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NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently made a scathing attack on Tamil Nadu’s ruling party DMK and Congress regarding the contentious issue of Katchatheevu Island. This dispute has now reemerged as a significant political flashpoint in Tamil Nadu, particularly amidst the approaching 2024 Lok Sabha Elections. Situated between India and Sri Lanka in the Palk Strait, Katchatheevu Island has become a focal point of political debate, especially as the BJP endeavours to gain traction in Tamil Nadu. The island’s transfer to Sri Lanka in 1974 under the Congress government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, has sparked vehement criticism from PM Modi and the BJP, accusing the opposition of recklessly relinquishing strategic territory.

Accusations And Counter-Accusations

PM Modi’s recent remarks have been prompted by reports revealing the involvement of then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi in consenting to the island’s transfer, despite the DMK’s outward opposition to the agreement. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar further added fuel to the fire by suggesting that India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also contemplated surrendering the island to Sri Lanka.

A recent RTI query, initiated by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai, disclosed that the late Indira Gandhi indeed ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974. PM Modi seized upon this revelation to castigate the Congress, reaffirming doubts about their trustworthiness.

National Ramifications

The controversy surrounding Katchatheevu Island extends beyond political posturing. PM Modi, during a rally in Meerut, underscored its implications for Tamil fishermen, who frequently face arrest and confiscation of their boats by Sri Lankan authorities. This issue has also been reiterated by EAM S Jaishankar, placing the Congress on the defensive.

In response, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge defended the 1974 agreement, citing its friendly intent. He drew parallels with the Modi government’s own diplomatic gestures, such as those made towards Bangladesh.

What Is The Row Over Katchatheevu Island?

Katchatheevu Island, spanning 285 acres, lies just 33 kilometres from the Indian coast. Historically, it was a contested territory during British Rule and became a subject of renewed dispute post-independence, particularly concerning fishing rights. The 1974 Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement formalized its transfer to Sri Lanka, a decision initially of little strategic significance but now under scrutiny amidst shifting geopolitical dynamics.

Impact On Tamil Nadu’s Fishermen

The plight of Tamil Nadu fishermen, often subject to punitive measures by Sri Lankan authorities, underscores the enduring significance of Katchatheevu Island for the state. The rights of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu are often linked to the island and its surrounding waters as it has been argued that by “ceding” it to Sri Lanka, the Indian government curtailed the livelihood rights of its own people in the southern state. Top political leaders from the state, including J Jayalalithaa, and current Chief Minister M K Stalin, have vocally advocated for its reclaiming, with legal avenues and diplomatic channels being explored to address this longstanding issue.

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