Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka

 Katchatheevu | What is the controversy all about?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: India- Srilanka Bilateral Relations; Places in News;

Mains level: India- Srilanka Bilateral Relations; Places in News;

Why in the news? 

Katchatheevu Island, a disputed stretch in the Palk Strait, was ceded to Sri Lanka during late PM Indira Gandhi, through an agreement.

  • Fifty years later, PM Modi, has mounted an attack on the Congress and DMK for ‘callously’ giving it away to Sri Lanka.

About the Katchatheevu  Island:

  • Katchatheevu is an uninhabited area in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka.  It was created due to volcanic eruption in the 14th century and is comparatively youthful in the realm of geological chronology.
  • Historically, it was controlled by the Jaffna kingdom of Sri Lanka in the medieval period.
  • However, in the 17th century, control passed to the Ramnad zamindari based out of Ramanathapuram, about 55 km northwest of Rameswaram.
  • The Island became part of the Madras Presidency during the British Raj. But in 1921, both India and Sri Lanka, at the time were British colonies and claimed Katchatheevu to determine fishing boundaries.
  • A British delegation from India challenged this, citing ownership of the island by the Ramnad kingdom. This dispute was not settled until 1974.

Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement of 1974:

  • In 1974, the Indian government, led by Indira Gandhi at the time, endeavored to definitively resolve the maritime border between India and Sri Lanka.
  • As a component of this arrangement, termed the ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement’, Katchatheevu was relinquished to Sri Lanka.
  • During this period, it was perceived that the island held minimal strategic significance, and relinquishing India’s claim over it was anticipated to foster stronger relations with its southern neighbor.
  • Limitations of the Agreement of 1974:
    • Issue of fishing rights: The 1974 agreement failed to address the issue of fishing rights. Sri Lanka interpreted the access of Indian fishermen to Katchatheevu as being restricted solely to activities such as resting, drying nets, and visiting the Catholic shrine, without the requirement of a visa.
    • The issue concerning EEZ: Further agreement was reached between the two countries, prohibiting fishing within each other’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
    • However, the proximity of Katchatheevu to the edges of both countries’ EEZs left unresolved questions regarding fishing rights, contributing to ongoing uncertainty.


India’s stand on the Kachchatheevu issue:

  • August 2013: The Union government informed the Supreme Court that the question of reclaiming Kachchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise because no Indian territory was ceded to Sri Lanka. Moreover, it was historically disputed territory between British India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and the matter was settled through agreements in 1974 and 1976.
  • December 2022: The Union government reiterated the stance, emphasizing that Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line as per the agreements. Additionally, it mentioned that the matter was under judicial consideration in the Supreme Court.

Conclusion: The recent mention of Katchatheevu by Prime Minister Modi ahead of elections in Tamil Nadu highlights its contentious nature. To address fishermen’s issues, diplomatic dialogue and legal clarity are crucial.

Mains PYQ

Q What are the maritime security challenges in India? Discuss the organizational, technical, and procedural initiatives taken to improve maritime security. (UPSC IAS/2022)

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