The Katchatheevu controversy

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What’s in today’s article?

● Why in News?

● Island of Katchatheevu

● Agreement on Katchatheevu Island

● How did the Sri Lankan Civil War impact Katchatheevu?

● Stand of the Union Government on the Issue

Why in News?

Recently, the leader of the ruling political party attacked the main opposition party about its decision to “callously give away” the island of Katchatheevu.

Island of Katchatheevu

  • Geographical location
  • Katchatheevu is an uninhabited area in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka.
Geographical location of Katchatheevu island
  • It is no more than 1.6 km in length and slightly over 300 m wide at its broadest point.
    • It lies northeast of Rameswaram, about 33 km from the Indian coast.
    • It is about 62 km southwest of Jaffna, at the northern tip of Sri Lanka, and 24 km away from the inhabited Delft Island, belonging to Sri Lanka.
  • History
    • Being the product of a 14-century volcanic eruption, Katchatheevu is relatively new in the geological timescale.
    • In the early mediaeval period, it was controlled by the Jaffna kingdom of Sri Lanka.
    • In the 17th century, control passed to the Ramnad zamindari based out of Ramanathapuram, about 55 km northwest of Rameswaram.
  • Dispute
    • The Island became part of the Madras Presidency during the British Raj.
    • But in 1921, both India and Sri Lanka, at the time British colonies, claimed Katchatheevu in order to determine fishing boundaries.
    • A survey marked Katchatheevu in Sri Lanka, but a British delegation from India challenged this, citing ownership of the island by the Ramnad kingdom.
    • This dispute was not settled until 1974.

Agreement on Katchatheevu Island

  • Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement of 1974
    • In 1974, the then Indian govt under Indira Gandhi made attempts to settle the maritime border between India and Sri Lanka, once and for all.
    • As a part of this settlement, known as the ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement’, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka.
    • At the time, she thought the island had little strategic value and that ceasing India’s claim over the island would deepen its ties with its southern neighbour.
  • 1974 agreement and fishing rights of Indian fishermen
    • As per the agreement, Indian fishermen were still allowed to access Katchatheevu.
    • Unfortunately, the issue of fishing rights was not ironed out by the agreement.
    • Sri Lanka interpreted Indian fishermens’ right to access Katchatheevu to be limited to rest, drying nets and for visit to the Catholic shrine without visa.
  • 1976 agreement
    • Another agreement in 1976, during the period of Emergency in India, barred either country from fishing in the other’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
    • Again, Katchatheevu lay right at the edge of the EEZs of either country, retaining a degree of uncertainty with regards to fishing rights.

How did the Sri Lankan Civil War impact Katchatheevu?

  • During a period between 1983 and 2009
    • Between 1983 and 2009, the border dispute remained on the back burner as a bloody civil war raged in Sri Lanka.
    • As Sri Lankan naval forces focused on blocking LTTE supply lines from Jaffna, Indian fishermen often entered Sri Lankan waters.
    • Larger Indian trawlers were particularly disliked for overfishing and damaging local fishing gear and boats.
  • After 2009
    • In 2009, the war with the LTTE ended, and things dramatically changed.
    • Colombo beefed up its maritime defences, and turned focus to Indian fishermen.
    • Facing a depletion of marine resources on the Indian side, they would frequently enter Sri Lankan waters as they had been doing for years, but finally began facing consequences.
    • Till date, the Sri Lankan navy routinely arrests Indian fishermen and there have been many allegations of custodial torture and death.
    • The demand for Katchatheevu is revived each time such an incident happens.

Stand of the Union Government on the Issue

  • The successive Union government’s position on Katchatheevu has largely remained unchanged.

It has argued that since the island had always been under dispute, no territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished.

Q.1. What is Palk Strait?

The Palk Strait is a strait between India and Srilanka which connects the Bay of Bengal in the northeast with the Gulf of Mannar in the southwest.

Q.2. Where is Jaffna?

Jaffna is a port city in northern Sri Lanka, located on a peninsula at the island's northern tip. It's the capital of Sri Lanka's Northern Province and has been a prominent harbor since ancient times.