To Colombo, resurrecting Katchatheevu issue is like flogging a dead horse

India watchers in Sri Lanka are not unduly worried about Modi’s statement and External Affairs Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar’s comments. They point out that Modi did not say that his government will seek to retrieve Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka. 

Sugeeswara Senadhira Apr 04, 2024
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka with Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi (Photo: Twitter)

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who thought fit to studiously ignore the appeal made by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin to "take back" Katchatheevu Island from Sri Lanka, shifts his stance two years later as parliamentary elections draw closer, with his Bharatiya Janata Party’s chance of grabbing at least a couple of seats in Tamil Nadu at a low ebb.

In June 2022, when Stalin made the demand that India should acquire Katchatheevu located in the Palk Strait, Modi, who spoke at the same platform in Chennai, refrained from referring to Katchatheevu or its ownership, but urged the people of India to assist the people of Sri Lanka who are suffering due to an unprecedented food and energy crisis.

India had so far demonstrated no strategic interest in this 163-acre uninhabited island and New Delhi recognised Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island when the Indo-Lanka maritime agreements were signed in 1974 and 1976 demarcating the sea border. The only concession given was for Indian fishermen to land on Katchatheevu to dry their nets but no fishing rights were given to them.

Although Tamil Nadu politicians made calls now and then on Katchatheevu, the central government did not respond to them and the Supreme Court also had given a verdict that the island belonged to Sri Lanka.

The recent resurrection of the Katchatheevu issue by PM Modi has been described by Sri Lankan analysts as a matter of political expediency. Popular English newspaper The Daily Morning said in an editorial that the move by Modi "risks eroding a bank of goodwill India has worked tirelessly to build in Sri Lanka since 2014, and especially since effort invested following the Covid-19 pandemic/economic crisis period". Most analysts believe that Modi made this reference to Katchatheevu to get a few Tamil votes by accusing Congress Party as well as Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) as less patriotic than BJP.

Raking up a resolved issue

Successive governments headed by every prime minister over the last 50 years, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, upheld that Katchatheevu issue was resolved once and for all in 1974. The Ministry of External Affairs informed in 2008 that Katchatheevu was Sri Lankan territory and "no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka".

The issue of the Katchatheevu Island is usually taken up by the Davidian political parties in Tamil Nadu such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) for whom the fishing community is a major vote bank. Tamil Nadu fishermen, who have been fishing in Palk Strait for centuries, tend to intrude into Sri Lankan waters beyond Katchatheevu and fish near the north Sri Lankan coastline. They get arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, a hue and cry is raised by the political parties in Tamil Nadu, government of India then intervenes diplomatically, and the fishermen are released. This cycle is repeated year after year with no end in sight.

As an offshoot of this, Tamil Nadu politicians have been routinely demanding that Katchatheevu be “taken back” from Sri Lanka as it had been “thoughtlessly” ceded by India to Sri Lanka.

Changing the position taken by BJP leaders in the past, Modi strongly took up the Katchatheevu issue last week. He accused the opposition Congress of surrendering Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. Referring to an official report, secured through the Right to Information Act, Modi said that it was the Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had handed over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974. It was “eye-opening and startling,” he said and accused Congress Party of weakening the country’s integrity. He claimed the decision on Katchatheevu as “callous” and added that the Congress government’s decision had angered every Indian. “We can’t ever trust Congress. Weakening India’s unity, integrity, and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” he said.

Encouraged by Modi’s criticism, Tamil Maanila Congress-Moopanar president G. K. Vasan, who is an ally of the BJP, alleged that the Katchatheevu Island was ceded with the approval of the DMK.

Modi conveniently forgot that Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi, speaking on a government brief, had told the Supreme Court in 2014 that Katchatheevu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974 and asked how it can be taken back today. “If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back," Rohatgi had reportedly said.

Colombo not unduly worried

India watchers in Sri Lanka are not unduly worried about Modi’s statement and External Affairs Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar’s comments. They point out that Modi did not say that his government will seek to retrieve Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka. He raised the issue only to blame the Congress for giving it away back in 1974. There was no hint of renegotiating the Indo-Lanka maritime border pacts of 1974 and 1976.

Sri Lanka experts have furnished enough historical evidence to prove that Katchatheevu Island was indisputably Sri Lankan territory. However, the 1976 pact allowed Indian fishermen passage across Katchatheevu and land on the uninhabited island to dry their nets, but they were not given any fishing rights.

Sri Lankan analysts point out two decades ago then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa demanded that Katchatheevu be retrieved from Sri Lanka. But the central government ignored the call. In 2008 she filed a case in the Supreme Court. And DMK leader M.Karunanidhi filed another in 2013. The government told the court in 2008 that the question of the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise because no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka. “Modi is flogging a dead horse to get a few Tamil Nadu votes,” Sri Lankan political commentator Denzil Samarasekera said. “But the horse is dead and cannot get up to carry any ballot boxes for him”.

(The author, a former Sri Lankan diplomat, is a strategic affairs commentator. Views are personal. He can be contacted at

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Fri, 04/05/2024 - 15:40
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