The hidden but real issue in the row over Kachchativu
Posted on April 11th, 2024

By P. K. Balachandran/Factum

Colombo, April 10: There is hullabaloo in India over the tiny and uninhabited Kachchativu island in the Palk Strait. It was triggered earlier this month by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the supremo of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

To everyone’s surprise, Modi accused the opposition Congress party of giving the island away to Sri Lanka callously” in 1974.

This was followed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s utterances blaming  India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), an ally of the Congress in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu.

Referring to an official report, secured through the Right to Information Act by a Tamil Nadu BJP leader, Modi said that it was the Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had handed over Kachchativu to Sri Lanka.

It was eye-opening and startling,” Modi said and accused India’s grand old party of weakening the country’s integrity continually.

We can’t ever trust Congress. Weakening India’s unity, integrity, and interests has been Congress’s way of working for 75 years and counting,” Modi wrote on X.

Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, External Affairs Minister and former diplomat, S. Jaishankar said: Today, it is important for the public to know and the people to judge. This issue has been hidden too long from the gaze of the public. We are talking about 1958 and 1960. The main people in the case wanted to make sure that at least we should get the fishing rights. The island was given away in 1974 and the fishing rights were given away in 1976. One, the most basic recurring aspect is the indifference shown by the then Central government and the PMs about the territory of India. The fact is they simply did not care.

In an observation given by the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1961, he wrote: ‘I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claim to it. I do not like matters like this pending indefinitely and being raised again and again in parliament.’ So, to Pandit Nehru, this was a little island, it had no importance, he saw it as a nuisance. For him, the sooner you give it away, the better. This view continued on to Indira Gandhi as well.

Indira Gandhi is said to have remarked in the AICC meeting that this is a little rock. I am reminded of those days when Pandit Nehru called our northern boundary as a place where not a blade of grass grew. I would like to remind them that after this historic statement by PM Nehru, he never regained the confidence of the country. The same was going to happen to Indira Gandhi when she said that this is only a little rock. So, this is not just one PM. This dismissive attitude was the historic Congress attitude towards Kachchativu.”

In another interaction, the External Affairs Minister said that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which was then in power in Tamil Nadu, was kept informed about the government’s stand on Kachchativu and therefore the DMK too was complicit.

Modi’s and Jaishankar’s utterance have not caused ripples in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told a TV channel on April 3: This is a problem discussed and resolved 50 years ago and there is no necessity to have further discussions on this.”

A Colombo-based official source told The Hindu that the Sri Lankan government refrained from commenting on the development as it was a clash between two political parties in the run-up to Indian parliamentary elections.

The comments are about who was responsible for giving up the island to Sri Lanka, not about whose territory it is part of now. So, there is nothing for Sri Lanka to comment on, really,” the official said, requesting anonymity owing to the sensitivity” of the issue.

No Indian Threat

In fact, neither Modi nor Jaishankar said that they would try to reclaim Kachchativu from Sri Lanka. In fact, when the matter came up in the Supreme Court, the Attorney General of the Modi government Mukul Rohatgi had himself said that the island could not be taken back except by waging war.

It has also been India’s consistent stand that Kachchativu was a disputed territory” and that the dispute was settled in favour of Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976 through long and arduous negotiations since 1921. Kachchativu was not a part of India. If it were so, it could not have been alienated without a constitutional amendment. And there was no constitutional amendment when Sri Lanka’s sovereignty was recognized.

Real Issue: Dispute over Fishing Rights

At any rate, the real issue is the fishing rights of the Tamil Nadu fishermen on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary which passes near Kachchativu.

Tamil Nadu fishermen have been making the unreasonable demand that they be allowed to fish in the Palk Strait, the Palk Bay and even off the North Eastern Jaffna shores because they had been fishing there for centuries. For them, the International Maritime Boundary drawn up in 1974 and 1976 are of no relevance. Sri Lanka cannot be expected to agree to this.

Though the retrieval of Kachchativu from Sri Lanka is portrayed as a solution to the problem, it is not a solution at all. Even if it is handed over to India, the Tamil Nadu fishermen will continue to intrude into Sri Lankan waters. Using trawlers that scrape the bottom of the shallow sea denuding it of not just fish but all forms of marine life, these fishermen had over-fished in the sea next to the Indian shores. They had then taken to poaching in Sri Lankan waters right up to the Sri Lankan shores.

They brazenly exploit the relative weakness of the North Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen.

When arrested, the story the Tamil Nadu fishermen narrate to the outside world is that they did not cross Kachchativu and that the Sri Lankan navy had seized them in Indian waters. If this were true, the Indian Coast Guard, which has bases on the Indian side, would have intercepted the Sri Lankan navy. But there has not been a single case of confrontation between the Indian and Lankan naval personnel.

Since the arrest of the fishermen triggers a hue and cry in Tamil Nadu Indian diplomats get them released promptly. But the boats come back again.

During the ethnic conflict, the Lankan navy used to open fire and even kill the intruders. But since the end of the conflict in 2009, they don’t even fire warning shots. The intruding vessels are boarded, the crew are taken prisoner, and their boats are seized. But diplomacy intervenes and the men are set free. But they come back.

Bottom Trawling

Sri Lanka had banned bottom trawlers in 2017. But Indian trawlers come  unchallenged. Lankan Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda told parliament that at least 5,000 bottom trawlers from Pondicherry, Karaikal, Rameshwaram and Nagapattinam enter Sri Lankan waters week after week to engage in bottom trawling at the expense of the livelihoods of local fishermen.

After the 1976 agreement, the Indian mechanised trawlers which were 36 feet long with 120 horsepower capacity at that time, turned out to be 50-60 foot long massive vessels with 350-550 horsepower engines after 2000,” Devananda said.

In the past, the Northern Tamil shores had the reputation of being one of the most productive regions in terms of export-quality seafood. But over time, shrimps, blue swimming crab and cuttlefish became the main targets of Indian bottom trawling, resulting in a loss of about USD 750 million annually to Sri Lanka. About 50,000 fisher families were affected.

A study quoted in a research paper submitted to the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University revealed that in 2016, around 1000-1500 mechanized trawlers were coming to Palk Strait, Palk Bay and Gulf of Mannar three days in a week. They had harvested approximately 1900 tons of shrimps and 4000 tons of demersal fish.

The Northern Lankan Tamil fishermen were earning just LKR 600 – 800 LKR per day, which was a third of the income they used to earn before the Indian trawler invasion.

With big Indian boats on the prowl, the North Lankan Tamil fishermen do not get enough catch. There are days when we return home empty-handed, not even enough fish for our own consumption,” Rasenthiram Mathiyalahan, secretary of Aadhikovilady Fishermen Union in Point Pedro, told Sunday Times.

Local fishermen are appalled by a proposal to issue permits to Indian fishermen to fish in Lankan waters. We will never allow such proposals to be implemented,” Varnakulasingham, a fisher leader said.

There is an India-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group on Fisheries. India makes a case for treating the fishermen humanely” and release them. The Sri Lankan side obliges. But the poaching goes on unhindered and the demand for retrieving Kachchativu is raised in Tamil Nadu, obscuring the real issue.

(P. K. Balachandran is a freelance journalist based in Colombo writing on South Asian affairs for various news websites and dailies for a number of years. He has reported from Colombo and Chennai for Hindustan Times, New Indian Express and Economist. He has a weekly column in Daily Mirror and Ceylon Today in Sri Lanka)

Factum is an Asia Pacific-focused think tank on International Relations, Tech Cooperation, and Strategic Communications accessible via The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the organization’s.

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