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New Delhi- Amidst the looming Lok Sabha election, a heated political debate has ignited over the status of the desolate 1.6 km-long Katchatheevu island, acknowledged as Sri Lankan territory by India in 1974.

The controversy ignited following a Right to Information (RTI) request initiated by Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president K. Annamalai. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar pointed fingers at the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), holding them responsible for allegedly relinquishing control over the island. The maritime boundary agreement signed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1974 formalized the island’s recognition as part of Sri Lankan territory.

Modi took to social media to express his condemnation, accusing the Congress of recklessly surrendering the island. Jaishankar echoed similar sentiments, attributing the detention of thousands of Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities over the past two decades to the actions of the Congress and the DMK.

However, a 2015 RTI response from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) shared by Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi indicated that the 1974 agreement did not involve the acquisition or relinquishment of Indian territory, as the area in question had never been officially demarcated.

An examination of official records revealed that none of the boundary agreements between India and Sri Lanka utilized the term “cede” regarding territorial claims. Instead, they delineated maritime boundaries based on geographic coordinates.

The historical backdrop of Katchatheevu island was elucidated through documents obtained via the RTI request. These documents, including a 1968 MEA backgrounder and records of discussions between the foreign secretary and the Tamil Nadu chief minister, shed light on the island’s complex ownership history.

The island’s sovereignty was initially contested in 1921 during a fishing rights conference between the government of Madras and the Ceylon administration. Despite British approval of Ceylonese claims, objections raised by the Admiralty in the UK and the Indian government stalled formal ratification.

Subsequent disputes arose after Indian Navy exercises on the island post-independence, prompting calls for resolving sovereignty issues or securing fishing rights in the surrounding waters.

In 1974, India officially recognized Katchatheevu as part of Sri Lankan territory under the maritime boundary agreement, guaranteeing Indian citizens the right to visit without visa requirements. A 1976 agreement reaffirmed sovereignty and jurisdiction over adjacent waters, with no provisions for unrestricted Indian access to the island.

The demand for Katchatheevu’s return gained traction in Tamil Nadu, with the state assembly passing a resolution in 1991 seeking its retrieval. However, legal efforts to challenge the boundary agreements faced obstacles, as highlighted in the Supreme Court proceedings initiated by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in 2008.

Despite fervent appeals for intervention, including assertions by Sri Lankan authorities that any nullification of the agreements by the Indian Supreme Court would hold no legal weight, the issue remains unresolved. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s assertion in 2014 underscored the complexity of reclaiming Katchatheevu, suggesting military action as the only viable option, a proposition deemed unfeasible by both nations.

INDMP international Desk
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