April 20, 2024

Lukmaan IAS

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NO MAN’S LAND: PLAYING POLITICS OVER KATCHATHEEVU

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THE CONTEXT: The dispute over Katchatheevu, an uninhabited island ceded to Sri Lanka by India in 1974, has led to ongoing tensions, particularly affecting the fishermen of Tamil Nadu. These fishermen face arrests and harassment by the Sri Lankan Navy, claiming their livelihoods are under threat due to restricted access to traditional fishing grounds. The BJP, aiming to address these issues, has proposed various solutions, including diplomatic negotiations to restore fishing rights without challenging Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the island.

ISSUES:

  • Historical Context and Sovereignty: The historical context of the sovereignty over Katchatheevu is complex. Documents from an RTI query indicate that Indian leadership before the 1974 and 1976 agreements recognized that India had no strong claim over the territory. The islet was part of the zamindari of the Raja of Ramanathapuram since 1803, but historical facts seemed to favor Sri Lanka’s claim.
  • Stance of Indian Governments: The Congress-led UPA government and the BJP-led NDA regime have recognized Katchatheevu as part of Sri Lanka. The MEA has informed the Rajya Sabha that Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL, and an MEA affidavit in the Madras High Court stated that sovereignty over Katchatheevu is a settled matter.
  • Supreme Court Involvement: The current government has been telling Parliament that the matter relating to the islet is sub judice as before the Supreme Court.
  • Congress and DMK’s Role: Questions are raised about whether the Congress, under leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, handled the matter “callously.” RTI documents reveal that the Indian leadership recognized the weak claim over the territory before the 1974 and 1976 agreements.
  • Sri Lanka’s Jurisdiction: Sri Lanka had been exercising jurisdiction over the territory since the mid-1920s without protest from India, which supports their claim over Katchatheevu.
  • Political Rhetoric in Tamil Nadu: While it is common for political leaders to periodically raise the demand for Katchatheevu’s retrieval, the Prime Minister’s participation in this rhetoric is concerning.

THE WAY FORWARD:

  • Diplomatic Engagement and Negotiations: The Indian government is considering diplomatic efforts to engage with Sri Lanka to restore the traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen without questioning Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Katchatheevu. This involves pushing Sri Lanka to implement the 1974 agreement “in letter and spirit” by withdrawing the “Executive Instructions” issued in 1976.
  • Legal and Political Measures: The BJP, at both the state and national levels, is determined to retrieve Katchatheevu or at least restore the fishing rights of Indian fishermen. This includes bringing the issue to public attention, leveraging historical documents, and possibly challenging the agreements’ legality or implementation.
  • Restoring Traditional Rights: The Modi government is exploring ways to ask Sri Lanka to invoke Article 6 of the Katchatheevu pact. This could resolve the issue through an Exchange of Letters between the foreign secretaries of both countries. It would assert Indian fishermen and pilgrims’ right to access Katchatheevu.
  • Diplomatic Negotiations: The Indian government should negotiate with Sri Lanka to find a mutually acceptable solution that addresses the concern. This could involve exploring options like joint island management.
  • Bilateral Economic Connectivity Projects: High-level discussions between India and Sri Lanka, including talks on bilateral economic connectivity projects, could provide a platform for addressing the Katchatheevu issue and the broader concerns of Tamil Nadu fishermen.
  • Geopolitical Considerations: With the changing geopolitical situation in the region, there is optimism that Sri Lanka may accept the rights of Indian fishermen, recognizing India’s reliable partnership. This approach suggests leveraging broader regional dynamics to find a solution.
  • Taking a Slow and Inclusive Approach: The Indian government intends to take a measured approach, engaging all stakeholders and seeking an amicable settlement with Sri Lanka without rushing or appearing to force a solution. This includes restoring the traditional rights of fishermen in a manner that respects Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the legal agreements in place.

THE CONCLUSION:

The political parties in India, particularly the BJP, Congress, and DMK, should adopt a bipartisan approach and work together to find a lasting solution to the Katchatheevu issue, rather than using it for political gains. This would demonstrate a united front and strengthen India’s negotiating position with Sri Lanka.

UPSC PAST YEAR QUESTIONS:

Q.1 India is an age-old friend of Sri Lanka.’ Discuss India’s role in the recent crisis in Sri Lanka the light of the preceding statement. 2022

Q.2 In respect of India — Sri Lanka relations, discuss how domestic factors influence foreign policy. 2013

MAINS PRACTICE QUESTION:

Q.1 Examine the historical and geopolitical context of the Katchatheevu issue between India and Sri Lanka. Discuss the implications of the recent Indian government’s efforts to restore the traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen and the potential impact on India-Sri Lanka relations.

SOURCE:

https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/no-mans-land-the-hindu-editorial-on-playing-politics-over-katchatheevu/article68016301.ece

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