwest of Rameswaram.
  • During the British Raj, Katchatheevu became part of the Madras Presidency.
  • In 1921, both India and Sri Lanka, then British colonies, laid competing claims to Katchatheevu in order to establish fishing boundaries.
  • A survey identified Katchatheevu as part of Sri Lanka. However, a British delegation from India disputed this, asserting ownership based on its historical association with the Ramnad kingdom.
  • This dispute remained unresolved until 1974, marking a period of protracted negotiations and discussions.

The Agreement of 1974

  • In 1974, Indira Gandhi initiated efforts to settle the maritime border dispute between India and Sri Lanka definitively.
  • The result was the ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement,’ which involved the cession of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.
  • The decision to cede Katchatheevu was motivated by the belief that the island held little strategic value for India, and that such a move would strengthen bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka.
  • While Indian fishermen were granted continued access to Katchatheevu under the agreement, the issue of fishing rights remained unresolved.
  • Sri Lanka interpreted Indian fishermen’s access to Katchatheevu as limited to activities such as resting, drying nets, and visiting the Catholic shrine, without requiring a visa.
  • Another agreement in 1976, during India’s Emergency period, prohibited both countries from fishing within each other’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
  • Katchatheevu’s location on the boundary of the EEZs of both countries added complexity to fishing rights, as uncertainty persisted regarding the extent of access.

The Impact of Sri Lankan Civil War

  • 1983-2009: The Sri Lankan Civil War, spanning from 1983 to 2009, shifted focus away from the Katchatheevu border dispute.
  • Sri Lanka’s naval forces were primarily occupied with cutting off supply lines of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) based in Jaffna.
  • During this period, Indian fishermen frequently ventured into Sri Lankan waters, especially with larger trawlers that caused overfishing and damage to Sri Lankan fishing equipment.
  • 2009:
    • The end of the civil war in Sri Lanka marked a significant change.
    • Sri Lanka bolstered its maritime defenses and directed attention to Indian fishermen.
  • With marine resources depleting on the Indian side, Indian fishermen increasingly entered Sri Lankan waters, but now faced consequences due to Sri Lanka’s reinforced defenses.
  • The Sri Lankan navy began routinely arresting Indian fishermen, leading to allegations of custodial torture and even deaths.
  • The heightened tensions surrounding Indian fishermen’s incursions into Sri Lankan waters have revived the demand for Katchatheevu’s ownership.
  • Each time incidents of arrest or mistreatment occur, the demand to reclaim Katchatheevu gains renewed momentum.

What is Tamil Nadu’s position on Katchatheevu?

  • Tamil Nadu’s position on Katchatheevucenters on the belief that the island was “given away” to Sri Lanka without consulting the Tamil Nadu state assembly.
  • The transfer sparked vehement protests against Indira Gandhi’s decision, as it disregarded historical control by the Ramnad zamindari and traditional fishing rights of Indian Tamil fishermen.
  • In 1991, following India’s intervention in the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Tamil Nadu Assembly demanded the retrieval of Katchatheevu and restoration of Tamil fishermen’s fishing rights.
  • In 2008, J Jayalalitha, then leader of AIADMK, filed a petition arguing that ceding Katchatheevu required a constitutional amendment, as it affected Indian fishermen’s livelihoods.
  • The Union government’s stance has remained largely unchanged, maintaining that the island’s status was always disputed and that no Indian territory was ceded or sovereignty relinquished.
  • Despite demands from Tamil politicians, even the Narendra Modi government has not taken significant action to retrieve Katchatheevu, as options are limited.