Uncomplicated route to Kachchatheevu

Thursday, 11 April 2024 00:28 –      – 17

facebook sharing button
twitter sharing button
whatsapp sharing button
viber sharing button
sharethis sharing button

When an easy path is available and when the Indians and Sri Lankans both are linked to a common goal, why move on complicated routes?


The recent statements by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar (37 minutes long) on Kachchatheevu created a sensation in India and Sri Lanka, especially regarding what would be their short- and long-term repercussions. Quotes such as “every Indian” is angered as PM Modi said, and India needing to sit down and work out a solution, declared by Minister Dr. Subramaniam Jashankar, insinuated the heartburn and the potential for follow-up action in Indian power-houses.

The Minister excellently justified India’s stances on sovereign rights, exclusive jurisdiction, visa-free travel and fishing, and other rights they already enjoyed, etc., and explained the Indian political developments on Kachchatheevu. He rattled off the numbers of affected Indian fishermen and boats since the conclusion of the agreements, which had become a headache to all successive Indian governments. He stressed the fact that it was the Indian state agents at the centre who always engaged to sort out the fishermen’s problems.

I endorse it through my experience as Secretary of Defence for two years, wherein we intervened in the release of the Indian fisher folk on the submissions of the Indian High Commission in Colombo. The main political queries of the Minister were “Who ‘belittled’ Kachchatheevu?”, “Who made the Agreements?”, “Who hid them?” and “Who politically connived?” He fixed the responsibilities on the Congress Party and the Dravida Munnethra Kazagam (DMK) for very obvious political reasons and highlighted the rights of the public to learn the truth.

The Indian politicians will anticipate the reactions generated by the South Indian fishery electorates at the Lok Sabha elections and the potential antipathy that would be generated against the Congress and DMK. Both are Indian political outcomes. Hence, the issues are immaterial for Sri Lankan ordinary folks. If material, they rest at high diplomatic and political levels.

Relevance of Kachchatheevu

In Tamil Nadu, it may reflect after the Lok Sabha Elections and at the State Elections two years hence. The political outcome for the Indian political groups such as the Congress and DMK would be greater due to their purported involvement in the alleged loss of Indian sovereignty, orchestrated by the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) hierarchy. These are also related to Indian politics and not for us. Hence, some professional diplomatic quotes heard in Delhi are understandable.

For Sri Lankans, political sensitivity is felt since the Kachchatheevu affairs are connected to the fishermen’s lives in the North, and the alleged oceanic resources and environmental degradation. Already they are insisting that our Government should respond adversely to India. However, the ball is still in the Indian political court, but it could indeed be in our court after the Lok Sabha elections.

For domestic Opposition political groups, this opens another political flank to criticise the Government’s hesitancy to respond adversely to India on the grounds of losing our sovereignty. It is because the quoted statements are interpreted (rightly or wrongly) as needing the Modi Government to re-establish Indian sovereignty over Kachchatheevu island, irrespective of the 50-year-old agreement. Dr. Jaishankar’s interest in sitting and working out a solution is a positive and proactive approach and dilutes the often-heard suggestion that Indians will create adverse effects on Sri Lankan sovereignty through hurried interventions in Kachchatheevu.

Less spoken basics of Kachchatheevu

In 1974 it was observed that the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu though consented, wished to postpone the Kachchatheevu Agreement by two years. Nevertheless, it differed due to other domestic and external compulsions. It happened on the grounds of, (a) the presumption that Sri Lankans were unaware of the oil structures in the Wadge Bank area, and such impending knowledge would create difficulties in moving forward, (b) the existence of a supposedly strong pro-Chinese lobby in Sri Lanka, (c) the view then held by some that the case for India was weak, (d) the cordiality that existed at that time between the two countries, (e) India will gain about 1.5 miles of sea area from the existed boundary, and (f) repair the international image created by Indian involvement in the East Pakistan war. These exhibit an expansion of reasoning to sign an agreement in 1974. For whatever reason, it is apparent that the DMK and Congress have connived in finalising the Agreement, as Dr. Jaishankar explains.

Impacts of statements

If one dissects the statements by PM Modi and Minister Jaishankar, they can be considered as ongoing concerns for Indian and Sri Lankan governments. Perhaps the incumbent Indian authorities may be considering concluding the issues for good. Since the Bharathiya Janatha Party’s (BJP) Vajpayee Government and two terms of the Modi Government did not raise this issue earlier even to win Tamil Nadu votes, dropping this bombshell this 2024 election season proves the unpredictable nature of pressures.

Potential post-Indian elections scenario

Overall victory for the BJP at the next Lok Sabha election appears to be certain. In 2014 there was one Lok Sabha winner from the BJP and none in 2019. If the Kachchatheevu issue is political rhetoric, the victory of even one parliamentarian this time would spark a heavy demand on the BJP to stick to the issue sparked by the two leaders. Knowing how PM Modi and Minister Jaishankar reacted respectively to such situations in the Lok Sabha and during international interviews, one can expect some serious demands after forming the third-term BJP government, to appease the South Indian Tamil Nadu fisherfolk. What Dr. Jaishankar envisages is studying and working out a solution and it is an excellent intervention.

Other boundary disputes

Other than with Sri Lanka, India had boundary-related disputes elsewhere too. One case is with Nepal. It was the Kalapani District boundary issue that transpired with a new map released by India after the Article 370 event in Kashmir. It was in 2019, and not fifty years ago. In this instance, when Nepal objected to this ‘encroachment’ of the Lipulekh Pass belonged to them, as mentioned in the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British East India Company and Nepal in 1816, India took the position that the “Indian map accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India, and it has in no manner revised the Indian boundary with Nepal.”

The Nepal Cabinet released a political map, which showed the tri-junction as a part of Nepal and the Nepalese PM Oli threatened to bring back the land area somehow. India did not give in and interpreted the Nepalese reaction “as an effort by PM Oli to consolidate himself in the Nepal Communist Party government by whipping up ultra-nationalistic sentiments against India.” Finally, the Indian Map remains.

Indian public officials also unhesitantly stick to such stances as seen from the Kalapani issue where the Indian Army Chief Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane articulated the assessment in New Delhi when he suggested that the protests could be at the behest of “someone else” – a veiled reference to China. Political commentators support India and Nepal chalking out their borders in a formal and friendly manner, to avoid other disputes such as the one over the Kalapani area, and this could be applied to Kachchatheevu too.

For India, Kachchatheevu may appear amazingly minor and straightforward, comparatively with what she has experienced with Pakistan or China, where conflict had been the order of the day. The pro-Chinese attitude of the incumbent Maldivian Government must be a concern for India, though the Maldives do not border India. With Bangladesh, the boundary issues have been sorted out through negotiations and agreements, inspiring negotiations between us too. When the major and minor boundary issues are reviewed, India must be contended to have a sustainable trouble-free southern tip, and Kachchatheevu need not be a tool of bother.

Indian responses to Palk Bay issues

On the fishing issue in Palk Bay Indian officials usually highlight the initiatives taken by India under the new Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana and other schemes of the Central Government and governments of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry to diversify and reduce fishing pressures in the Palk Bay. Minister Jashankar also insisted on these in his quoted presentation. Unfortunately, the outputs and outcomes of it are extremely slow to realise. Coordinating and cooperating with such approaches may be safer rather than going on a collision course.

Many critical Indian websites referring to the Kachchatheevu issue also may soon fall by the wayside. But one may entertain concerns, if PM Modi uses a tough demanding approach toward Palk Bay with the licensed fishing system or executes new operational arrangements as proposed to PM Mahinda Rajapaksa in February 2020. Do not forget President Abdul Kalam proposed a three-day rule for fishing by Indians sometime back. The roles to be played by Minister Douglas Devananda, Senior National Defence Adviser Sagala Ratnayaka, and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry will be vital in strategising in the interim period before the Indian elections are concluded.

Weakness of international interventions

In the most unlikely, one-in-a-million event that PM Modi rescinds the 1974/1976 Agreements, the domestic political opposition may propose international interventions to sort it out. However, it is not a granted supplement or alternative to friendly negotiations with India. When the food drop happened on 4 June 1987 we experienced it. While some small number of nations like Nepal, Bhutan, Libya, and Bangladesh stood with us, the larger powerful nations were non-committal.

For instance, the Press Trust of India claimed that the Indian External Affairs Minister Tiwari had discussed the issue with Russian President Gorbachov, and Moscow had shown “a perfect understanding” of the Indian position on the Sri Lankan crisis; and not the Sri Lankan position related to violation of national air space, thus sovereignty. The statement issued by the United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar on the food drop was considered ‘mild’ by some. Washington regretted the Indian action, which may sometimes dwindle today due to the diplomatic developments that have taken place geopolitically and the importance India has earned in political, international, economic, military, demographic, and market status.

Pressures on Sri Lankan politics

It was political rhetoric for the BJP at this juncture. It will end soon. However, it is election season for President Ranil Wickremesinghe too. He will be pressured by the Tamil political elements and northern fishermen’s organisations to object to it as reported in the media. Responses from Fishery Minister Douglas Devanada support the local fishermen’s cause. If the President protests it will amount to challenging the election campaign of PM Modi for which President Wickremesinghe will not bargain. If he does not react he will be criticised by his opponents as selling out Sri Lankan sovereignty. The implicit silence is self-explanatory.

In a similar situation, President R. Premadasa took a stern position. It was when he demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF based on sovereignty, despite the invitation to IPKF being extended by the Sri Lanka Government, made by President J.R. Jayewardene, immediately after signing the Rajiv-JRJ Agreement. President Premadasa did not win Indian kudos for that. However, geopolitics and economic status have changed, and taking such a stand currently is bleak.

We must be mindful of the fact that India helped Sri Lanka during the economic difficulty by extending $ 4 billion and supporting us with the IMF. Our Government will think of this immediate past, and they have to diplomatically handle such obligations. Because of the current difficult situation in our country and the election environment here, I think it would have been ideal if the issue never arose. But for the BJP it may be the most opportune! Election environments conflict.

In deciding, the overall socio-economic and political environments also must be reviewed. Especially it is about investments made by Indians in Sri Lanka. Under the incumbent Government, there have been some major Indian investments taking place. However, under external pressures or independently, there had been criticisms levelled against those investments/investors. With the sovereignty issue raised as a concern, such critics will receive a bigger clout to be more critical. Hence, the returns on creating a scream on Kachchatheevu may help abort investments too and these should be kept in mind by those who criticise.


Hence, the political, and economic friendly relations both countries enjoy could be the guiding path. It could be expedited by the opening given by Minister Jaishankar to sit and work out a solution. With our over-dependence on India during the economic collapse, working toward avoiding any calamitous status is in the best interest of Sri Lanka. Hence the messages given by the Indian hierarchy must be converted to positive guiding processes. Therefore, early mitigatory action will pay in the long run, rather than sticking only to the contents of the 50-year-old agreement, around which negotiations could progress, without losing sight of sovereignty.

Failing to access a reasonable, cautious, justified solution by negotiations may provoke unpredicted ex-parte solutions detrimental to friendly, healthy neighbourly relationships. Indian food drop on 4 June 1987 showed negative unpredictable repercussions of distancing and disturbing relationships.

In that respect, Sri Lanka has an Indian “vehicle” to pursue the issues in search of a solution. It is through the ‘Security and Growth For All in the Region’ (SAGAR Initiative) which is a maritime initiative that prioritises the Indian Ocean region to ensure India’s peace, stability, and prosperity. Its goals match the emerged issues, as seen in it by (a) a climate of trust and openness, (b) addressing regional concerns, (c) increasing maritime cooperation, (d) resolution of maritime issues in a peaceful manner, and (e) adherence to international maritime rules and norms by all countries in the Indian Ocean Region.

If India asserts using this vehicle rather than meddling in Kachchatheevu ownership, just to satisfy minor political harvests, it will sound very helpful. Additionally, when an easy path is available and when the Indians and Sri Lankans both are linked to a common goal, why move on complicated routes?