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Sat. December 15, 2018
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Katchatheevu: A Resolved, Yet an Unresolved Tussle
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A respite seems impossible in the near future between India and Sri Lanka over the continuing skirmishes over the latter-owned and “disputed” islet – Katchatheevu – in the Palk Bay. The ongoing arrests and firing on Indian fishermen amounting to even death, for violating the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL), by the Sri Lankan Navy has become a regular episode in the region. With the most recent chasing away of the Tamil Fishermen from the vicinity of this island by the Lankan Navy on 21 July 2016, another chapter is added to the ongoing series in the sea. There are two questions that emerge as a result of the frictions between the Indian fishermen and the Colombo’s Navy in the Palk Strait. Why the issue is unresolved? What measures can be adopted to avoid such undesirable incidents?

What is Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is a small islet which is located in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) at a distance of ten miles north-east of Rameswaram, India and lies in proximity to India’s southern neighbor – Sri Lanka. Historically, the island of Katchatheevu had been under the Indian control until the government of India transferred it to the Sri Lanka in 1974. A couple of records reveal that the ownership of this island which extends up to 285.2 acres was under the suzerainty of the Raja of Ramanad, Ramanathapuram district, Tamil Nadu (TN). With the abolition of the Zamindari system, the land was simultaneously brought under the jurisdiction of the then Madras Presidency. Katchatheevu as a contentious issue surfaced after the independence when the governments of India and Sri Lanka initiated the maritime boundary demarcation process. The island which lacks even a single drop of fresh water has been a camp of recess for the fishermen amidst their sea voyages for drying up their nets and miscellaneous activities. The expanding engagement of the fisher-folks has gradually led to the establishment of a shrine under the Catholic denomination in the island – St. Antony’s Church – by a Tamil Catholic Srinivasa Padaiyachi. Hence, the region began to grow as a place of cultural importance for the entire fishing community across the sea.

The Island Row

Fishing rights to Indian fishermen was an important guarantee enshrined in the 1974 accord on Palk Bay. However, the subsequent maritime delineation on Bay of Bengal and Gulf of Mannar in 1976 turned out to be a set back to the Indian fishing community as their traditional livelihood rights were curbed in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Sri Lanka. The only rights that are remaining unrevoked for this group are the access to the Katchatheevu and the freedom of pilgrimage without visa. For New Delhi and Colombo, the row over the island is resolved and there is hardly any reason for a new negotiation. Critics, who are predominantly from TN, are of the view that the deal was a result of the affinity between the then two Prime Ministers – Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Besides, the pursuance of “friendly neighboring relations” was the crux of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1974. The political environment was also conducive for Mrs. Gandhi to cede the island without any opposition as the Parliament and the TN State Assembly were suspended owing to the declaration of National Emergency.

Despite the ban on trawling beyond the Palk Strait, the fishermen from TN have been crossing the maritime boundary and continuing their profession. As Colombo had already been struggling to tackle its ethnic civil war, the cross-border fishing was left unnoticed. Nevertheless, the end of the civil war in 2009 marked the inception of the misery for the Indian fisher-folks as the Sri Lankan Navy and the Coast Guard intensified their maritime vigilance as they were relieved of the war-time responsibilities. The consequent patrolling has paved the way to numerous arrests and detentions of Indian fishermen in the Sri Lankan jails and many have been killed in the firing on the seas.

State vs Centre

In spite of the status of foreign policy as a matter that falls under the ambit of the Union government, TN has been invariably enjoying some privileges with respect to the country’s relations with the government at Colombo. The same card is being played by the present Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa in diverting the attention of New Delhi to the plight of the state’s fishermen. In 2008, she filed a suit in the Supreme Court of India seeking the declaration of the accord by between the two countries as unconstitutional as it is not ratified by the Parliament through a constitutional amendment. The Centre has been trying to escape from this menace by labelling the isle as “disputed” which does away the requirement of the parliamentary ratification in the cessation procedure. A same move was followed in 2011 prior to the unanimous resolution by the TN State Assembly in 2013 demanding the immediate retrieval of the island by the Centre. The inaction of the former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi on the issue had also lured incessant irks among the populace.

The Road Ahead

Nonetheless, the Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi who represented the Centre in the Supreme Court recently was skeptical on getting Katchatheevu back and argued that an option of retrieval necessarily invites the need for a war with Sri Lanka. The complexity of the issue escalates as it involves the livelihood security of the Sri Lankan fishermen as well since the bottom trawling by the Tamil fishermen beyond the maritime boundary seriously affects the fishery-needs of their foreign counterparts. The meetings brokered by the foreign offices of both countries have mostly been failures. A significant number of negotiations were often participated in by businessmen in lieu of the fishermen. Hence, the need of the hour is to open the channels up for direct conclaves between the fishing communities of both countries. A bottom-up approach might be the best alternative when it is read in consonance with the past failures in reaching a consensus at the governmental level. If the issue is left unattended, the number of naval interventions against the Indian fishermen would go out of proportion in due course without an end.

Adarsh Vijay is currently pursuing a Masters Programme in Political Science at Madras Christian College, Chennai, India. 

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