• Saturday, April 20, 2024

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Katchatheevu: Tamil Nadu politics erupts over island row ahead of national election

Prime minister Narendra Modi and his BJP have accused the opposition Congress and DMK, who are contesting the general election together, of ceding the island to Sri Lanka in 1974.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the chief minister of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin, at a government event in state capital Chennai on May 26, 2022. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

By: Shubham Ghosh

A MASSIVE controversy has started just weeks ahead of the general elections over the issue of Katchatheevu island off the Indian coast in the southern state of Tamil Nadu after prime minister Narendra Modi repeatedly targeted the opposition Indian National Congress accusing it of “callously” giving away the tiny island to the maritime neighbour of Sri Lanka in the 1970s.

Sharing on X a report on Sunday (31) by the Times of India which spoke about a RTI (right to information) reply that said former prime minister Indira Gandhi had ceded the island, measuring less than two square kilometres and located about 20 kilometres from the Indian shores, in 1974, he said, “Eye-opening and startling! New facts reveal how Congress callously gave away Katchatheevu. This has angered every Indian and reaffirmed in people’s minds – we can’t ever trust Congress.”

On Monday, the prime minister slammed the Congress and the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), its ally and the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, in another tweet in which he posted a report that said the DMK leadership at the time had also agreed with Gandhi to cede the island to Sri Lanka.

Read: Modi tears into Congress for ‘callously’ giving away island to Sri Lanka

Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi
Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Rhetoric aside, DMK has done NOTHING to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests. New details emerging on #Katchatheevu have UNMASKED the DMK’s double standards totally.

Read: Despite populism, Modi a hit among Indian elites: report

“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,” he said.

The emotive issue of Katchatheevu has always been a bone of contention between the two major parties of Tamil Nadu — DMK and AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam)– and their two late stalwarts — M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa, respectively, who had been chief ministers of the state.

Jayalalithaa had even vowed to retrieve the islet as a part of addressing the fishermen’s issues.

The uninhabited island was ceded when Gandhi accepted Katchatheevu as Sri Lankan area under the Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime agreement with her counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike, aimed at resolving the maritime boundaries in the Palk Strait.

J Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu
J Jayalalithaa, former chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and chief of the AIADMK party. (Photo by ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

Further, another agreement signed in 1976 restricted the fishermen of both the countries from fishing in the other’s exclusive economic zones.

With Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) training his guns against the Congress and the DMK, its ally in the state, the issue has now assumed centre stage in the poll season. The Hindu nationalist party also alleged that it was because of the ceding of the island that fishermen from India were being often caught by Sri Lankan naval forces.

M K Stalin, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu and president of the DMK, hit back at Modi over his criticism of his party on the matter, questioning the BJP’s “sudden love” for fishermen ahead of the elections.

In Tamil Nadu, political parties and fishers’ associations have been for long insisting that the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka is the only solution to the frequent arrests of the state’s fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy for alleged maritime violation.

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi
M Karunanidhi, former chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and chief of the DMK party. (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

They assert the Indian fishermen have traditional fishing rights on the contentious island. The Lankan navy has made several arrests from the area in the past.

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

In 2016, the year she died, Jayalalithaa had also met Modi and sought for the retrieval of Katchatheevu and resolve the long-standing dispute between the fishermen of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

Two decades ago, she had also taken up the issue with then prime minister Narasimha Rao, and stated that the “ceding of this tiny island to Lanka had been done by the Government of India in the interest of better bilateral relations”.

She had also criticised the DMK for ‘sleeping’ over the matter but Karunanidhi had countered asking what the AIADMK leader had done despite making promises to retrieve the island since 1991.

The Indian external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, also remarked on the matter keeping up the heat on the Congress and DMK. He claimed on Monday that prime ministers from the Congress displayed indifference about Katchatheevu island.

According to him, Karunanidhi was kept informed of the move and attacked the DMK over its public posturing against the agreement.

Jaishankar also trashed the DMK’s claims over being ignored about Katchatheevu island. He said he had replied to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu 21 times related to the matter.

Foreign Minister S Jaishankar on Monday trashed the DMK’s claims over not being consulted about the Katchatheevu island, which was “handed over” to Sri Lanka in 1974, and said he had replied to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister 21 times over the matter.

The BJP is without a major ally in this year’s general election in Tamil Nadu, where it’s National Democratic Alliance could win only one seat in 2014 and none in 2019 despite the Modi wave in the rest of the country.

(With PTI inputs)

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