The issue of the Katchatheevu island, lying halfway between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, is usually taken up by the Davidian political parties in Tamil Nadu such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) for whom the fishing community is a major vote bank.

Katchatheevu is a tiny island, 285.2 acres in area, located ten miles northeast of Rameshwaram. Tamil Nadu fishermen, who have been fishing here for centuries, tend to intrude into Sri Lankan waters beyond Katchatheevu and fish near the north Sri Lankan coastline. They get arrested by the Sri Lankan navy, a hue and cry is raised by the political parties in Tamil Nadu, government of India then intervenes diplomatically, and the fishermen are released. This cycle is repeated year after year with no end in sight.

As an offshoot of this, Tamil Nadu politicians have been routinely demanding that Katchatheevu be “taken back” from Sri Lanka as it had been “thoughtlessly” ceded by India to Sri Lanka by an agreement signed in 1974. Both the AIADMK (in 2008) and the DMK (in 2013) had approached the Supreme Court on this, only to be told that the current status of the island is a done deal that could not be reversed.

But in an unusual, indeed unsettling development on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly took up the Katchatheevu issue. He accused the opposition Congress of surrendering Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka when it was in power in 1974.

Referring to an official report, secured through the Right to Information Act, Modi said that it was the Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had handed over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.

It was “eye-opening and startling,” he said and accused India’s grand old opposition party of weakening the country’s integrity. He dubbed the decision on Katchatheevu as “callous” and added that the Congress government’s decision had angered every Indian.

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

The Tamil Maanila Congress-Moopanar president G. K. Vasan, who is an ally of the BJP, alleged that the Katchatheevu island was ceded with the approval of the DMK, which was in Tamil Nadu at that time. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman put out a video of Jayalalithaa making the same charge against the DMK.

Taking the cudgels on behalf of the Congress, its President, Mallikarjun Kharge, pointed out that the Modi government’s own Attorney General, Mukul Rohtagi, had told the Supreme Court in 2014 that Katchatheevu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974 and asked how it can be taken back today. “If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back," Rohatgi said.

Kharge went on to ask Modi: “Did your government take any steps to resolve this issue and take back Katchatheevu ?" Another Congressman, Sandeep Dikshit, described Modi’s charge as a ‘ploy’ to win the coming parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu.

Come elections, political parties do rake up emotive issues to gain a decisive advantage over their rivals. Modi’s charge was only an election ploy. He did not say that his government will retrieve Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka. He only blamed the Congress for giving it away back in 1974. There was no hint of renegotiating the 1974 Indo-Lanka maritime border pact.

Be that as it may, the common belief in India is that the Indian government had “ceded” Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka while in Sri Lanka the common belief is that the island was indisputably Sri Lankan.

Though both the Indian and Sri Lankan sides had argued their case with historical facts and over numerous meetings since 1921, the final decision in 1974 was a political one taken by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart, Sirima Bandaranaike in the interest of good neighbourly relations.

But not all aspects of the dispute were solved, which is why it still exists. According to the Tamil Nadu politicians and fishermen, a 1976 agreement allowed Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu as they had done this from time immemorial.

But according to the Sri Lankans, the 1976 pact allowed Indian fishermen only innocent passage across Katchatheevu, not fishing rights.

According to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry: “Paragraph 1 of the Exchange of Letters very clearly rules out any fishing rights for the fishermen of the two States in the waters of the other State. It reads as follows: Fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of Sri Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be.”

And the Indian government had told the Supreme Court that the term “traditional rights is not to be understood to cover fishing rights around the island to Indian fishermen.”

With fish stocks diminishing on the Indian side due to overfishing, Indian fishermen have been routinely coming close to the Sri Lankan mainland to fish and that too with trawlers. Sri Lankan fishermen naturally are disturbed by this and the Lankan navy has been arresting the intruders. But any tension arising from this is defused when India intervenes diplomatically and gets the arrested fishermen released.

Various suggestions have been made to solve the problem, but none of them has been implemented. Among the suggestions were: allowing fishing without trawlers; fixing seasons for fishing; incentivising deep sea fishing; and making the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar a joint development zone for the benefit of both countries.

Working groups from the two countries regularly meet but the issues remain. However, they are not allowed to blow up as both countries exercise restraint in the interest of the broader relationship.

Making a drastic suggestion to end the problem, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa demanded that Katchatheevu be retrieved from Sri Lanka. But the Central government ignored the call. In 2008 she filed a case in the Supreme Court. And DMK leader M.Karunanidhi filed another in 2013.

The Union government told the court in 2008 that the question of the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise because no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka. Katchatheevu was a disputed territory over which India had given up its claim in 1974.

Jayalalitha had claimed that Katchatheevu was historically a part of Ramnad Raja’s estate. But the Government of India’s case was that these land rights did not give “sovereignty” over the island.

The Indian government told the Supreme Court: “Both countries examined the entire question from all angles and took into account historical evidence and legal aspects. This position was reiterated in the 1976 agreement. No territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area in question was in dispute and had never been demarcated.”

The contention of Jayalalithaa that Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka “was not correct and contrary to official records,” the government said.

A well-researched memorandum on Katchatheevu was submitted in June 1966 by C. S. Navaratnam of Jaffna, an acclaimed authority on the subject. Much of his research contributed to the final dossier on Sri Lanka’s claim.

Sri Lanka’s then Legal Advisor, M. C. Walter Pinto, had examined the records at the Public Office in London and also at the India Office and was able to unearth some valuable information on the delimitation exercise that was carried out in the 1920s which strengthened Sri Lanka’s case.