Rameswaram fishermen fume at Modi government over Katchatheevu

The island, ceded to Sri Lanka by India in 1974, suddenly came into focus after Prime Minister Narendra Modi raked up the contentious issue just a fortnight before Tamil Nadu goes to polls.
Last Updated 03 April 2024, 00:03 IST

Rameswaram: At 12 pm on Tuesday, the heat is unbearable at the fishing harbour in Rameswaram. Several groups of fishermen are busy doing what they do every day— segregate the fish catch; others are readying their boats to venture into the sea.

But amid the routine that unfolds like clockwork, something new is on their lips: the row over Katchatheevu, the 285-acre island that is located just 16 nautical miles from Rameswaram, and is the source of much of their misery.

The island, ceded to Sri Lanka by India in 1974, suddenly came into focus after Prime Minister Narendra Modi raked up the contentious issue just a fortnight before Tamil Nadu goes to polls.

As the topic veers around the island, fishermen turn angry at Modi for “suddenly remembering” Katchatheevu “after being in deep slumber” for about 10 years since 2014, the year BJP came to power at the Centre.

The fishermen sought to know why the Prime Minister didn’t push for “retrieval” of the island during his visits to Sri Lanka in the past.

'What did the PM do in 10 years?'

“This is nothing but a clear political ploy to cheat people just before elections and get their votes,” N Devadoss, president of Rameswaram Fishermen Association, told DH.

“It is common knowledge that it was the Congress government that ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka and the DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu then. Why make this fact look as if it is new? Why didn’t the Prime Minister, who pushed for Adani to get power projects in Sri Lankan islands, talk about fishermen to Sri Lanka?” Devadoss asked.

Quoting a RTI reply, Modi had on March 31 said new facts have revealed how Congress “callously gave away Katchatheevu” and that this has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds that “we can’t ever trust” the grand old party.

Fishermen at the harbour said they are forced to cross the International Maritime Border Line (IMBL), just 12 nautical miles from Rameswaram, and get past Katchatheevu in search of fish as the Indian side doesn’t have much fish catch. When they cross Katchatheevu, the Sri Lankan Navy not just arrests the fishermen but impounds their boats.

‘BJP did nothing to release fishermen’

S Emarick, who has been venturing into the sea for the past four decades, accused the Centre of “doing nothing” to release fishermen arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy.

If not retrieving Katchatheevu, the Union government should at least push the Sri Lankan government to restore the traditional rights of Indian fishermen in Katchatheevu, like access to the island to take rest and dry their fishing nets, Devadoss said.

Emarick said about 360 boats belonging to Rameswaram fishermen have been impounded by the Sri Lankan Navy in the last 10 years after the BJP came to power. It was just a couple of years back that Sri Lanka introduced a law to nationalise impounded boats, he said.

Devadoss’ boat was the first to be impounded after the new law came into effect. “I spent about Rs 10 lakhs trying to get my boat out of that country, but couldn’t. The BJP government instead of playing politics should help fishermen reclaim their boats and lost livelihoods,” he added.

Ayuthapoojai, a fisherman, said the confiscated boats cannot be reused beyond a particular period as it would mean spending a few lakh rupees for their repair.

“Will the Indian Government tell us how many impounded boats did they bring back? Will they tell us how they are helping us after our boats are taken away by the Sri Lankan Navy?” he asked.

'Remember promises given by BJP leader’

Emarick said the BJP should remember that party leaders led by late Sushma Swaraj had visited Rameswaram in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and handed out a promise that the attacks against fishermen would stop if the BJP came to power.

“What happened to that promise? Didn’t Modi know Katchatheevu wasn’t part of India when he came to Rameswaram in January? He should have called us and heard our grievances. Why is he talking about the issue now and injecting a border angle to it when nothing of that sort exists?” he asked.

Fishermen said the current state BJP leadership under K Annamalai had also engaged them in the past by venturing into the sea in about 75 boats to commemorate the platinum jubilee of India’s independence. “One of the 75 boats was also seized after a couple of days by the Sri Lankan Navy. We just want the BJP to walk the talk,” Perumal, another fisherman, said.

What is the 1974 agreement?

The 1974 agreement was signed essentially to determine the boundary line in the historic waters between India and Sri Lanka in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranayake in June 1974.

While Katchatheevu was recognised as Sri Lanka territory, Article 5 of the agreement made it clear that Indian fishermen and pilgrims will enjoy access to visit the island as hitherto, and will not be required to obtain travel documents or visa from the island nation.

This allowed fishermen from Rameswaram and rest of Tamil Nadu to fish near Katchatheevu. However, Katchatheevu was declared a ‘No Go Zone’ for Indians in 1976 after the two countries reached another agreement, in a blow to fishermen who have enjoyed access to the island for long.

Letters of Exchange between India & Sri Lanka in 1976

The Foreign Secretaries of India and Sri Lanka exchanged letters on March 23, 1976 constituting an agreement on the Wadge Bank fisheries. While the 1974 agreement gave away Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka, the 1976 Exchange of Letters between the two countries drew the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.

This communication made it clear that the two countries will exercise sovereign rights over the living and non-living resources of their respective zones.

“The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the exclusive zone of Sri Lanka,” the Letters of Exchange said, adding that Sri Lankan fishermen were also not allowed to fish in the historical waters.

With the agreement making it clear that Indian fishermen cannot fish near Katchatheevu or dry their nets, those crossing the invisible maritime border were allegedly attacked by the Sri Lankan Navy leading to a humanitarian problem in the Palk Bay.

The only time when Indian fishermen are given access to Katchatheevu is to attend the annual festival at the church on the island.

(Published 03 April 2024, 00:03 IST)

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