Indira Gave Away Katchatheevu Island: BJP's New Blitzkrieg Against Congress | Explained

According to a report, official documents and Parliament records show India lost the island to Sri Lanka, a much smaller nation, who was only determined to have it. The Palk Strait lost battle has now once again become alive.
The Story Of Katchatheevu island

The story of Katchatheevu island.

New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janta party (BJP)-led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has found a new weapon against the Congress for something that happened under former PM Indira Gandhi's reign in the year 1974. A key island, Katchatheevu, that concerned Tamilians in India and Sri Lanka was handed over to the latter making it a crucial juncture in the bilateral relations of the two countries. A response to the RTI filed by Tamil Nadu BJP President K Annamalai is hinting at taking a centre state as Lok Sabha elections approach.
According to a Times of India report, official documents and Parliament records show India lost the island to Sri Lanka, a much smaller nation, who was only determined to have it. The Palk Strait lost battle has now once again become alive. PM Narendra Modi, in a post on X, called the development "eye openinig and startling" and said that "we can't even trust Congress".
"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! Weakening India’s unity, integrity and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting," he added.

Katchatheevu Island

Spread across an area of around 1.9 square km of land, Katchatheevu is located about 20km from Indian shore. Sri Lanka, now called Ceylon, always pressed its claim right after Independence, and also said that Indian Navy (then Royal Indian Navy) could not conduct exercises on the island without its permission.
Interestingly, in Oct 1955, Ceylon Air Force conducted its exercise on the island, the TOI report stated. A minute of part of a note also states former PM Jawahar Lal Nehru as saying that he would have had no hesitation on giving up claims to island and "I attach no importance at all to this little island and I would have no hesitation in giving up our claims to it. I do not like this pending indefinitely and being raised again in Parliament, Nehru wrote."
The note was prepared by then commonwealth secretary YD Gundevia, and was shared by the ministry of external affairs (MEA) as a backgrounder with the informal Consultative Committee of Parliament in 1968. It revealed the indecision that marked India's response until 1974, when it formally gave up its claim on the island altogether.
"The legal aspects of the question are highly complex. The question has been considered in some detail in this ministry. No clear conclusions can be drawn as to the strength of either India's or Ceylon's claim to sovereignty," the ministry said, quoted TOI report.
All this happened despite the opinion of the then attorney general MC Setalvad, in 1960, that India had a better and stronger claim on the island formed by a volcanic eruption. "The matter is by no means clear or free from difficulty but on the assessment of the whole evidence it appears to me that the balance lies in concluding that the sovereignty of India was and is in India," wrote the law officer referring to the zamindari rights given by the East India Company to Raja of Ramnad (Ramnathpuram) over the islet and fishery and other resources around it.

India's Case Over Island Dispute

The zamindari rights given by East India Company enjoyed "continuously and uninterruptedly" from 1875 to 1948 and were exercised by the Raja independently, without having to pay tributes or taxes to Colombo. The documents show that K Krishna Rao, MEA's own joint secretary (law and treaties), was not sure but concluded that India had a good legal case.
He said the case could be leveraged for securing fishing rights - the reason behind continuing pain of hundreds of Indian fishermen who are detained by Sri Lankan Navy, around the island, the TOI report further mentioned.
In 1960, Rao noted that Colombo's claims are "substantial", and said: "On the other hand, it may be noted that India has a good legal case, which could be argued with considerable force. I am not suggesting that we have no case at all."
Even Gundevia, who did not consider the island to be "really important", was against taking the risk of giving it up, the MEA had told the consultative committee in 1968, the report said.

Then Ceylon PM and Indira Gandhi's 'Secret' Negotiation

In 1968 only, the opposition came heavily on the then-Indira Gandhi government its apparent unwillingness to confront Sri Lanka after the latter pressed on its claim over the island. The opposition demanded and got a discussion on the issue in Parliament against the backdrop of increasing suspicion about a deal was being secretly negotiated between Indira Gandhi and her Ceylonese counterpart Dudley Senanayke.
The Ceylonese PM was on a visit to India in 1968 visit. The opposition slammed the government for for not standing up to the signs showing Sri Lanka's intent to take the island at any cost - statements of Ceylonense PM Senanayake in their Parliament and of local functionaries, Katchatheevu being shown as their territory in maps, the TOI report added.
Responding to the matter, the Indian government said the island has been signed away but emphasised that it was a disputed site and that India's claim had to be backed with the need for good bilateral ties.
The then deputy minister MEA, Surendra Pal Singh had said that the island was uninhabited, reminding people of Nehru's "not a blade of grass grows" remark after China's annexation of Aksai Chin. The next year in 1969, the Opposition again raised the matter, but the two sides continued to move towards a settlement which would concede Sri Lanka's claim.

India Relinquishes Claim Over Island

In the year 1974, a year after foreign secretary-level talks in Colombo, India's decision to forego claim was conveyed to Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi in June 1974 by then-foreign secretary Kewal Singh. In the meeting, reported TOI, Singh mentioned the zamindari rights of Raja of Ramnad as also the failure of Sri Lanka to produce any documentary evidence to prove Lankan holding the title to Katchatheevu.
He although stressed that Sri Lanka had taken a "very determined position" on the basis of "records" showing the island to be part of the kingdom of Jaffnapatnam, Dutch and British maps, the acceptance of an Indian survey team of its claim and the failure of the State of Madras to show that Raja of Ramnad had the original title.
He said that Ceylon has asserted its sovereignty since 1925 without protests from India and cited another opinion of 1970 by the then attorney general that "on balance, the sovereignty over Katchatheevu was and is with Ceylon and not with India".
End of Article
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