Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry

The Katchatheevu island has become a hot election topic after PM Modi lashed at the Congress and then-Indira Gandhi government for ceding the territory to Sri Lanka in 1974. The unhappiness over the transfer of the island has persisted for about 20 years

Colombo: Sri Lanka has said that it does not see any need to re-open talks about the contentious Katchatheevu island ceded by India 50 years ago, as it has turned into a hot election topic in India ahead of the Lok Sabha polls later this month. Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently took shots at the Congress party, alleging the Indira Gandhi government and the DMK government in Tamil Nadu of "callously" giving the Katchatheevu Island to Sri Lanka in 1974.

The Indian Prime Minister cited an RTI reply obtained by Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief K Annamalai, saying the the then Indira Gandhi government in 1974 had handed over the 1.9 square km island located at Palk Strait, 20 km from the Indian shore, to Sri Lanka. In 1974, then PM Indira Gandhi accepted Katchatheevu as Sri Lankan territory under the "Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement".

"This is a problem discussed and resolved 50 years ago and there is no necessity to have further discussions on this. I don’t think it will come up," Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told the domestic Hiru television channel on Wednesday, adding that no one had yet raised the question of a change in the status of the island.

BJP And PM Modi On Katchatheevu Island

Slamming the Congress, PM Modi said that the controversial decision to surrender Katchatheevu Island had stirred widespread anger among Indians and harmed the interests of Indian fishermen. He emphasised the party’s long-standing history of compromising India’s unity and interests. The RTI reply alleged that the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had dismissed concerns about Katchatheevu Island’s sovereignty as inconsequential despite vehement opposition.

Later, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that administrations under Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi showed indifference towards the island issue. Jaishankar, who held a press conference at BJP headquarters in New Delhi, quoted the RTI reply and questioned how the Indira Gandhi-led government had "gifted" the island to the neighbouring nation, without taking the country in confidence.

"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... That fact is they simply did not care..." Jaishankar said in a press conference today.

Jaishankar also claimed that Indira Gandhi had called the Katchatheevu island a "piece of rock" during an All India Congress Committee meeting. " So, this is not just one PM... This dismissive attitude...was the historic Congress attitude towards Katchatheevu..." he added.

What Is The Katchatheevu Island?

Katchatheevu Island is an island spread over 285 acres in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. In other words, it is located in the middle of the ocean between India and Sri Lanka. It is 1.6 kilometres long and 300 meters wide and is 33 km away from the Indian coast. It is situated in the north-east of Rameshwaram.

India ceded the island to Sri Lanka in 1974, followed by the pact on the fishermen in 1976, but unhappiness over the transfer and the abridged rights spurred two as yet unresolved Supreme Court challenges in the last 20 years. The fishermen of both countries have occasionally violated the pact on the waters around the uninhabited island.

On Monday, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said Sri Lanka had detained more than 6,000 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels over the last 20 years, following the no-fishing pact. Leaders have also argued that Indian fishermen were being denied the right to peaceful fishing in the waters of Palk Strait where they hold a historical claim.

(With International Agency Inputs)