Katchatheevu island ‘self-goal’ by Modi and Jaishankar leaves BJP squirming

Hoping for electoral gains in Tamil Nadu, PM and FM rake up issue of disputed island accepted as part of Sri Lanka in 1974

External affairs minister S. Jaishankar at the press meet in the BJP headquarters in New Delhi (photo: PTI)
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar at the press meet in the BJP headquarters in New Delhi (photo: PTI)

AJ Prabal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not have bargained for the political storm triggered by his casual comment to a Tamil channel accusing late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of having ceded Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka 50 years ago in 1974. The island, a speck in the Palk Strait between Sri Lanka and India, is uninhabited and measures 1.6 km by 300 m.

The PM was labouring the point in his interview on Sunday, 31 March, that the Congress has always compromised the territorial integrity of India. The comment, no doubt designed to be a masterstroke ahead of the general elections, was amplified by the BJP and foreign minister S. Jaishankar on Monday.

Indeed, Jaishankar held a media briefing to claim that both prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi considered the island a "nuisance", and went on to wonder if the ruling DMK in Tamil Nadu was complicit in ceding Indian territory to Sri Lanka.

The response from the Congress has been swift and brutal. Posting a letter from the ministry of external affairs (MEA) in 2015, when Modi was already PM and Jaishankar the foreign secretary, Congress leader P. Chidambaram asked, “Is Dr. S Jaishankar, now minister of external affairs, disowning the reply given by the Ministry of External Affairs on 27 January, 2015, when the same Dr. Jaishankar was foreign secretary?”

The MEA’s response to an RTI (right to information) query on Katchatheevu in 2015 had said, “This [Agreement] did not involve either acquiring or ceding of territory belonging to India since the area in question had never been demarcated. Under the Agreements, the Island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.”

Chidambaram went on to address the media during the day and asked, “Why is PM Modi raking up an issue that was settled in 1974? In 1974, Smt. Indira Gandhi's government, in order to help lakhs of Tamils, negotiated with the Sri Lankan government. Katchatheevu island was acknowledged as belonging to Sri Lanka.

"In return, 6 lakh Tamils were allowed to come to India. They've come here, their children and grandchildren are here, and they're breathing free air. The issue was closed 50 years ago. Why is the PM raking up this matter instead of talking about important issues facing India today?”

Predictably, Congress leaders have brough up the issue of nearly 2,000 sq km of Indian territory occupied by Chinese troops in 2020, a fact which the Indian Army acknowledged but PM Modi denied, saying famously that no Chinese troops were present in Indian territory, and no part of Indian territory was under the occupation of Chinese troops. They also pointed out that Modi himself as PM has ceded inhabited enclaves to Bangladesh.

The next logical question was asked by many in Tamil Nadu. What were Modi and Jaishankar doing during the last 10 years if they were so concerned about the uninhabited island? What did they do to retrieve it?

Referring to PM Modi’s claim that Dravidian parties had opposed the agreement in 1974, poet and author Dr Meena Kandasamy wondered why the Modi government has not bothered to move the UN Security Council for a referendum on a Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, and reminded the PM that the TN Assembly had passed a unanimous resolution seeking a referendum 10 years ago. “Using the emotive Eelam card, fishermen card, Tamil card is just not going to work,” she posted on X, addressing the PM.

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera produced official documents to assert that the island was accepted as part of a border delineation, with the condition that both Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen would have access to the island. Why have Indian fishermen been denied access to the island in the last 10 years, he asked.

DMK leader Karunanidhi had indeed demanded in 2009 that since the terms of the agreement were no longer being respected by Sri Lanka, the island should be retrieved. The late AIADMK leader Jayalalitha issued a statement in 2014 calling for the restoration of the traditional rights of Indian fishermen to fish in the Palk Strait; but though Modi has been in power for 10 years, and despite his extensive foreign travel, he did not find time to address the issue.

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh posted on X, “On the eve of elections in Tamil Nadu, you are raising this sensitive issue, but your own Govt’s Attorney General, Shri Mukul Rohtagi, in 2014 told the Supreme Court, ‘Katchatheevu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974… How can it be taken back today? If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.

“In 1974, the same year that Katchatheevu became part of Sri Lanka, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-Indira Gandhi pact allowed the repatriation of 600,000 Tamil people from Sri Lanka to India. In a single move, Indira Gandhi secured human rights and dignity for six lakh hitherto stateless people.”

In a more nuanced response, Chidambaram conceded that “it is true that Indian fishermen were detained in the last 50 years. Likewise, India too detained many SL fishermen. Every government has negotiated with Sri Lanka and freed our fishermen… This has happened when Mr Jaishankar was a foreign service officer and when he was foreign secretary and when he is foreign minister”.

“Were not Indian fishermen detained by Sri Lanka when Mr Vajpayee was PM and BJP was in power and in alliance with different political parties of TN? Were Indian fishermen not detained by Sri Lanka since 2014?” he asked.

The DMK's A. Saravanan said the external affairs minister has said nothing new. "The question is why the BJP is raking up this issue now. Because they are scared, they know they are going to lose this election and in Tamil Nadu, they are facing a rout. The prime minister cannot answer the question, why no flood relief for Tamil Nadu. He is now bringing up false bogeys," he said.

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