Katchatheevu Controversy Explained: Latest Flashpoint Between BJP, Congress

The island of Katchatheevu, a disputed territory, was given to Sri Lanka by the Congress government headed by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through an agreement in 1974

Katchatheevu Controversy Explained: Latest Flashpoint Between BJP, Congress
New Delhi:

A tiny island between India and Sri Lanka on Palk Straight has become the hot button issue ahead of the general election in Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is trying to find a toehold. The island of Katchatheevu, a disputed area, was given to Sri Lanka by the Congress government headed by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through an agreement in 1974. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now posted a message on social media saying the Congress has "callously" given it away.

"Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people's minds - we can't ever trust Congress," PM Modi posted on X, formerly Twitter.

"Weakening India's unity, integrity and interests has been Congress' way of working for 75 years and counting," he added, posting a report by Times of India that is based on based on an RTI reply Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai.

He later raised the matter at a rally in Meerut meant to flag off the BJP campaign in Uttar Pradesh and linked it to the capture of Tamil fishermen and the seizure of their boats by the Lankan forces.

Mr Annamalai's RTI had sought details on the decision of the Indira Gandhi government to hand over the island, which has always been a grouse in Tamil Nadu. With the Congress being an ally of the state's ruling DMK, the BJP is hoping to gain political traction in the state dominated by Dravidian politics.

The Controversy

Katchatheevu -- around 33 km from the Indian coast near Rameswaram -- has been a disputed territory between India and Sri Lanka since the British period. Back then both nations were British colonies. The British, citing the traditional claims of the Ramnad zamindari of Ramanathapuram, had attached it to the Madras Presidency.

But dispute broke out again after Independence over fishing rights around the island.

To settle the discord and strengthen ties with Sri Lanka, the government headed by Indira Gandhi had agreed to cede it to island nation under the 1974 "Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement".

At the time, the uninhabited volcanic island -- 1.6 km in length and around 300 m wide -- was thought to have little strategic value. But over the last decades, the situation has changed owing to the rise of China and its growing influence over Sri Lanka.

Why Katchatheevu Is Important For Tamil Nadu

Indian fishermen who go into the area and face action from the Lankan authorities are mostly from Tamil Nadu.

The DMK, which ruled Tamil Nadu in 1974, claimed the Congress government had not factored in its views before signing the agreement with Sri Lanka. At the time, the party had held multiple protests.

The government headed by J Jayalalithaa had routinely flagged the issue and had even gone to court over it.

Last year, ahead of Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's visit to India, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin had written to PM Modi, asking the matter be discussed.

He wrote to PM Modi later as well, after multiple fishermen were arrested by the Lankan authorities.

"The traditional fishing waters that Tamil fishermen have relied upon for generations are getting increasingly restricted, making it difficult to sustain their livelihood impacting the economic stability of these communities. This also threatens the cultural and social fabric of the region that revolves around the fishing industry," read his letter in February this year.  

Claiming that the number of arrests is spiralling, he added, "During 2023, the Sri Lankan navy arrested 243 fishermen and seized 37 boats. However, in the past 28 days alone, 88 fishermen and 12 boats were apprehended in six incidents".

Political Hot Button

Following PM Modi's comments, the leaders of the BJP and Congress have clashed over Katchatheevu.

Senior DMK leader RS Bharathi said the Prime Minister has "no achievements" to showcase and was only spreading "lies". If PM Modi was keen on Katchatheevu, he could have reclaimed that island during his 10 years in office. "Why did not he take up the Katchatheevu issue?" Mr Bharathi said.

The argument has been seconded by Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge. The Katchatheevu island was given to Sri Lanka as part of a friendly agreement in 1974, Mr Kharge added, pointing out that the BJP-led government too had undertaken a similar "friendly gesture" towards Bangladesh on exchange of border enclaves.