Indian politicians are known for their hyperbolic and emotive rhetoric, especially during election seasons. Last week Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M.K. Stalin is reported to have claimed that “retrieving the Kachchativu islet from Sri Lanka alone, would put a permanent end to the problems of fishermen in Tamil Nadu”.
Speaking at a fishermen’s conference in Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district, Chief Minister Stalin has alleged that it had become a routine for the Sri Lankan Navy to attack and arrest Indian fishermen in the waters that border the two countries. He says he had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take the initiative to intervene but the Central Government has not taken any action to “retrieve” the island from Sri Lanka. If the Modi Government doesn’t take action on this, the Chief Minister threatens that his party would move the new Government to do so after next year’s general election.
It is a popular narrative among Indian politicians to claim that the Kachchativu Island was “gifted” to Sri Lanka by a magnanimous Indian Government under Indira Gandhi. It is true that the dispute was amicably settled between the two Governments, but it was not a gift by any measure.
Negotiations between India and Sri Lanka were exhausting, spanning two administrations in both countries. Then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs W.T. Jayasinghe led the Sri Lankan negotiations. He presented a comprehensive historical and political case for the sovereignty of the islet lying with Sri Lanka. This was accepted by both sides in the 1970s and the matter resolved with Sri Lanka’s sovereignty being accepted in an exchange of letters between the two States.
The agreement between the two countries while accepting the sovereignty of Sri Lanka also allowed for Indian fishermen to dry their nets in the island and allowed for pilgrims from India to visit the annual festivities of the church situated there. This practice has continued since with the number of Tamil Nadu pilgrims visiting Kachchativu, without visa or immigration formalities, increasing annually since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009.
Indian politicians who claimed that the island was ceded or “gifted” to Sri Lanka often forget that in fact it was Sri Lanka that compromised in favour of its neighbour when it came to demarcating the maritime boundary between the two nations and by extension the size of its territorial waters. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea a coastal State may claim a territorial sea that extends seaward up to 12 nautical miles from its coast. When two such claims overlap, as in the case between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Straits the median point is considered as the maritime border. The distance between Kachchativu and the Indian mainland is roughly 20 kilometres. Therefore according to international law the maritime border should be the mid point at 10 kilometres from the Kachchativu Island and 10 kilometres from the Rameswaram coast.
Yet in the India-Sri Lanka maritime boundary agreements that were signed in 1974 and also 1976 the international maritime boundary was demarcated barely 500 metres or half a kilometre from Kachchativu. As a result, Sri Lanka’s territorial claim was reduced significantly. The spirit of friendship and amicable settlement was considered more important by both sides during these negotiations.
Fortunately, India’s Central Government has maintained that the Kachchativu matter is resolved. During litigation in 2008, the Union Government informed the Supreme Court of India that the question of the retrieval of Kachchativu from Sri Lanka did not arise. This is because no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka.
The constant provocative claims by Tamil Nadu politicians is dangerous and will lead to unnecessary tensions between the two countries. Individuals who hold high political office should act with far more constraint and be conscious that making Kachchativu a petty election issue can have serious consequences for relations between India and Sri Lanka