Amidst the parliamentary deliberations on August 10, Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned the spotlight on Katchatheevu, a name often heard in the backdrop of India-Sri Lanka relations. Lashing out at Rahul Gandhi’s expunged Bharat Mata remarks, PM Modi underscored that it was the Indira Gandhi-led government that relinquished Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.
Katchatheevu, a solitary island nestled in the Palk Strait, stands as a geological marvel, birthed by volcanic upheavals in the 14th century. Positioned between Neduntheevu, Sri Lanka, and Rameswaram, India, its history weaves a tapestry of shared administration and subsequent shifts.
In the colonial era, the 285-acre land was jointly administered by India and Sri Lanka under British rule. Originating as part of the Madras Presidency, Katchatheevu was once owned by the Raja of Ramnad, now Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu. The early 20th century witnessed competing claims by both nations for its fishing resources, a dispute that endured beyond independence.
As India gained autonomy, a move was initiated to settle the territorial contention that had persisted from pre-independence times. However, it was in the mid-1970s that the issue took a definitive turn. In 1974, an Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement was inked, designating Katchatheevu as Sri Lankan territory, marking the culmination of a series of Maritime Boundary Agreements. This strategic decision by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi aimed to address the maritime boundaries of the Palk Strait and establish a semblance of stability.
The subsequent 1976 agreement further restricted fishing activities by both nations within each other’s exclusive economic zones. While Indian fishermen were granted access to the island for rest, net drying, and the St. Anthony’s festival, fishing activities were off-limits.
While the early years witnessed a coexistence of fishermen from both nations within shared waters, complications arose with the expansion of fishing practices, depletion of aquatic resources, and the introduction of modern fishing methods. As fish stocks dwindled in the Indian continental shelf, Indian fishermen ventured further, and the island’s ecological balance was threatened by their use of disruptive fishing trolleys.
Amidst these complexities, the maritime accord of 1974 assumed a multi-dimensional significance. While initially driven by a desire to resolve maritime disputes, it became a fulcrum of India-Sri Lanka ties. The relinquishment of Katchatheevu, once considered of minimal strategic significance, evolved into a decision that continues to resonate within the broader framework of bilateral relations.
As the Katchatheevu issue resurfaces in contemporary discourse, it prompts a reexamination of historical decisions and their lasting ramifications on the nations’ interactions. The shifting sands of geopolitics, ecological considerations, and the quest for mutual harmony shape the ongoing narrative of India and Sri Lanka’s maritime journey.