Katchatheevu Island Issue: A Rock of Contention in India-Sri Lanka Relations

The approaching Indian elections add another layer of complexity, potentially influencing Sri Lanka's stance on contentious issues like Katchatheevu

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X: @sahanasometimes

Colombo: At a recent media interaction, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Leader and Minister for External Affairs (EAM), Dr S. Jaishankar, highlighted the longstanding dispute surrounding the Katchatheevu island, igniting fervent discussions across political and diplomatic circles.

The roots of this contention trace back to a decision made during former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s tenure, which saw the relinquishment of Indian control over the island to Sri Lanka. Dr Jaishankar minced no words in accusing the past government of betraying national interests by yielding control of Katchatheevu, which had served as a crucial source of livelihood for Tamil Nadu fishermen.

He stated, “Former PM Indira Gandhi’s government and then Tamil Nadu chief minister late M Karunanidhi betrayed the nation by relinquishing control of the country’s Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka which was a source of livelihood for fishermen from Tamil Nadu.”

Over the past two decades, Sri Lanka’s actions, including the detainment of Indian fishermen and seizure of fishing vessels, have only exacerbated tensions, underlining the gravity of the issue. Dr S Jaishankar emphasized the magnitude of Sri Lanka’s actions, stating, “Over the past 20 years, Sri Lanka has detained 6,184 Indian fishermen, and during the same period, 1,175 Indian fishing vessels have been seized by Sri Lanka.”

The BJP, rooted in the Jan Sangh legacy, has consistently championed India’s territorial integrity, contrasting sharply with the indifference displayed by other political factions towards significant territorial disputes such as Aksai Chin with China. Dr S Jaishankar further emphasized this point, stating, “Jan Sangh (Now BJP) consistently prioritized India’s interests, valuing every inch of Indian territory. Interestingly, other parties seemed indifferent to significant Indian territories, such as Aksai Chin.”

Historical statements from prominent figures like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi downplayed the importance of Katchatheevu, undermining its significance in the eyes of the Indian government. Dr S Jaishankar highlighted this, stating, “Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru and Indira Gandhi regarded Katchatheevu island as insignificant, often referring to it as merely a ‘rock’ or a small island of no importance.” He further quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s statement, “I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claims on the island. I do not like this pending matter indefinitely and being raised again and again in parliament.”

The recent revival of the Katchatheevu dispute by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has drawn a firm response from Sri Lanka, with Foreign Minister Ali Sabry dismissing any prospects of renegotiation on the matter. Sri Lanka’s stance underscores the complexity of the issue and its entrenchment in bilateral relations. In response to India’s overtures, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry stated, “This is a problem discussed and resolved 50 years ago and there is no necessity to have further discussions on this.”

Former Sri Lankan envoy to India, Austin Fernando, weighed in on the situation, highlighting the delicate balance between political posturing and respecting sovereignty. Fernando’s insights shed light on the potential repercussions of India’s actions, cautioning against any breach of Sri Lanka’s maritime boundaries. He stated, “If the Indian government crosses the Sri Lankan maritime international boundary line, then it will be seen as a violation of Sri Lankan sovereignty.”

The historical context surrounding Katchatheevu further complicates the matter, with documents revealing India’s indecision over pursuing the island and ultimately relinquishing its claim in 1974. Despite assertions of a stronger legal case in India’s favor, diplomatic considerations and bilateral relations prevailed, leading to the island’s transfer to Sri Lanka. Dr S Jaishankar emphasized the historical significance, stating, “The issue had long dragged on from before the independence of the two countries: Whether the Katchatheevu island belonged to India or Sri Lanka?”

Contemporary Perspectives and Political Dynamics

In recent years, the Katchatheevu issue has assumed renewed significance in the context of contemporary politics and diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka. The resurgence of debates surrounding the island’s ownership and sovereignty reflects evolving dynamics and competing interests on both sides of the Palk Strait.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks questioning the Congress’s decision to cede Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in the 1970s have injected fresh energy into the debate, prompting reactions from across the political spectrum. The BJP’s attempts to position itself as a champion of Indian interests, particularly in Tamil Nadu, have intensified political rhetoric surrounding the issue.

However, the controversy over Katchatheevu transcends partisan politics, resonating deeply with the Tamil Nadu populace and fishing communities across the region. The rights of Indian fishermen, closely tied to the island’s ownership and its surrounding waters, remain a focal point of contention, with successive state governments in Tamil Nadu advocating for their interests.

The recent boycott of the annual feast at St. Antony’s Church on Katchatheevu by Indian fishermen in protest against Sri Lankan authorities’ actions underscores the simmering tensions and grievances surrounding the issue. The clash between the Indian government and Sri Lanka over the island’s ownership reflects the broader geopolitical complexities and historical legacies shaping Indo-Sri Lankan relations.

Will India’s Growing Presence Alter Sri Lanka’s Policy Landscape?

While this issue predominantly highlights the historical and diplomatic tensions between India and Sri Lanka, its ramifications extend beyond mere territorial disputes. In recent years, Sri Lanka has found itself in a delicate balancing act, particularly concerning its economic ties with India and the broader geopolitical landscape of the region.

India’s increasing economic footprint in Sri Lanka, particularly through investments by major players like the Adani Group, underscores the complexity of the situation. Recent agreements, such as Adani’s involvement in port development and renewable energy projects, highlight the growing economic interdependence between the two nations. However, this economic partnership also raises questions about Sri Lanka’s autonomy in decision-making, especially on matters of strategic importance.

The approaching Indian elections add another layer of complexity, potentially influencing Sri Lanka’s stance on contentious issues like Katchatheevu. Given India’s significant economic influence in Sri Lanka, as evidenced by Adani’s investments and involvement in key sectors, Sri Lanka may face increased diplomatic pressure or expectations from its regional neighbour.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s own path toward privatization and economic liberalization has further deepened India’s role in its development trajectory. This reliance on Indian investments and the integration of economic interests creates a nuanced backdrop against which Sri Lanka may find itself inclined to consider options that align with India’s interests including those concerning territorial disputes and foreign policy decisions.

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