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Katchatheevu between India and Sri Lanka: Let it not become a point of friction

By NS Venkataraman* 
 Katchatheevu,  a 285-acre uninhabited island in the Palk Strait, between India and Sri Lanka and  about 33 km from the Indian coast,   has suddenly become a  matter of acrimonious debate, in India today, as Indian parliamentary elections will take place in the next few days.
There have  been claim by both Sri Lanka and India, both of which were under British rule for several centuries, about the ownership of Katchatheevu for very long time.  Finally, a settlement  was reached in the year 1974, when Government of India agreed that Katchatheevu would be part of Sri Lanka, which mean that India has given  up it’s claim on Katchatheevu.
While it was thought that the matter has been settled once for all, there have been considerable unhappiness about this decision of Government of India amongst the fishing community in the coastal region in Tamil Nadu,  who have been using the Katchatheevu island for resting and drying their nets etc.  for several decades.
Election time issue
Meanwhile, some political parties in Tamil Nadu have been demanding that Katchatheevu should be claimed back by India. This thoughtless  demand has not been considered by the Government of India, and obviously this demand cannot be considered in future also. 
What is the reason for this Katchatheevu matter erupting into an explosive discussion in India today?
The reason is that the ruling party  (DMK) in Tamil Nadu  has been demanding that Katchatheevu should be retrieved and has written several letters to the Prime Minister reiterating this demand.   The DMK made it an electoral issue,  whipping up passion, particularly amongst fishermen, as a strategy for vote bank politics in the ongoing election season in India.
In this scenario, Prime Minister has pointed out that the decision to give up rights on Katchatheevu was taken by the then  Indian  Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, with the full knowledge of the then DMK Chief Minister in Tamil Nadu, and for all practical purposes then DMK government then did not protest and its members in Parliament remained silent on the matter.
The essence of the accusation of Prime Minister Modi is that while present DMK government in Tamil Nadu is demanding that Katchatheevu should be taken back by India, the fact is that it was the then DMK government and the then Congress government    who  took the decision to give up the claim on Katchatheevu.  
Further, the document released under  the  Right to Information Act reveals that the approval  of Parliament was not obtained before giving up the claim on Katchatheevu and Parliament was only informed later.
What is to be noted here is the ongoing bitter debate in India on Katchatheevu is debate between political parties in India.  Nowhere has the Indian Prime Minister or Indian Foreign Minister has stated that Katchatheevu would be taken back by India,  though some political parties in Tamil Nadu are trying to  misinterpret for political convenience to state  that Government of India would take back Katchatheevu island in future.
Need for holistic approach
It is well recognised in India that Indian fishermen face some issues, as they cannot utilise the Katchatheevu island  to carry out the fishing activity, as they were doing earlier before the year 1974.
What is required is that both Government of India and Sri Lankan government need to take a holistic view of the matter in approaching the issue,  particularly keeping in view the common interests of both the countries and historical,  traditional  and cultural relationship  between both the countries. A matured discussion between Indian government and  Sri Lankan government can certainly find a way,   that can  elegantly find a solution,  keeping the interests of fishermen in India and Sri Lanka. 
In all probability this heated discussion on Katchatheevu in India would last only till 4th of June, 2024 when the result of the parliamentary election would be declared in India.
When the dust would settle down,  an appropriate solution can be certainly arrived at.
Unfortunately, in the democratic set up in India and Sri Lanka, often politicians and  owners of some media  houses and a few journalists with vested interests   say and write provocatively to keep the issue burning  to serve their narrow political interest.
Anyway, the discerning observers both in India and Sri Lanka realise that both the countries need to have healthy and good relationships for mutual benefits. It is hoped that the Indian Prime Minister  who started the current heated discussion to expose Tamil Nadu’s ruling party DMK’s double game,  must   tone down,  to create appropriate climate for  discussions with Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government also should not overreact  and understand the trends and utterances  during the  election period,  which seem to be similar both in India and Sri Lanka.
*Trustee, Nandini Voice For The Deprived, Chennai



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