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Explained: India-Sri Lanka conflict over Katchatheevu Island

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin demanded at a government function in presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that Katchatheevu island, now a part of Sri Lanka according to India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974-76, should be retrieved to India so that traditional fishing rights of Tamil fishermen are unaffected.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – Internet photo

He said,  “To solve the important issue faced by Tamil Nadu fishermen, katchatheevu should be retrieved, TN fishermen should be able to exercise their rights in their traditional fishing zones… This is the right time to take action in this regard, I’m duty-bound to remind the Prime Minister (Modi) about this.”

The demand to retrieve Katchatheevu has been a long-standing one. But significantly, this time the demand has come up at a time when Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis, with the inflation rate as high as 33.8 per cent in April 2022.

Where is Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is a small uninhabited island in Palk Strait, that connects the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea. It is a disputed territory between Sri Lanka and India, claimed until 1976 by India, and administered by Sri Lanka at the moment.

Island’s history

Katchatheevu island was formed due to volcanic eruptions in the 14th century. 

The Raja of Ramnad (present-day Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu) owned Katchatheevu island and it later became a part of the Madras Presidency.

In 1921, both Sri Lanka and India claimed this piece of land for fishing and the dispute remained unsettled. The 285-acre land was jointly administered by India and Sri Lanka during British rule. 

What is the Katchatheevu island issue?

Fishermen of both countries have been fishing in each other’s waters without conflict for a very long time. The issue emerged when India-Sri Lanka signed maritime boundary agreements. The agreements marked the international maritime boundary of India and Sri Lanka.

The agreement aimed to facilitate resource management and law enforcement in the Palk Strait. Now, Indian fishermen were only allowed to use the island for resting, net drying, and the annual St. Anthony’s festival. They are not permitted to use the island for fishing. However, Indian fishermen continued trespassing the Sri Lankan water boundary, searching for a better catch in the area.

The next few decades went well but the problem turned serious when fish and aquatic life in the Indian continental shelf depleted, which resulted in an increased number of Indian fishermen in the region. They are also using modern fishing trolleys which harm marine life and the ecosystem.

LTTE era and restrictions on movement

During the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group in Sri Lanka) era, the  Sri Lankan government restricted the easy movement of Sri Lankan fishermen in waters raising military operations issues.
 In 2009, Sri Lanka started heavily guarding its maritime boundary in the Palk Strait. It was done to reduce the possibility of the return of Tamil insurgents to the country.

The Indian fishermen considered this an opportunity. But, with the end of the war in 2010, Sri Lankan fishermen again started their movement in Palk Bay and reclaimed their lost legitimate territory.

Centre vs state of Tamil Nadu on this issue

In 1974, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi signed four Maritime Boundary Agreements between 1974-76 with her counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike, Sri Lankan President, and ceded Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. 

Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi –Internet photo


In response, in 1991, a resolution was adopted by the Tamil Nadu Assembly demanding the retrieval of Katchatheevu island through the resolution.

In 2008, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa dragged the centre to the Supreme Court and appealed to nullify the Katchatheevu agreements. She stated that two treaties between the countries that gifted Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka are unconstitutional.

Humanitarian and Livelihood Concerns

About 10 miles northeast of Rameshwaram, the island is used by Indian fishermen to dry their nets, catch fish and rest. Frequent arrests on the border have increased and Sri Lankan authorities said that they are protecting their maritime boundaries against poaching, and securing the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen. Both sides ensure to not use force under any circumstances. However, the violent situation remains the same.

Edited By: Chaheti Singh Sisodia

WION

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