Katchatheevu is located between India and Srilanka. According to scientific theory, it was formed because of the volcanic eruption in the 14th century along with other 10 small islands. Katchatheevu Island has a total landmass of 285 acres. As it is a volcanic erupted place it has plenty of natural resources. In terms of distance it is very close to India (17 kms) compared with it to Srilanka (25 kms). Initially, the island was not inhabited.
In 1605, the Madurai Nayaks founded the Sethupathi dynasty. They granted Kuthukaal theevu, Kurusadi theevu, Ramasamy theevu, Mannali theevu, Katchatteevu, Nadutheevu, Pallitheevu, and other 69 villages to the Sethupathi dynasty. Around 1630s, Kuthansethupathy predominantly ruled these areas. After his death, the Madras presidency of the British took under their control. It was administrated by the Ramanathapuram district officials. Sometimes, they leased Katchatheevu to individuals also for revenue-generating. In the 20th century, Seenikuppan padaiyachi built the St. Antony church. People used to celebrate the Katchatteevu festival in mid-March. Devotees from both countries would come. Usually, fishermen from both the countries would take rest there when tired. They used this land to dry up their fishing net also.
Since its formation, it was purely administrated by India. The authentic documents are also available for this. In 1921, Srilanka claimed ownership of Katchatteevu against British India. But they did not accept this. After independence, India recognized equal sovereignty to Srilanka. But the Tamilnadu government stated agitation over this as it is important for their fishermen and cultural ethnicity. In 1974, the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi ceded Katchatheevu to Srilanka under the “Indo-Srilanka Maritime agreement” aimed at resolving the maritime boundaries in the Palk Strait. Tamilnadu was reigned by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, DMK at that time. They showed their agitation towards the central government but it did not bring any favor results.
“Retrieving Katchatheevu” has become an election gimmick by the political parties of Tamilnadu in every election. Almost all political parties include this statement in their election manifesto. After the civil war (1984 – 2009) broke out in Srilanka this Katchatteevu and Northern part of Srilanka were under the control of LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). And they used Katchatheevu for weapon smuggling and to satisfy their basic needs like food, shelter, etc. The Tamil fishermen had been helping the LTTE to satisfy the LTTE’s needs. In return, the LTTE allowed the Tamil fishermen to catch fish even beyond the Katchatteevu.
When the civil war ended in 2009, Srilanka deployed its army personnel in their maritime boundary. The Srilanka government started their atrocities like nabbing Tamil fishermen and confiscating their boats, Shooting them, etc. In 2017, they gunned down the Tamil fisherman named Britto and it became a big issue.
What does our constitution say?
In 2011 then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, late J Jayalalitha, filed a petition in the Supreme Court that the declaration of the 1974 and 1976 agreements between India and Sri Lanka on ceding of Katchatteevu to Sri Lanka were unconstitutional. But the Supreme Court ruled in the Berubari Case [Article 141(1)] that the cession of the Indian Territory to another country had to be ratified by parliament through amendment of the Constitution.
Our original constitution doesn’t mention anything specifically about ceding our territory to a foreign country. But the Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Territory can be ceded to a foreign state (Art 368). Anyhow, the Indian Government stated that no territory belonging to India was ceded. “Katchatteevu” was a disputed land and later it was demarcated after diplomatic talks.
What both governments can do?
So, to safeguard the fishermen, both central and state government should take necessary steps. More Indian navy personnel should be deployed there. Both the Indian and Srilanka government should hold diplomatic talks to resolve this issue.