NEW DELHI: With the Indian government’s position on Katchatheevu island galvanising calls within political quarters in Sri Lanka for a response by Colombo, a leading Sri Lankan think tank on Wednesday called for the setting up of a marine research station on the islet in the Palk Strait.

Indian fishers boycotted the annual feast at St Antony’s Church this year to protest the arrest of members of the community by Sri Lankan authorities. (Photo:Kumanan Kanapathippillai)
Indian fishers boycotted the annual feast at St Antony’s Church this year to protest the arrest of members of the community by Sri Lankan authorities. (Photo:Kumanan Kanapathippillai)

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government has refrained from publicly commenting on the Indian leadership’s contention that the uninhabited island was “callously” ceded to Sri Lanka by the Indira Gandhi government under a bilateral agreement in 1974. However, reports in the Sri Lankan media have been critical of the Indian government’s position and the matter has become a hot-button issue in the political arena.

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Pathfinder Foundation, a leading independent think tank, on Wednesday called on Sri Lankan authorities to establish a permanent marine research station on Katchatheevu. This work can be undertaken by the fisheries and aquatic resources ministry or the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency, it said.

Sri Lankan authorities have been “idling for exactly half a century after Colombo established its sovereignty over” Katchatheevu, and the island “may be a barren piece of real estate in the eyes of Sri Lankan authorities” but it is strategically located and can be put to productive use, the think tank said.

After the Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai obtained documents through a Right To Information (RTI) query that appeared to indicate past Congress governments had not attached much importance to the island located 20 km from the Indian coastline, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and external affairs minister S Jaishankar targeted the Congress and the DMK over their handling of the issue.

Pathfinder Foundation also said Indian authorities should “bear in mind that the fly in the ointment affecting cordial India-Sri Lanka relations is not [Katchatheevu], an issue that was conclusively resolved half a century ago, but the relentless attacks on the fisheries resources in the northeastern sea by Indian trawlers”.

“From a legal perspective, India did not ‘hand over’ [Katchatheevu] to Sri Lanka as claimed by the Indian side, simply because the island concerned was not a territory owned by India,” Pathfinder said.

Former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao, who served as India’s envoy to Sri Lanka during 2004-06, said the recent developments had put the Indian side in a “ticklish situation”. While the Indian leadership’s comments on Katchatheevu may not have been made with an eye on bilateral relations or past pacts, international agreements are sacrosanct, she said.

“This is an agreement that was concluded by the two sides and is enshrined in international law. The scope to reverse it is very complicated, unless both sides agree to renegotiate it,” she said.

Rao also said Katchatheevu was “not central” to the real problem of fishing grounds and rights of Indian fishermen.

A Sri Lankan politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that the Indian government’s position was linked to the upcoming general election but said it would feed the agenda of the island nation’s nationalistic forces.

“Given that Sri Lanka is set to hold its own election by September or October, this controversy will reinforce the narrative in the nationalist sphere,” the politician said.

The issue could also impact efforts by the Sri Lankan side to bolster road, rail and energy connectivity with India in order to drive the country’s recovery from an economic crisis, the politician said. “It doesn’t help the forces working for greater economic integration with India, even though enlightened people in Sri Lanka will be aware that this issue is linked to the upcoming Indian election,” the politician said.


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