Katchatheevu was not India’s to “give away”

Tuesday, 2 April 2024 00:35 –      – 245

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Last week, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again raised a popular trope on the sovereignty of Katchatheevu and criticised his political opponents, the Congress party for ‘ceding’ the island to Sri Lanka in 1974 by the then Indira Gandhi government. An issue settled many decades ago, amicably through diplomatic negotiations, has in recent times been resurrected for political expediency.

It is a distortion of the facts, a dog whistle to South Indian nationalism and a dangerous and unnecessary provocation of a friendly neighbour that could have serious repercussions.

It is a popular narrative among Indian politicians to claim that the Katchatheevu Island was “gifted” to Sri Lanka by a magnanimous Indian Government. The truth however is far more nuanced. Negotiations between the two countries were exhausting, spanning two administrations in both countries. Then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs W.T. Jayasinghe led the Sri Lankan negotiations. He presented a comprehensive historical and political case for the sovereignty of the islet lying with Sri Lanka. This was accepted by both sides in the 1970s and the matter resolved with Sri Lanka’s sovereignty being accepted in an exchange of letters between the two States.

The agreement, while accepting the sovereignty of Sri Lanka, also allowed for Indian fishermen to dry their nets in the island and pilgrims from India to visit the annual festivities of the church situated there without any immigration formalities. This practice has continued to this date.

Sri Lanka compromised in favour of its neighbour when it came to demarcating the maritime boundary between the two nations and by extension the size of its territorial waters. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea a coastal State may claim a territorial sea that extends seaward up to 12 nautical miles from its coast. When two such claims overlap, as in the case between India and Sri Lanka, the median point is considered as the maritime border. The distance between Katchatheevu and the Indian mainland is roughly 20 kilometres. Therefore, according to international law, the maritime border should have been at the midpoint at 10 kilometres from the Katchatheevu Island and 10 kilometres from the Rameswaram coast.

Yet in the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary agreements that were signed in 1974 and also 1976 the international maritime boundary was demarcated barely 500 metres from Katchatheevu. As a result, Sri Lanka’s territorial claim was reduced significantly. The spirit of friendship and amicable settlement was considered more important by both sides during these negotiations.

Since then successive Indian Governments have maintained that the Katchatheevu matter is resolved. During litigation in 2008, the Union Government informed the Supreme Court of India that the question of the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise. This is because no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka.

The constant provocative claims on Sri Lankan territory, especially from the highest echelons of power in India, would only force our country to seek security guarantees elsewhere. Having learnt the art of diplomacy from Ashoka and strategy from Kautilya, it would be tragic for all concerned if Sri Lanka needs to apply the foreign policy theory of Rajamandala to find ‘friends’ elsewhere to protect itself against a ‘near foe’.