A bone of contention between DMK and AIADMK, Katchatheevu takes centre stage ahead of LS polls

The issue had all along been a subject of intense debate between the Dravidian majors with the unceasing arrest and harassment of fishermen.


Published Apr 01, 2024 | 9:07 PMUpdatedApr 01, 2024 | 9:08 PM

Katchatheevu island. (Apple Maps)

The emotive issue of Katchatheevu, an island ceded to Sri Lanka by the Congress government at the Centre in 1974 had always been a key point of discord between late Chief Ministers M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa and the issue has occupied centre stage yet again, ahead of Lok Sabha polls.

The Katchatheevu retrieval issue had all along been a subject of intense debate between the Dravidian majors with the unceasing arrest and harassment of Tamil fishermen.

Jayalalithaa once vowed to retrieve the island to end the travails of fishermen and her party had always blamed DMK for doing nothing to stop it, though it held the reins of power in 1974.

Karunanidhi had asserted he never accepted the ceding nor did he agree to it. He had expressed his opposition as the chief minister. DMK has always pointed out that it had held state-wide protests to oppose the ceding of Katchatheevu. In effect, both the ruling DMK and AIADMK have favoured reclaiming Katchatheevu.

Also Read: Opposition cites 2015 RTI reply that contradicts Modi government stance

The Katchatheevu handover

It was Indira Gandhi’s regime at the Centre that concluded pacts in 1974 and 1976 giving away the island to Sri Lanka. In the 1971 election, DMK allied with the Gandhi-led Congress.

Jayalalithaa had even moved the Supreme Court in 2008 for the island’s retrieval in her personal capacity. Later, the state government, headed by AIADMK had impleaded itself in the case.

She accused Karunanidhi of doing “nothing” to prevent the ceding. She even likened DMK to ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ an easygoing character from an English short story who goes on a slumber for 20 years, for ‘sleeping’ over the issue and then raising it in the Assembly.

DMK, however, sought to know from her what she had been doing since 1991 when she promised to retrieve it.

The late AIADMK leader had once clarified in the Assembly that she only said that she would take steps to retrieve the island by working with the Centre and she did not “foolishly say that she will mobilise troops from here” to achieve her goal.

In June 2016, Jayalalithaa met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought retrieval of Katchatheevu to resolve the long-standing dispute between the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

Karunanidhi had recalled a resolution moved by him in the Assembly in August 1974, expressing “deep regret” over the then Central government’s move to cede the islet in the Palk Strait, besides calling for a review of the decision.

Also Read: Raising Katchatheevu issue shows PM Modi’s desperation: Mallikarjun Kharge

Current issue

Ahead of the 19 April Lok Sabha polls, the Katchatheevu issue is back in the spotlight in the wake of disclosures by the Ministry of External Affairs in response to a plea by BJP Tamil Nadu chief K Annamalai under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Now, the fight so far appears to be only between BJP and the Congress-DMK alliance with senior AIADMK leader D Jayakumar stating that Modi was raising the issue only to garner votes and that he could have taken steps to reclaim the island earlier during his 10-year tenure.

The crux of the fresh RTI “revelations” covers two aspects, according to Annamalai.

One was related to official “file notings” that recorded first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru attaching no importance to the island and his inclination to part with the island.

The second, which showcased “Karunanidhi’s betrayal” was the Union government holding discussions and apprising Karunanidhi about the proposed move to cede the island to Sri Lanka.

Based on RTI data, BJP led by PM Modi has unleashed an attack on Tamil Nadu’s ruling party DMK and its long-time ally the Congress over the ever-emotive Katchatheevu issue.

Union Ministers S Jaishankar and Nirmala Sitharaman are among those who have targeted the Congress-DMK over the issue.

Also Read: Stalin questions BJP’s ‘sudden love’ for fishermen, terms issue ‘diversionary’

Modi slams Congress

Modi, who slammed the Congress on 31 March for “callously” giving away Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka attacked both Congress and its ally DMK on Monday over the issue.

Dismissing claims of the Congress-DMK combine as “rhetoric,” he said DMK has done nothing to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests. “New details emerging on Katchatheevu have unmasked the DMK’s double standards totally,” he said on X.

“Congress and DMK are family units. They only care that their own sons and daughters rise. They don’t care for anyone else. Their callousness on Katchatheevu has harmed the interests of our poor fishermen and fisherwomen in particular.”

Jaishankar claimed prime ministers from the grand old party displayed indifference about Katchatheevu.

PMK founder S Ramadoss said ceding Katchatheevu was a betrayal that can never be forgiven. He demanded that Chief Minister Stalin explain the “mystery” behind having an alliance with Congress, which still justified parting with the island.

Reacting, DMK president and Chief Minister MK Stalin hit out at Modi and questioned the BJP’s “sudden love” for fishermen ahead of the elections. He questioned the prime minister on issues including the ₹37,000 crore flood relief package sought by the state.

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram said Modi should speak on “Chinese occupation” of Indian territory, rather than about Katchatheevu which was ceded to Sri Lanka to maintain good relations and to save the lives of lakhs of Tamils.

Such accusations and counter-accusations apart, for decades, political parties and fishermen associations in Tamil Nadu, have been insisting that retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka is the only solution to prevent frequent arrests of fishermen by the neighbouring country.

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