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The Katchatheevu Dispute between India & Sri Lanka: Historical & Geopolitical Perspectives(UPSC CAPF Essay 2024 | 2025)

24 Jun 2024

The island of Katchatheevu, ceded by the Indian administration under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Sri Lanka in 1974, has remained a contentious and symbolic issue

Introduction

  • The island of Katchatheevu, ceded by the Indian administration under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Sri Lanka in 1974, has remained a contentious and symbolic issue. 

  • Since the outbreak of the Lankan civil war in 1983, the island has become a battleground for combats between Indian Tamil fishers and a Sinhala-dominated Lankan navy. 

  • This essay explores the historical context, geopolitical implications, and current status of Katchatheevu, along with the hopes for its symbolic return.


Historical Context

Colonial Era and Ownership

  • Katchatheevu, a 285-acre uninhabited isle, was part of the Ramnad Zamindari established by the Nayak dynasty of Madurai in 1605.

  • Historical documents, including a copper plaque issued by Koothan Sethupathi, attest to the Indian ownership of the territory extending up to Thalaimannar in present-day Sri Lanka, including Katchatheevu.

  • Agreements with the Dutch East India Company in 1767 and the British East India Company in 1822 further solidified Indian control over the island.


Disputed Territory

  • In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Katchatheevu was leased for various purposes, reinforcing its status as Indian territory.

  • The 1921 negotiations on a ‘Fisheries Line’ between colonial India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) resulted in an ad hoc maritime boundary, with the British-Indian delegation cautioning that this line should not be considered a territorial boundary.


Post-Independence and Cession

  • In 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in a gesture of bilateral largesse (largesse means kind of generosity), followed by the 1976 maritime boundary agreement.

  • This cession was seen as an attempt to foster harmonious relations with Sri Lanka, despite having an unassailable case for retaining the island.



Geopolitical Implications

Lankan Civil War and Fishermen's Plight

  • Since the outbreak of the Lankan civil war, Katchatheevu has been a site of conflict, with Indian Tamil fishers often caught in skirmishes with the Lankan navy.

  • The island's strategic importance has raised concerns among Sinhalese fishermen and the Sri Lankan administration about potential leasing back to India.


Strategic and Military Considerations

  • Katchatheevu’s geopolitical significance includes potential petroleum deposits and its strategic location in the Sethusamudram region.

  • The island has been seen as a potential military base, raising security concerns for both India and Sri Lanka.


Legal and Diplomatic Efforts

Supreme Court Petitions and Political Advocacy

  • Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers, including J Jayalalithaa, have filed petitions in the Supreme Court of India, arguing that the 1974 and 1976 agreements adversely affected Indian fishermen’s livelihoods.

  • Politicians from Tamil Nadu have consistently advocated for the reclamation of Katchatheevu, emphasizing its historical and cultural significance.


International Treaties and Agreements

  • The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, mandates that bilateral agreements such as those concerning Katchatheevu must be honored.

  • Any withdrawal from these agreements requires mutual ratification and, if necessary, third-party intervention under the UN Charter.


Symbolic and Practical Implications

Cultural and Religious Significance

  • Katchatheevu hosts the annual St. Antony’s Church festival, attracting pilgrims from both India and Sri Lanka, symbolizing the shared cultural heritage.

  • The island's symbolic return would represent a gesture of goodwill and recognition of historical ties.


Economic and Environmental Impact

  • Joint administration or symbolic return of Katchatheevu could pave the way for sustainable fishing practices and economic cooperation in the region.

  • Environmental considerations, such as preserving the island's biodiversity, would be crucial in any future agreements.


Nehru's Strategic Ambivalence

  • Since 1956, the issue of the ‘Kachcha Thivu Island Dispute’ had been raised in the Lok Sabha, each time to be overruled by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

  • Nehru believed it to be no matter of national prestige, hence too flimsy a ground to enter into a conflict with Ceylon.

  • For Sri Lanka, Katchatheevu would continue as a potential military base, qualifying it as a ground to enforce uti possidetis juris.


Indira Gandhi's Diplomatic Gesture

  • Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's cession of Katchatheevu was celebrated as a destruction of the canard that India behaves overbearingly towards its small neighbours.

  • The Indian decision was founded on principles of fair, just and equitable transfer emanating from mature statesmanship.

  • The cession was also meant to eradicate the three-pronged danger plaguing the Sethusamudram region of the Indian Ocean.


Tamil Nadu's Persistent Advocacy

  • Following the termination of the Lankan civil war in 2008, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court of India.

  • In 2014, Mukul Rohatagi, former attorney-general for India, cautioned the Supreme Court that India would need to resort to war to reclaim Katchatheevu.


Bilateral Agreements and Legal Constraints

  • Both nations are bound by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, to honour the Agreements of 1974/76.

  • According to Article 56 of the Convention, neither country can unilaterally retract the agreements.

  • The Indian state’s resistance to altering the status quo in its littoral neighbourhood is a reaffirmation of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy.


Current Developments and Strategic Implications

Economic and Environmental Considerations

  • Joint administration of Katchatheevu could pave the way for sustainable fishing practices and economic cooperation in the region.

  • Environmental considerations, such as preserving the island's biodiversity, would be crucial in any future agreements.


Geopolitical Dividends

  • Katchatheevu’s geopolitical dividends swelled around February 1968 when Prime Minister Gandhi ceded 250 miles of arid land in the Rann of Kutch region to Pakistan.

  • Sri Lanka, however, believed Katchatheevu to contain petroleum deposits and recently leased land around Delft Island and Katchatheevu to Chinese power companies.


Cultural and Religious Significance

  • Katchatheevu hosts the annual St. Antony’s Church festival, attracting pilgrims from both India and Sri Lanka, symbolizing the shared cultural heritage.

  • The island's symbolic return would represent a gesture of goodwill and recognition of historical ties.


Legal and Diplomatic Efforts

  • Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers, including J Jayalalithaa, have filed petitions in the Supreme Court of India, arguing that the 1974 and 1976 agreements adversely affected Indian fishermen’s livelihoods.

  • Politicians from Tamil Nadu have consistently advocated for the reclamation of Katchatheevu, emphasizing its historical and cultural significance.


Future Prospects and Strategic Outlook

Potential for Bilateral Cooperation

  • India and Sri Lanka could explore joint administration or shared governance of Katchatheevu, promoting sustainable development and resource management.

  • Such an arrangement could foster goodwill, strengthen bilateral ties, and serve as a model for resolving other territorial disputes in the region.


Symbolic Significance and Regional Stability

  • The symbolic return of Katchatheevu would demonstrate India's commitment to maintaining harmonious relations with its neighbours.

  • It would also serve as a testament to India's willingness to resolve historical grievances and promote regional stability.


Strategic Implications for India's Foreign Policy

  • The resolution of the Katchatheevu dispute could enhance India's standing as a responsible regional power.

  • It would underscore India's commitment to peaceful coexistence, diplomatic engagement, and multilateral cooperation.


Conclusion

  • The cession of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka remains a complex issue intertwined with historical, geopolitical, and cultural factors. 

  • While the return of Katchatheevu may not hold significant economic merit, the symbolic benefits and the potential for fostering better bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka are substantial.

  • As India continues to provide unconditional economic aid to Sri Lanka, it may find itself in a unique position to negotiate the joint administration of Katchatheevu, reflecting the evolving dynamics of the global order and regional cooperation.



Note: In this CAPF essay, the world limit has been crossed to give you more information, you can take relevant portions as per your need. Further, we have given subheadings for your reference. When you write in the UPSC exam, you don't need to do that.


Why do you need to know about this Issue? 

  • Understanding the Katchatheevu issue is crucial for UPSC CAPF AC aspirants, as it encompasses topics such as geopolitical strategies, international treaties, and regional cooperation

  • This case study provides insights into the complexities of international relations, legal frameworks, and the significance of cultural diplomacy

  • It is an excellent example of how historical events shape contemporary political and economic landscapes, making it relevant for essay writing, current affairs, and strategic studies in competitive examinations.

  • This summary integrates key historical facts, geopolitical contexts, and current developments, providing a comprehensive overview essential for aspirants preparing for the UPSC CAPF AC exam, CDS, NDA, SSB, AFCAT, CSE, IAS, IB ACIO, and other competitive exams.

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