The 1974 accord that ceded Katchatheevu, however, ensured fishing rights for Indians around the isle, but the right was nullified in a subsequent agreement between foreign secretaries in 1976. (Express/File photo)
How would you react if you have solid documentation to prove your control over a particular tract of land, the Union government agrees with your contention, but turns around and says it’s not even part of the Indian territory? Incredulous? That is the sense shared by most stakeholders, including the descendents of the Ramanathapuram king, on the ceding of Katchatheevu isle in Palk Strait to Sri Lanka way back in 1974 when then prime minister Indira Gandhi was in a particularly expansive mood. The Centre recently compounded the folly by stating in a counter-affidavit in the Supreme Court that Katchatheevu was never a part of India. The affidavit came after Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa dragged the Centre to court, stating that two treaties between India and Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976, which effectively gifted Katchatheevu to the neighbour, were flawed in law.
Ask Ramanathapuram Mannar Kumaran Sethupathy, a descendent of the erstwhile Ramnad king, and he will tell you how Katchatheevu was very much part of the Ramanathapuram zamindari. Besides Katchatheevu, there were around seven other islands administered by the Ramanathapuram Samasthanam. Horses and cattle used to be taken in boats and left to graze in those islands, he recalls. Sethupathy is the Thakkar to Lord Ramanatha Swamy Temple in Rameswaram and president of the Tamil Sangam in Madurai. In 1880, King Rajarajeswara Sethupathy gave a few lease rights on Katchatheevu - like collection of roots of certain plants for dyeing and fish and pearl from the island - to one Mohamed Abdul Maraikayar and one Muthusamy Pillai, Sethupathy adds, citing documentary evidence. He couldn’t have done that the islet wasn’t under his zamindari, he reasons. Another descendent Sridhara Servarayan, grandson of King Muthuramalinga Sethupathy, informs that successive Ramnad kings used to visit the eight islands at least once a year.
When sovereignty over the island became a burning issue, the Samasthanam in 1969 shared a body of evidence to justify India’s rights over Katchatheevu with K Nair, Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs. Copies of the papers were sent to former chief minister C N Annadurai later, says Sethupathy, waving the correspondence along with the documents.
Unfortunately, all these nuggets from history failed to persuade Indira Gandhi from indulging in grandstanding and gifting away the island to her Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranaike – as if it was her family silver - when the maritime boundary accord was signed five years later in 1974. Sirimavo admitted as much later, conceding that she was able to get the island “due to personal equation playing the role of diplomacy”. Since ceding territory requires a constitutional amendment, Indira used a workaround by labeling Katchatheevu as “disputed territory”. The 1974 maritime boundary was drawn a tad towards the west of Katchatheevu, to ensure that it was on Lanka’s side.
Both royals resent the loss of the island as it had affected peace, tranquility and the fishermen in their region. Before Katchatheevu was gifted away, there was visible amity between Indian and Lankan fishermen. For example, before 1974 Lankan Naval personnel would offer ‘bread and jam’ in exchange for fish to fishermen from Ramanathapuram, recalls a fisherman. Also, at that point in time, Lankan Navy would help Indian fishermen repair their country boats mid-sea and even tug the boats up to Rameswaram without fuss, avers Karunakaran, a fisherman from Pamban. Also fishermen from both sides happily shared the islet, says Keviston, another resident of Pamban.
Thusnavis (66) of Pamban, who has been fishing since he was 13 years old, says that during the good old days they would sail up to Keeri Munai in Sri Lanka without any fear or obstacles. During the annual festival of St Antony’s Church at Katchatheevu, fishermen bartered goods. Indians gave lungis and chillies and got coconut oil, coconut, bread and soap in return. Karunakaran (57) says the sea around Katchatheevu is home to abundant varieties of fish and fishermen from both sides would exchange their catch at the isle. Amity turned into enmity years after the islet was ceded, with Lankans fighting a turf war, preventing fishermen from TN from going near Katchatheevu, where they used to dry their nets and take rest, besides worshipping at the St Antony’s Church.
The 1974 accord that ceded Katchatheevu, however, ensured fishing rights for Indians around the isle, but the right was nullified in a subsequent agreement between foreign secretaries in 1976. Yet, Tamil Nadu fishermen visited the island without any hassle till 1983. All that changed after a civil war broke out between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army. Though the Eelam war is over, the Katchatheevu region still awaits peace.