Why a Sri Lankan island is sparking an Indian election controversy

Indian Prime Minister Modi claims the former Congress government sneakily gifted Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. But the truth is more complex, say diplomats and analysts.

New Delhi, India – Fifty years after India and Sri Lanka settled a long-simmering dispute over a tiny island, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused a former government of the now-in-opposition Congress Party of gifting Indian territory to its southern neighbour.

The allegation by Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the eve of national elections has sparked a heated debate in India over a key diplomatic relationship.

At the centre of the controversy is Katchatheevu Island, for long an emotive issue in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which votes on April 19 in the first phase of India’s seven-stage elections.

What’s the controversy about?

Ahead of the Tamil Nadu vote, on March 31, Modi shared a news report on social media with the headline, “RTI reply shows how Indira Gandhi ceded island to Sri Lanka”. Modi asserted that Congress “callously” gave Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka.

The issue originated from a Right to information (RTI) request by Tamil Nadu BJP President K Annamalai, who suggested that in the 1970s, the Congress Party under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in consultation with Tamil Nadu’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), transferred ownership of Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka. The DMK was ruling Tamil Nadu at the time and is also in power there now.

“Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away #Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds—we can’t ever trust Congress! (sic),” Modi posted on X, sharing the report. “Weakening India’s unity, integrity and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” he added.

Soon after, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reshared Modi’s tweet with the caption: “It is important that people know the full truth about our past. The facts brought out… should concern every citizen.” The foreign minister later echoed Modi’s allegations during two press conferences.

Modi has since repeated the allegations, including in a campaign speech in West Bengal on April 7 where he alleged that for the Congress Party, both Katchatheevu and the territory of Kashmir, which is contested by India and Pakistan, do not matter.

Many analysts believe the BJP’s decision to bring up Katchatheevu is aimed only at helping it in Tamil Nadu during the election. It is a state where the BJP has only a small presence and won no seats in the 2019 vote. There are 39 national constituencies in Tamil Nadu, with an average of 1.51 million voters in each.

“The fact the issue has been raised in the midst of the elections clearly shows it has been done in the hope of gaining some support in Tamil Nadu where the BJP so far has failed to gain any foothold,” said Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former BJP politician and current columnist, who served as a director of operations in the Prime Minister’s Office under the previous BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, between 1999 and 2004.

Kulkarni said the BJP move was “neither good politics nor good diplomacy and certainly not good neighbourhood policy”.

He questioned how Modi and Jaishankar could claim to have unearthed the “full truth” about Kathatheevu in 2024, when they were in power for the past decade and had access to all the papers on the subject.

“All the facts that have come up have gone against the ruling party itself. Modi has been the prime minister for the last 10 years and for him to tweet that these are some new facts that have come up – how can the government be unaware of the facts when it has all resources at its disposal?” Kulkarni asked.

What and where is Katchatheevu?

Katchatheevu is a small, barren island spanning 115 hectares (285 acres) within Sri Lanka’s maritime boundary, located 33km (20 miles) off the northeast coast of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. It lies southwest of Sri Lanka’s Delft Island.

Katchatheevu was governed by the kingdom of Ramanad Raja from 1795 to 1803 during British rule. The island is also home to the 120-year-old St Anthony’s Church, which hosts an annual festival, drawing devotees from India and Sri Lanka.

Control of Katchatheevu has been a significant point of contention between India and Sri Lanka, particularly regarding fishing rights in the surrounding waters. In a news conference last week, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that Sri Lanka had detained more than 6,000 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels in the past 20 years.

Pradip Chatterjee, the convener of India’s National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers, told Al Jazeera that what fishermen needed was for India and Sri Lanka to avoid adopting nationalist positions and instead “amicably resolve this matter”.

Late last month, the Sri Lankan Navy confirmed in a statement that they had detained 23 Indian trawlers and 178 Indian fishermen in 2024 for allegedly fishing in the island nation’s waters. On April 4, 19 Indian fishermen were released by the Sri Lanka Navy and repatriated to India.

When did Katchatheevu become a part of Sri Lanka?

The spat between India and Sri Lanka dates back at least to 1921 and a survey that placed it within the maritime territory of what was then known as Ceylon, now Sri Lanka – a position that British India countered, citing the erstwhile rule of the Ramanad kingdom. The dispute continued after the independence of both countries.

In 1974, India acknowledged Katchatheevu as part of Sri Lanka’s territory in a maritime boundary agreement signed by Indian Prime Minister Gandhi and her counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

According to a copy of the agreement obtained by Al Jazeera, the pact allowed Indian fishermen and pilgrims to visit Katchatheevu without needing a travel document or a visa. However, the agreement did not specify the fishing rights of Indian fishermen in the waters around Katchatheevu.

Ashok Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka, said that the 1974 agreement led to further agreements clarifying the maritime boundary with Sri Lanka. One such agreement in March 1976 recognised India’s sovereign rights over the Wadge Bank – a 10,300 sq km (4,000 sq mile) trawl fishery site – and its rich resources.

In comparison with Katchatheevu island, the Wadge Bank is considered one of the world’s richest fishing grounds, located in a much more strategically important part of the sea. The agreement also granted India the right to explore the Wadge Bank for petroleum and other mineral resources.

“The 1974 agreement placed Katchatheevu on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL (international maritime boundary line) but it also paved the way for the understanding of 1976, which recognised India’s sovereign rights over the Wadge Bank and its rich resources,” Kantha said.

However, the 1976 agreement restricted both the countries’ fishermen from fishing in the other’s waters.

What do Tamil Nadu parties say on Katchatheevu?

The two largest parties in Tamil Nadu, the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), have long advocated for the retrieval of the Katchatheevu Island from Sri Lanka.

In 1974, after India ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, M Karunanidhi, the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, wrote to Gandhi on how the land was historically a part of the Ramnad kingdom’s territory.

However, the BJP today blames the DMK government for being complicit with Congress in handing over the Island to Sri Lanka.

In 1991, the Tamil Nadu assembly adopted a resolution demanding the retrieval of Katchatheevu Island. In 2008, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa from the AIADMK approached the Supreme Court to nullify the agreements of 1974 and 1976.

But amid the current controversy, both the AIADMK and DMK have criticised the BJP for raising the Katchatheevu issue ahead of the general elections.

What have Modi and the BJP previously said?

In the wake of the controversy, Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Priyanka Chaturvedi alleged inconsistencies in the Modi government’s position on Katchatheevu, citing a 2015 RTI reply from the Ministry of External Affairs. Jaishankar, now foreign minister, was then the top career diplomat in the foreign office.

“This [1974 agreement] didn’t involve either acquiring or ceding of territory belonging to India since the area in question had never been demarcated,” Jaishankar’s ministry had said in 2015. “Under the agreements, the island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka International Maritime Boundary Line.”

In 2014, after Modi came to power, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court that Katchatheevu was given to Sri Lanka based on a bilateral agreement in 1974 and “to retrieve it now, we have to go to war”.

What are the implications for India’s relations with Sri Lanka?

Harsh V Pant, the vice president for studies and foreign policy at the Observer Research Foundation, said that while the controversy would not harm the India-Sri Lanka relationship, revisiting settled issues like Katchatheevu would not be in the interests of either side.

“Tamil Nadu is an important state now being contested by the BJP. So, it is very natural for the BJP to try to find space in a state where it has no presence, using all available issues that come its way and this issue is one of them,” Pant said.

“The BJP leadership seems to be highlighting the opposition’s past mishandling of the issue but I don’t think there is intent to change the way the dispute was settled decades ago. Therefore, I think this is unlikely to continue beyond the elections,” Pant added.

Other governments, he said, “understand the compulsion of electoral democracy and [that] many things are said during elections that are forgotten later. That’s why I think we have seen the Sri Lankan government not really intervening in the matter”.

On April 4, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told a local television channel that Colombo did not see any “necessity to have further discussions on” what he described as a settled matter.

Former Indian diplomat Kalarickal Pranchu Fabian said that as long as India does not try to renegotiate the Katchatheevu deal with Sri Lanka, the domestic politics surrounding the island would not affect bilateral ties.

Source: Al Jazeera