History does not agree with the BJP on Katchatheevu

BJP rakes up Katchatheevu issue but a study of Parliamentary records shows that neither was the island “gifted” to Sri Lanka nor was the DMK a mute spectator.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

At Katchatheevu island, where pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu congregate for the St Anthony church festival, on March 11, 2023.

At Katchatheevu island, where pilgrims from Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu congregate for the St Anthony church festival, on March 11, 2023. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

History cannot agree with the rulers of the day. It is almost impossible to distort all the facts recorded at multiple locations over a period of time, by different actors, and in varying environments.

On April 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, followed by the entire BJP ecosystem, selectively pulled out two papers relating to Katchatheevu from 1961 and 1974 to claim that the uninhabited 285-acre island north of Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu was gifted away to Sri Lanka by an earlier Congress regime with the connivance of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), currently a Congress ally in the INDIA bloc. The Congress and the DMK countered these claims with other proof.

On April 1, the Prime Minister posted on the social media platform X: “Rhetoric aside, DMK has done NOTHING to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests.” Claiming to have unearthed new details, he said the Katchatheevu issue had unmasked the DMK’s double standards and harmed the interests of fisherfolk. At a press conference on the same day, Jaishankar held the Congress government responsible for the 1974 agreement and the 1976 expansion of that agreement.

Also Read | Installing of Buddha statues in Sri Lanka’s Katchatheevu raises hackles

Most Noida-based television channels amplified the issue mostly along the line taken by the BJP, framing it as a BJP versus Congress issue, repeatedly asking why the Congress gave away the island to Sri Lanka. Chennai-based channels were more analytical and referred to history.

BJP’s planks and historical background

The BJP has used two main planks to make this an issue. First, that the Congress gratuitously gave away Indian territory to Sri Lanka and, second, that the DMK government in power at the time was hand in glove with the Congress and had, therefore, betrayed the interests of Tamil Nadu. The party extended this argument to claim that it was because of this that Indian fishermen were unable to fish in the waters off Katchatheevu.

On April 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reignited the controversy surrounding the Katchatheevu Island. R.K. Radhakrishnan breaks down the details. | Video Credit: Camera by Samson Ronald K. and Thamodharan; edited by Samson Ronald K.; presented by Saatvika Radhakrishna

An examination of historical records, however, shows that the island was always disputed territory, hence no Indian territory was given away. Also, the DMK appears to have fought against the move to the extent possible.

Parliamentary records show that on July 23, 1974, the then External Affairs Minister, Swaran Singh, made a statement on the floor of the House titled “Statement re agreement between India and Sri Lanka on boundary in historic waters between the two countries and related matters”.

Sri Lanka Navy vessels at Katchatheevu.

Sri Lanka Navy vessels at Katchatheevu. | Photo Credit: L. BALACHANDAR

Swaran Singh made a few points without disclosing what India gained in the process. He said that the issue had to be settled urgently, both governments had put forth claims and counterclaims, and the aim of an early settlement was to ensure that the issue was not internationalised. He also emphasised that the resolve to settle bilateral issues “without interference, on the basis of equality and goodwill”, was stated government policy.

On the need for urgency, he said: “The issue of deciding Indian and Sri Lanka claims to Kachchativu was closely connected with determining the boundary line between India and Sri Lanka in the waters of the Palk Bay. The entire question of the maritime boundary in the historic waters of the Palk Bay required urgently to be settled, keeping in view the claims of the two sides, historical evidence, legal practice and precedent, and in the broader context of our growing friendly relations with Sri Lanka.”

Claims and counterclaims

On the claims and counterclaims, he asserted: “During the long colonial period the question whether Kachchativu was part of India or part of Ceylon was frequently discussed, with the governments of the day putting forward claims and counterclaims. In recent years, both countries had agreed that there should be no unilateral action which would seek to change the undetermined status of Kachchativu, pending a final solution to be reached through amicable bilateral efforts.”

He cautioned against the possibility of internationalisation, stating that “when two sides have a good arguable case on a particular issue, and the problem cannot be resolved expeditiously through bilateral negotiations, there is invariably an attempt to seek outside intervention by appeal either to the International Court of Justice or to third party arbitration”.

Without expressly saying what exactly India had gained, Swaran Singh made a telling reference: “This question of Kachchativu… had necessarily to be dealt with as part of the broader question of the boundary in the Palk Bay so as to eliminate the possibility of any further disputes on similar matters in these historic waters.”

Records show that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who later became Prime Minister but did not rake up the issue as Narendra Modi had done now, contended in 1974 that the agreement was unconstitutional. There are only two recorded exchanges in this debate and the most pertinent point Vajpayee makes is this: “Can they violate the Constitution?”

Most members from Tamil Nadu, cutting across party lines, were aghast over the agreement. Era Sezhiyan, who led the DMK walkout ahead of Swaran Singh’s statement, said: “I want to submit that we [the State of Tamil Nadu] should have been consulted and the House should have been taken into confidence before they [the Union Government] entered into this unholy agreement for surrender of territory by India.”

Sezhiyan described the agreement as a “disgraceful act” that was “unworthy of any government”.

At a protest in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, on March 26, 2022, demanding the release of fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan navy.

At a protest in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, on March 26, 2022, demanding the release of fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan navy. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Nanjil Manoharan, a politician who did stints in both the DMK and the AIADMK, went further, calling the agreement “anti-national and unpatriotic”. He said that through the “unholy agreement, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister has emerged as victor and the Prime Minister of India as a pathetic vanquished. It is an assault on the integrity of the country.”

The “little rock” comment made by Indira Gandhi about Katchatheevu, which is being used to target the Congress now, was picked up even at that point. G. Viswanathan of the DMK, while condemning the agreement in Parliament, asserted that neither was the State government consulted nor was Parliament informed.

He contended that the Tamil Nadu government had records about the island dating back to at least 150 years. “But what is the claim of Sri Lanka? Let the Minister tell the House. Sri Lanka has no claim…. They published a map in 1880, authorised by the government of Ceylon. Kachchativu is not part of it.”

The Forward Bloc representative too joined the walkout. M. Kalyanasundaram of the CPI demanded a discussion on the statement because “there are problems which we would like our government to take up with Sri Lanka and seek their solution”. In response to the repeated attacks from the DMK, Congress leader H.K.L. Bhagat said: “It appears to me that the DMK thinks that probably they can desperately cling on to this issue and survive in Tamil Nadu. The Jana Sangh at one time thought that they could survive by clinging on to Kutch, but they failed. The DMK is also bound to fail….”

Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi noted in the fourth volume of his autobiography, Nenjukku Needhi: “I had written to the Prime Minister on January 6, 1974, with many documents and proof that this agreement should not be signed. When the Prime Minister did not heed to his advice, the DMK organised public meetings across the State on July 14 to condemn the decision.”

Good times, bad times
The agreement between Sri Lanka and India was signed by Sri Lankan President Sirimao R.D. Bandaranaike and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1974, first in Colombo on June 26 and two days later in New Delhi, on June 28, and determined the nautical boundary between the two countries. Another agreement on the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal was subsequently signed on March 23, 1976.
As per the agreements, both nations would have sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction and control over the waters, the islands, the “continentals” held, and the subsoil on each side. And Indian fishermen and pilgrims had access to Katchatheevu and did not require travel visas although the island falls in Sri Lankan waters after the agreements. The agreements further clarify that vessels of Sri Lanka and India “will enjoy in ends” the other’s waters—the rights they have been traditionally enjoying. Before the agreements, the island was a no-man’s land where fishermen of both countries, mostly ethnic Tamils, rested and dried their nets.
In the 1850s, the island was under the zamindari of the Sethupathis (rulers) of Ramanathapuram samasthanam (kingdom), and later under the British who ruled both Sri Lanka and India. Though there was no specific document assigning the ownership of the island to the Ramanathapuram samasthanam, reports claimed that the samasthanam gave the island to the British on lease for collecting medicinal herbs. In 1921, the British government in Sri Lanka raised the issue of ownership with its counterpart in India at a summit in Colombo. Both parties reportedly came to a temporary agreement on the boundaries.
Claiming traditional rights, fishermen from Rameshwaram had built a St Antony’s Church on the island, which celebrates an annual festival for 10 days in March every year. Fishermen from both countries participated in the festival and fished in these waters without fear. Fishermen from India would take across lungis and beedis and barter them for candy and Sri Lankan cigarettes, mainly during the church festival.
This continued until the Sri Lankan Navy started patrolling the waters because of increased LTTE activity. Pilgrims had to now secure approvals from the Indian government, which in turn informed the Sri Lankan authorities and shared details of the pilgrims to ensure their safety. Sometime in the early 1980s, the LTTE set up a rudimentary sea wing, which made the waters between Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka more dangerous. Once the LTTE entered, the fisherfolk were often caught in the crossfire, and many were suspected to be involved in the smuggling of drugs and arms. The Sri Lankan Navy was suspicious of everyone in these waters, leading to indiscriminate firings and casualties.
Katchatheevu falls in Sri Lankan waters, some two nautical miles from India’s maritime boundary line. When Indian fishermen cross the line chasing fish, they are often arrested. This has become a major bone of contention.

Question for the BJP

While all this is history, the question that Tamil Nadu politicians raise today is this: Is India prepared to rescind the agreement?

“The BJP should openly state that the ceding of the island will be reconsidered,” said AIADMK general secretary and former Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, in an election rally in Krishnagiri on April 3. “If the BJP is actually serious about this issue, it should file an affidavit in the Supreme Court,” he added.

Also Read | Is India attempting to restore its political equations in Sri Lanka?

The BJP is yet to respond to this demand, but the only paper the BJP government has filed in the Supreme Court says otherwise. In 2015 (when Jaishankar was Foreign Secretary), in response to an RTI filed by a Madurai resident named Aladi Gurusamy, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said: “This did not involve either acquiring or ceding of territory belonging to India since the area in question had never been demarcated. Under the Agreements [of 1974 and 1976], the island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.”

After this response, the MEA declined to share information on Katchatheevu. DMK spokesperson Constantine Ravindran said: “The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly declined to share information on Katchatheevu to anyone who demand it via RTI, claiming that the case was sub judice. How is it that merely because the BJP asks for it, the information is given?”

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