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Why are Katchatheevu pacts being questioned?

This article discusses the complexities surrounding the Katchatheevu agreements. It uncovers the origins, the disputes they ignited, and their wider effects on India-Sri Lanka relations.

What is the context?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticized the Congress for “carelessly” surrendering Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. This ignited a debate, further intensified by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s comments, shedding light on the complexity of the issue.

The Island in Focus

Katchatheevu is an uninhabited 285-acre island situated in the Palk Strait, positioned between Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka.Katchatheevu is an uninhabited island spanning 285 acres, located in the Palk Strait that lies between India and Sri Lanka. Positioned northeast of Rameswaram, it is roughly 33 kilometers away from the Indian shoreline. The island is situated approximately 62 kilometers to the southwest of Jaffna, the northernmost point of Sri Lanka, and is 24 kilometers distant from Sri Lanka’s populated Delft Island. Despite its barren nature, the island has historically been a focal point of territorial negotiations.

Historical Dispute Resolution

The ownership dispute over Katchatheevu dates back to 1921, involving the British colonial governments of Madras and Ceylon. The issue was finally settled in the 1970s through two pivotal agreements:

  • 1974 Agreement: India and Sri Lanka, under Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike respectively, signed an agreement placing Katchatheevu within Sri Lanka’s territory. This pact also established a maritime boundary in the Palk Strait.
  • 1976 Agreement: A subsequent agreement delineated the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal, further defining the exclusive economic zones of both countries. It underscored that fishing vessels and fishermen from India and Sri Lanka would refrain from fishing in each other’s waters.

These agreements aimed to resolve the territorial dispute and foster closer diplomatic ties between the two nations, while also addressing the rights and restrictions concerning fishing activities.

India’s Diplomatic Gains

In conceding Katchatheevu, India nevertheless secured sovereign rights over the Wadge Bank and its extensive marine resources. This strategic decision was part of India’s efforts to cement stronger relations with Sri Lanka, particularly important in the geopolitical context of the time.

Fishermen’s Arrests Unrelated to the Island

The arrests of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy have been for alleged illegal fishing well beyond Katchatheevu. The conflict has also involved northern Sri Lankan fishermen, advocating for their fishing rights and opposing the destructive bottom-trawling method practiced by Indian fishermen.

Political and Diplomatic Reactions

Opposition parties and Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister have criticized the Indian government’s stance on Katchatheevu.  Former Indian diplomats warn that revisiting the agreements from the 1970s might harm India’s credibility and relations with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Position

The Sri Lankan government views the Katchatheevu issue as settled and resists any talks of reopening the case. It has accused India of prioritizing its own interests at the expense of Sri Lanka’s access to marine resources around Katchatheevu.

Conclusion

The Katchatheevu problem points to big concerns about fishing rights and protecting the environment. To solve this fishing fight, we need to stop using damaging fishing techniques and work together more closely between India and Sri Lanka, moving beyond the old argument about Katchatheevu.

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