• Saturday, April 13, 2024

HEADLINE STORY

Congress ‘callously’ ceded island to Sri Lanka, says Modi

A 1976 agreement prohibits Indian fishermen from waters around the Katchatheevu island in the Palk Strait that divides the two countries

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during an election campaign rally in Meerut, India, March 31, 2024. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By: Shajil Kumar

INDIA’S half-century-old decision to end a territorial dispute with Sri Lanka over a tiny island has become a hot-button election issue, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party accusing the rival Congress of compromising fishermen’s rights.

A 1976 agreement barred Indian fishermen from waters around the 285-acre (115-hectare) island Katchatheevu in the Palk Strait that divides the neighbours, two years after a pact on maritime boundaries gave Colombo rights over it.

The uninhabited island was ceded in 1974 by the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi under the Indo-Sri Lankan maritime agreement with her counterpart Srimavo Bandaranaike.

On Monday, foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said Sri Lanka had detained more than 6,000 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels over the last 20 years, following the 1976 deal on the island, located 33 km off India’s coast.

His comments come a day after Modi accused the Congress of having “callously” given away the island.

“Weakening India’s unity, integrity and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” Modi said on social media platform X.

In response, Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge said the 1974 agreement had been “based on a friendly gesture” and suggested that Modi’s comments came with an eye to general elections set to start on April 19, at which he will seek a rare third term.

Kharge said Modi raised the sensitive issue on the eve of the elections, though his government’s attorney general had told the Supreme Court in 2014 that India would “have to go to war” if it wanted to recover the island from Sri Lanka. He also pointed out that the BJP government had given away some border enclaves to Bangladesh as a “friendly gesture”.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, whose party DMK is part of the opposition alliance, questioned the Bharatiya Janata Party’s “sudden love” for fishermen and said raising the Katchatheevu just before elections was a diversionary tactic.

The office of Sri Lanka’s president and its foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Discontent over the curtailed fishing rights has grown in the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu neighbouring Sri Lanka, leading to two legal challenges to the agreements during the last two decades that are still pending in the supreme court.

Former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa had moved the supreme court for the islet’s retrieval in her personal capacity. Later the state government headed by her party AIADMK had impleaded itself in the case.

Various fishers’ associations in Tamil Nadu state have called for the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka.

Tamil Nadu goes to the polls on April 19, the first phase of seven rounds of voting set to end on June 1.

Modi’s BJP is trying to make inroads in the state, where it won none of the state’s 39 seats in India’s 545-member parliament during the last election.

Jaishankar did not comment if the government would seek to alter the status of the island, as the matter was in the Supreme Court. (Agencies)

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