Raking up Katchatheevu: India’s internal politics affect international relations

After the Indian protests over China’s research vessels in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has indicated that Chinese vessels can dock at Sri Lankan ports for replenishment and repairs.

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Katchatheevu lying halfway between India and Sri Lanka (Representational Photo)

In the run up to general elections in India, the island of Katchatheevu lying halfway between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait has suddenly popped up in the media like the proverbial black-tailed jackrabbit. Over the years there have been several incidents of the Sri Lankan Navy apprehending Indian fishermen for fishing in Sri Lankan waters though strictly not related to Katchatheevu alone.

There have been calls by politicians from South India, particularly Tamil Nadu, over the years that India should take Katchatheevu Island back from Sri Lanka, which was allegedly  “ceded” by India to Sri Lanka by an agreement signed in 1974. Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha had even claimed that Katchatheevu was historically a part of the Ramnad Raja Bhaskara Sethupathy’s estate. For that matter northern Sri Lanka was also part of the Chola empire at some point in history and the empire of Ashoka extended to the Hindu Kush Mountain range in the west. But claiming the territory of another country on such pretext is absurd

On April 7, 2024, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the opposition Congress of handing over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka when it was in power in 1974. He posted on X:   “We can’t ever trust Congress. Weakening India’s unity, integrity, and interests have been the Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting.” Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman chipped in by putting out a video alleging that the Katchatheevu island was ceded with the approval of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which formed the state government in Tamil Nadu at that time and now is aligned with the opposition. 

Joining the chorus, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar lamented that Katchatheevu island was given away in 1974 along with the fishing rights in 1976, and went on to add, “We should get fishing rights. We need to sit with Sri Lankan authorities and sort it out. Even today, our fishermen are being arrested and vessels are being seized.”

The real facts 

Interestingly, the reply to a Right to Information (RTI) query by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in January 27, 2015, when Jaishankar was the Foreign Secretary of India and Sushma Swaraj, the external affairs ministser in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first tenure, reads, “This (1974 Agreement) did not involve either acquiring or ceding of territory belonging to India since the area in question had never been demarcated. Under the Agreement, the island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Boundary Line.” 

Surely, Jaishankar cannot claim that the above MEA response to the RTI was without his knowledge as the foreign secretary. As the EAM today, shouldn’t he have apprised what these facts to the prime minister or did he deliberately keep quiet?

Theoretically, even if the island was ceded (which certainly is not the case as per the MEA response to the RTI) what sort of talks does Jaishankar want with Sri Lanka, and with what end in sight? Shouldn’t he put himself first in the shoes of Sri Lanka rather than adopting the bossy attitude that our fishermen are getting arrested and boats seized for violating the waters of Sri Lanka?

The China factor

Do we realize that no matter what our internal politics are, these have ramifications when a foreign country is involved? Ironically, this is also happening at a time when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunewardane met his counterpart and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing and has said that China has pledged to develop the island nation's strategic deep sea port and the capital's airport.  Speaking at the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference 2024, Gunewardane said that Sri Lanka’s port development has taken a new turn of “advanced” development with the assistance of China and it will “change the present scenario”. The BFA is an international organization of 29 member states, including Sri Lanka that are part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries such as Sri Lanka.

Gunawardena further said, “Colombo port will become a hub of a newly developed port with financial instruments that could cater to the new demands that are growing among ourselves, among our countries, for development and investment, which is essential. This will change the present scenario from East Asia to East Africa, and the blue seas that we all could work together for the future that we face in a successful and a great joint program are what we look forward to.”

After the Indian protests over China’s research vessels in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has indicated that Chinese vessels can dock at Sri Lankan ports for replenishment and repairs. This implies Chinese spy vessels can continue their mission when coming to Sri Lanka and their movement beyond. Raking up the non-issue of Katchatheevu Island would only lead to needless India-Sri Lanka acrimony to the benefit of China.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal)

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