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Hand over of Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka by Indira-led Congress in 1974: Timeline of events

In 1968, when the Opposition pulled up the Indira-Gandhi government for not taking a permanent stand on the issue, MEA's deputy secretary in the Congress regime, Surendra Pal Singh, reiterated what Nehru had said in 196 — that the Katchatheevu island was 'uninhabitated'.
Last Updated 02 April 2024, 14:19 IST

With days leading to the Lok Sabha elections — voting for which is set to commence from April 19, the long-buried issue over Katchatheevu island in the Palk Strait has snowballed into a political war.

The flashpoint came after details of how the then Indian government, under the Indira Gandhi-led Congress, ceded the tiny island to Sri Lanka in 1974 resurfaced.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi targeted Congress after Tamil Nadu BJP chief Annamalai's RTI revealed that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime in 1974 had agreed to hand over the close to 300 acres Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka.

Katchatheevu was jointly administered by the India and Sri Lanka government.

Let us take a look at the timeline of events involving Katchatheevu:

During the 1600's the, the island under the clutches of volcanic eruptions, was controlled by Jaffna Kingdom of Sri Lanka. Later in the 17th century, the task of managing Katchatheevu island was undertaken by Ramnad Zamindari from Ramanathpuram in Rameswaram which is part of Tamil Nadu.

In order to draw fishing boundaries, Sri Lanka and India both started claiming ownership of Katchatheevu since after the Zamindari system was abolished in 1948. The dispute escalated until 1974 when finally Sri Lanka was handed over the ownership through a deal made by then Congress government.

The Sri Lankan Air Force conducted an exercise on Katchatheevu in 1955, even as both the nations were still claiming the ownership of the island.

After years of ongoing rift over the island which accommodates only a St. Anthony's Church— Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 termed the Katchatheevu island issue "inconsequential". Excerpts of the letter written by Nehru and dated May 10, 1961, shared by Times of India read, "I attach no importance at all to this little island, and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claims to it."

Nehru's statement from 1961 was submitted by Ministry of External Affairs to the Informal Consultative Committee in 1968. The MEA used the statement as a background regarding the Katchatheevu row. "No clear conclusions can be drawn as to the strength of either India or Ceylon's (Sri Lanka) claim to sovereignty," the ministry told the Committee.

In 1968 itself, then Opposition pulled up the Indira-Gandhi government for not taking a permanent stand on the issue, and avoiding confrontation with Sri Lanka. This was when MEA's deputy secretary in the Congress regime— Surendra Pal Singh reiterated what Nehru had said— that the Katchatheevu island was "uninhabitated". Nehru had said that "not a blade of grass grows" on the island.

In 1973, after much objection and deliberations, India and Sri Lanka held talks to discuss a solution. It was decided that India would back off from claiming the ownership of Katchatheevu. Then foreign secretary under the Indira-Gandhi government— Kewal Singh conveyed this message to then TN chief minister M Karunanidhi.

Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh in 1974 cited Sri Lanka's position in the matter and submitted that Lanka has been claiming the ownership based on records that show Katchatheevu was part of the Jaffna kingdom, British and Dutch maps. As part of the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime pact— the Indian government through a bilateral largesse ceded the island to Sri Lanka in the same year.

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(Published 02 April 2024, 14:19 IST)

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