The Katchatheevu controversy explained By T. Ramakrishnan/The Hindu

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K.Stalin, on Friday, revived the debate over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited and barren 285 acre islet about 14 nautical miles off Rameswaram, by reiterating the demand for its retrieval from Sri Lanka.According to him, that would put an end to the problems of fishermen of the State.

Addressing a fishermen’s conference in Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district, Mr.Stalin pointed out that following his letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities, were released but the boats and fishing nets, essential for the livelihood of the fishermen, had not been returned.

This was not the first time that Mr Stalin or, for that matter, his predecessors, had raised the matter. Last month, ahead of the visit of Sri Lanka’s President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to New Delhi, the Chief Minister urged Mr Modi to raise the issue with the visiting dignitary.

When did Katchatheevu become a part of Sri Lanka?

In June 1974, the then Prime Ministers of India and Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi and Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike, signed an agreement to demarcate the boundary between the two countries in the historic waters from Palk Strait to Adam’s Bridge.

A joint statement issued on June 28, 1974, stated that a boundary had been defined “in conformity with the historical evidence, legal international principles and precedents.” It also pointed out that “this boundary falls one mile off the west coast of the uninhabited” Katchatheevu.

The pact brought to a close the talks held between the two sides since October 1921. Initially, the negotiations were held between the governments of the then Madras and Ceylon.

How important has been Kachatheevu to the fisherfolk?

Fisherfolk of the two countries have been traditionally using the islet for fishing. Though this feature was acknowledged in the 1974 agreement, the supplemental pact in March 1976 made it clear that fishing vessels and fishermen of the two countries “shall not engage” in fishing in the historic waters, territorial sea and exclusive zone or exclusive economic zone of either of the countries “without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India.”

St. Anthony’s Church there holds an annual festival, either in February or March, drawing devotees from both sides of the Palk Bay, a tradition which has been going on.

What triggered the negotiations between India and Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka claimed sovereignty over Katchatheevu on the grounds that the Portuguese who had occupied the island during 1505-1658 CE had exercised jurisdiction over the islet. India’s contention was that the erstwhile Raja of Ramnad [Ramanathapuram] had possession of it as part of his Zamin. According to a news item published by The Hindu on March 6, 1968 which was based on the interview of the erstwhile Raja Ramanatha Sethupathi, Kachatheevu was under the jurisdiction of the Zamin “from time immemorial” and it was the “last post’ of the Ramnad Estate. He added that the Zamin had been collecting taxes till 1947 when it was taken over by the State government following the Zamindari Abolition Act.

However, replying to the debate on the matter in the Lok Sabha in July 1974, the then External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh asserted that the decision to recognize Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island had been taken after “exhaustive research of historical and other records” on the islet.

How was the 1974 agreement received?

The current demand for Katchatheevu’s retrieval traces its origin to the opposition that the pact generated in 1974.

During the debates in both Houses of Parliament in July 1974, most of the Opposition including the DMK, AIADMK, Jan Sangh, Swatantara and the Socialist Party, staged walk-outs in the two Houses.

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was the Jan Sangh’s leader, had contended that the decision to transfer the islet had been taken “behind the back” of the people and Parliament. He was supported by Madhu Limaye, veteran Socialist leader.

The then Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi, even in 1973 when the talk of the islet transfer had been doing rounds, had urged Indira Gandhi that the popular feeling was in favour of retaining Katchatheevu which “belonged to India and not to Tamil Nadu alone,” according to a report published by The Hindu on October 17, 1973.

Three months later, he wrote a letter reiterating the stand, a copy of which was released a day after the 1974 agreement was signed.

M. G. Ramachandran, founder of the AIADMK, which was a fledgling party then, had criticised Karunanidhi for “his failure to guide the Centre properly” on the issue and sought his resignation.

When did the issue get a fresh lease of life?

After remaining low nearly for over 15 years, the Katchatheevu issue was revived in August 1991 with the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa demanding retrieval during her Independence Day address. She later modified her demand to one of getting back the islet through “a lease in perpetuity.”

The Tamil Nadu Assembly had witnessed a number of debates on the matter. In the last 15 years, both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi had approached the Supreme Court on the matter.

What has been the stand of the Union government on the issue?

In August 2013, the Union government told the Supreme Court that the question of retrieval of Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise as no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka. It contended that the islet was a matter of dispute between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and there was no agreed boundary, a matter which was settled through 1974 and 1976 agreements.

In December 2022, the Union government, while referring to the two agreements, pointed out in its reply in the Rajya Sabha that Katchatheevu “lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.” It added that the matter was sub-judice in the Supreme Court.