This Time The Katchateevu Pot Is Stirred By The PM Himself

Katchatheevu had never been a major bilateral issue between New Delhi and Colombo in the 50-years since the pact was signed.

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Fishermen Fishing Silhouette during Sunset at Ennore Creek, North Chennai, Tamil Nadu in India Photo via Getty

Katchatheevu had long been done and dusted. But come election season and nothing is off limits. Not even an international agreement with a friendly neighbour. The tiny island in the Palk Straits, is being flogged as part of election rhetoric by none other than the Prime Minister himself. Narendra Modi has charged the Congress of ceding Indian territory to Sri Lanka.

Yes, India had given that uninhabited island to Sri Lanka in 1974. The island came under British administration in Ceylon (the old name for Sri Lanka) since 1921. Though India did make claims to the island at one time, it was ceded to Sri Lanka as part of a larger maritime settlement. Two years later in 1976, Sri Lanka gave India Wadge Bank, a resource rich fishing island south of Kanyakumari. This was part of the exchange to mark out the agreement to demarcate the maritime boundary.

Katchatheevu had never been a major bilateral issue between New Delhi and Colombo in the 50-years since the pact was signed. But it was raked up time and again by Tamil Nadu politicians during elections as regional parties tried to project themselves as protectors of Tamil rights. Much of this had to do with wooing the large fishing community living in coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. Demand for taking back Kachatheevu from Sri Lanka reaches its peak in election time. J.Jayalalitha, former AIDMK chief minister had gone to the Supreme Court to annual the agreement with Colombo. The matter is in court though the AIDMK leader is long dead.

But this time, it is not a regional party, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has stirred the cauldron. He had blamed former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the Congress party, for this. The ruling party faces a tough fight from the DMK in the national elections, where the BJP is hoping to make a mark this time. Foreign minister Subramanyam Jaishankar has naturally backed his leader and proceeded in the same vein. These voices will become shriller as the Tamil Nadu election date nears.

But does this mean that India is going to bring it up with Sri Lanka and unravel an agreement that was signed and sealed in 1974, atleast 50-years ago? New Delhi is unlikely to reopen an international pact that the Modi government has not bothered to question since coming to power in 2014. If Kachchateevu was a priority, New Delhi would have raised it much earlier.

Former ambassador K. P. Fabian recalls, "As Under Secretary in MEA I remember going to the late Fali S Nariman in connection with a case filed against MEA about Kachatheevu in 1974. It was a well thought out deal part of a larger deal that benefitted both countries. We should not do anything to encourage Sri Lanka to move closer to China especially since China has gained much in Maldives.’’

The Indian PM’s remark would normally have raised a storm in Colombo, but the Kachchateevu reference has so far not found much traction in the island state. In fact, at the weekly cabinet press conference, the government spokesman Bandula Gunawardana said "The Cabinet did not discuss it as it was never raised."

While the government has not said much, the Sri Lankan English press has been vocal. The Daily FT, said in a long piece said that:

"Sri Lanka compromised in favour of its neighbor when it came to demarcating the maritime boundary between the two nations and by extension the size of its territorial waters.’’ Quoting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the paper said a coastal State may claim a territorial sea that extends seaward up to 12 nautical miles from its coast. When two such claims overlap, as in the case between India and Sri Lanka, the median point is considered as the maritime border. The piece went on to say that "The distance between Katchatheevu and the Indian mainland is roughly 20 kilometers. Therefore, according to international law, the maritime border should have been at the midpoint at 10 kilometers from the Katchatheevu Island and 10 kilometers from the Rameswaram coast.’’ The paper claimed this was done in the "spirit of friendship and amicable settlement’’ by both sides.

The article went on to warn : "The constant provocative claims on Sri Lankan territory, especially from the highest echelons of power in India, would only force our country to seek security guarantees elsewhere. Having learnt the art of diplomacy from Ashoka and strategy from Kautilya, it would be tragic for all concerned if Sri Lanka needs to apply the foreign policy theory of Rajamandala to find ‘friends’ elsewhere to protect itself against a ‘near foe’.”

A clear hint about security guarantee from China? Is Katchateevu merely an election issue to be quietly buried after the national polls or is there something more to it? Only time will tell.